Mar. 1, 2004


by Howard Nemerov

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Poem: "Fiction," by Howard Nemerov, from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (University of Chicago Press).


The people in the elevator all
Face front, they all keep still, they all
Look up with the rapt and stupid look of saints
In paintings at the numbers that light up
By turn and turn to tell them where they are.
They are doing the dance, they are playing the game.

To get here they have gone by avenue
And street, by ordinate and abscissa, and now
By this new coordinate, up. They are three-
dimensional characters, taken from real life;
They have their fates, whether to rise or fall,
And when their numbers come up they get out.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Invisible Man, Ralph Waldo Ellison, born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1914). He played cornet in high school and wanted to become a classical musician. He decided to study music at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but he didn't have enough money to pay for the train fare, so he hitched his way there on freight trains. On the way, he passed through Decatur, Alabama, where the Scottsboro trial was underway, in which several young black men were accused of raping a white woman. Ellison was almost arrested for being a black man riding the freight trains, and the experience made a deep impression on him.

Ellison went to New York after his first year at the music institute, hoping to make enough money to pay for his second year. It was here that he met the great African-American writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. They encouraged him to write stories and book reviews for New York magazines, and Ellison decided to quit studying music and devote his life to writing.

One day, he was sitting in a barn on his friend's farm in Vermont, staring at a typewriter, when he typed the sentence, "I am an invisible man." He didn't know where it came from, but he wanted to pursue the idea, to find out what kind of a person would think of himself as invisible. The sentence turned into his first novel, Invisible Man, published in 1952. It tells the life story of a disillusioned African-American man who has gone through a series of misadventures. Ellison wrote in Invisible Man: "I am an invisible man. . . . I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids-and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

He spent the last forty years of his life working on his second novel, but he never finished it. In 1967, more than 300 pages of the manuscript were accidentally destroyed in a fire, but Ellison continued working on it. When he died in 1994, he left behind about 1,500 pages of the novel. The story spanned almost 150 years, and there were three plotlines and more than a dozen narrators. Ellison scholar John F. Callahan whittled down the manuscript to about 900 pages and published it in 1999 under the title Juneteenth. The novel covers much of African-American history in the twentieth century, and focuses on the story of a U.S. senator who was raised as a light-skinned black in rural Georgia. Juneteenth became a national bestseller.

It's the birthday of poet Howard Nemerov, born in New York City (1920). His Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. He's also written several novels, including The Melodramatists (1947) and The Homecoming Game (1957). He grew up in New York City, went to Harvard, fought in World War II, and spent almost the rest of his life teaching at Bennington College in Vermont. He once said he liked teaching because he could do all of his explaining in class, and that allowed him to write poetry with no explanations.

He started writing poetry after studying T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats in college. He later said, "I got . . . the idea that what you were supposed to do was be plenty morbid and predict the end of civilization many times, but civilization has ended so many times during my brief term on earth that I got a little bored with the theme, and in old age I concluded that the model was really Mother Goose."

It's the birthday of poet Robert Lowell, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1917). He was born into a prominent New England family, attended private schools and later went to Harvard. In his second year at Harvard, he met the poet Allen Tate and began writing poetry. In the summer of 1937, he camped out in Tate's yard in Tennessee, studying literature and writing poetry. In the fall, he transferred to Kenyon College in Ohio to study with Tate's mentor, John Crowe Ransom.

After the U.S. began firebombing German cities like Dresden, Lowell became a conscientious objector to World War II. He spent six months in jail, and several more months performing community service. It was while he was serving his sentence that he finished his first book of poems, Land of Unlikeness (1944). A year later, he published a revised version called Lord Weary's Castle (1946), and it won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize.

He spent the 1950s in and out of mental institutions for severe depression. The poet Anne Sexton wrote to Lowell, "I must admire your skill. You are so gracefully insane." Lowell's psychiatrists encouraged him to write about his childhood, and in 1959 he came out with Life Studies, a book of poems about his own life written in a much looser meter than his earlier poems. It was the beginning of a new kind of American poetry that came to be called "confessional." Lowell's Collected Poems were published last year.

Lowell said, "If youth is a defect, it is one we outgrow too soon."

It's the birthday of poet Richard Wilbur, born in New York City (1921). He's the author of several collections, including Advice to a Prophet (1961); Walking to Sleep (1969); and his latest, Mayflies (2000). He grew up on a farm in New Jersey, went to Amherst, and spent summers riding trains across the country, living like a hobo. He started writing poetry during World War II, as a way to give order to all of the chaos he saw around him. His first book of poetry, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, came out in 1947. Ten years later he won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Things of This World (1956). He was the United States poet laureate from 1987 to 1988.

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