Mar. 3, 2004

To David, About His Education

by Howard Nemerov

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Poems: "To David, About His Education," by Howard Nemerov, from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (University of Chicago Press).

To David, About His Education

The world is full of mostly invisible things,
And there is no way but putting the mind's eye,
Or its nose, in a book, to find them out,
Things like the square root of Everest
Or how many times Byron goes into Texas,
Or whether the law of the excluded middle
Applies west of the Rockies. For these
And the like reasons, you have to go to school
And study books and listen to what you are told,
And sometimes try to remember. Though I don't know
What you will do with the mean annual rainfall
On Plato's Republic, or the calorie content
Of the Diet of Worms, such things are said to be
Good for you, and you will have to learn them
In order to become one of the grown-ups
Who sees invisible things neither steadily nor whole,
But keeps gravely the grand confusion of the world
Under his hat, which is where it belongs,
And teaches small children to do this in their turn.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet James Merrill, born in New York City (1926). He grew up in a wealthy family, going to private schools in New York. His father was Charles Merrill, a founder of the stock brokerage Merrill, Lynch & Company, and his mother was a newspaper publisher. His inheritance allowed him to devote all of his attention to poetry as an adult. He once said he was "as American as lemon chiffon pie." His collections include Late Settings (1985) and Divine Comedies, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

It's the birthday of crime writer Nicolas Freeling, born in London (1927). He's known for his detective novels such as Because of the Cats (1963), The King of the Rainy Country (1966) and The Janeites (2002). He grew up in France, and he decided that he wanted to become a chef in a ritzy hotel. He served as an apprentice at one of the most expensive hotels in France, and went on to become head chef of an old Victorian hotel in Belleplage. He eventually got tired of living such a sheltered life, and began wandering around Europe. He had thought about trying to be a writer for a long time, but he didn't actually start writing until, one day, he was thrown in jail for stealing hotel food. He had nothing else to do in prison, so he started writing a novel. In 1962, it was published as Love in Amsterdam, featuring the Dutch detective Piet van der Valk, an idiosyncratic policeman who always finds time during his cases to enjoy gourmet meals.

Freeling said, "Fiction should be written to entertain; for the enjoyment of a casual, uncommitted reader."

It's the birthday of poet Edmund Waller, born in Coleshill, Hertfordshire, England (1606). He was born into a wealthy family and spent most of his life in the British Parliament. In 1643, he led a conspiracy to get rid of rebels in the Parliament and secure London for the King. He was eventually caught and brought before Parliament, and he would have been executed if he hadn't given a dazzling speech pleading for his life. He went into exile in Switzerland and then Italy, and it was there that his first book of poems was published.

It's the birthday of poet and nature writer Edward Thomas, born in London (1878). When he was fifteen years old, he started writing about his walks in the English countryside, and he published his first collection of nature essays when he was eighteen. He wrote several more books of prose in the next ten years. Then, in 1913, he met the American poet Robert Frost after writing a favorable review of Frost's first collection. Frost convinced Thomas to start writing poetry, and by the time he died two years later he had written more than 140 poems, published in 1920 in his Collected Poems.

It's the birthday of the host of the radio show This American Life, Ira Glass, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1959). After his freshman year of college he was looking for a summer job in television or advertising, and someone suggested that he try to be an intern for National Public Radio. He had never even listened to public radio at the time, but he applied for the job and got it, and he's been working in public radio ever since. He started out as a tape cutter, and then he was a desk assistant, a newscast writer, an editor, a producer, a reporter and a substitute host.

In 1989, he moved to Chicago and produced documentaries for the local public radio station. He and a friend started a live show called The Wild Room that included music, stories, and commentary, and outtakes from his own documentaries. In 1995, he came up with the idea for a show called "Your Radio Playhouse" that would tell a series of stories each week, centered on a certain aspect of everyday life in America. That show became This American Life, which has become one of the most popular radio programs in the country. There have been shows on superpowers, babysitting, Frank Sinatra, guns, and monogamy, among many other themes.

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