Mar. 2, 2004

Digging for China

by Richard Wilbur

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Poem: "Digging for China," by Richard Wilbur, from The Poems of Richard Wilbur (Harvest).

Digging for China

"Far enough down is China," somebody said.
"Dig deep enough and you might see the sky
As clear as at the bottom of a well.
Except it would be real--a different sky.
Then you could burrow down until you came
To China! Oh, it's nothing like New Jersey.
There's people, trees, and houses, and all that,
But much, much different. Nothing looks the same."

I went and got the trowel out of the shed
And sweated like a coolie all that morning,
Digging a hole beside the licac-bush,
Down on my hands and knees. It was a sort
Of praying, I suspect. I watched my hand
Dig deep and darker, and I tried and tried
To dream a place where nothing was the same.
The trowel never did break through to blue.

Before the dream could weary of itself
My eyes were tired of looking into darkness,
My sunbaked head of hanging down a hole.
I stood up in a place I had forgotten,
Blinking and staggering while the earth went round
And showed me silver barns, the fields dozing
In palls of brightness, patens growing and gone
In the tides of leaves, and the whole sky china blue.
Until I got my balance back again
All that I saw was China, China, China.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Tom Wolfe, born in Richmond, Virginia (1930). He's best known as the author of the novels Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and A Man in Full (1998), as well as the nonfiction books The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1979). His father was an agricultural scientist who also edited an agricultural magazine called the Southern Planter. Wolfe wrote, "As far as I was concerned, my father was a man who sat at his desk writing with a pencil on a yellow legal pad. Two weeks later his not terribly legible handwriting would reappear as smartly turned out regiments of black type on graphically beautiful pages for thousands of people to read. To me that was magic, and my father was a writer."

Growing up, he wanted to become a professional baseball player. He was a star pitcher for his high school and college teams, and he played for two seasons in an amateur league. He quit baseball after he was rejected at a tryout for the New York Giants. He began his writing career in the late 1950s as a journalist for newspapers in New York City and Washington, D.C., and for magazines such as New York and Esquire. He was one of the first writers of "New Journalism"—a style of nonfiction that borrowed creative techniques from fiction and often included the journalist as a character in the story. Many of his essays, on topics including stock-car racing, contemporary art, and the psychedelic movement of the '60s, were published in the collections The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) and The Pump House Gang (1968).

In 1981, Wolfe started doing research about ambitious professionals in New York City. He was planning on writing a nonfiction book, but he decided to turn it into a novel, and it became The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). It was first published in serial form in Rolling Stone magazine, and when it came out as a novel it became a huge bestseller. Wolfe said, "People are always writing about the energy of New York. What they really mean is the status ambitions of people of New York. That's the motor in this town. That's what makes it exciting—and it's also what makes it awful many times."

It's the birthday of novelist John Irving, born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1942). He's the author of many best-selling novels, including The World According to Garp (1978), The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). His most recent novel, The Fourth Hand, came out in 2001. He wasn't a great student in high school, but he was a champion wrestler, and he went to the University of Pittsburgh on a wrestling scholarship. He quit wrestling after his second year there, but he went on to coach wrestling for many years, and many of his characters are wrestlers. After attending college in the Midwest, he moved back East to a converted barn in Vermont. He taught English and coached wrestling at a local college and wrote fiction in his spare time. His first novel, Setting Free the Bears, came out in 1969, when he was twenty-six years old.

He published two more novels in the '70s, but they didn't sell well, and he was struggling to find time to write, teach and raise a family at the same time. Then, in 1978, he came out with his big breakthrough, The World According to Garp, about the life of a writer who is the bastard son of a radical feminist. It was so successful that he was able to quit his teaching job and devote almost all of his time to writing. The World According to Garp has sold more than ten million copies and has been translated into more than thirty languages.

Irving has called himself a "nineteenth-century craftsman," and he's been compared to great Victorian writers like Charles Dickens. His novels are long and complex, and full of unusual characters—transsexual football players, unicycling bears, a woman who has her tongue chopped off, a TV reporter whose hand is bitten off by a lion.

Irving said, "Self discipline has been a pleasure for me. I was a terrible student, I had a difficult time with chores and I hated every job I ever had. To make up your own stories for a living is a real piece of cake."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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