Mar. 20, 2004

startled into life like fire

by Charles Bukowski

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Poem: "startled into life like fire," by Charles Bukowski, from Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame (Black Sparrow Press).

startled into life like fire

in grievous deity my cat
walks around
he walks around and around
electric tail and

he is
alive and
plush and
final as a plum tree

neither of us understands
cathedrals or
the man outside
watering his

if I were all the man
that he is
if there were men
like this
the world could

he leaps up on the couch
and walks through
porticoes of my

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the first day of spring, the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. The Earth is tilted on its axis, so as it travels around the Sun each pole is sometimes tilted towards the Sun and sometimes tilted away. It is this tilt that causes the seasons, as well as the shortening and lengthening of daylight hours. On this day, the north and south poles are equally distant from the sun, so we will have almost exactly the same amount of daytime as nighttime. For the next few months, we in the Northern Hemisphere will begin the slow tilt toward the sun that will bring longer days, warmer weather, blossoming flowers, green leaves, and everything else.

It's the birthday of the poet Ovid, born in the village of Sulmo, just east of Rome (43 B.C.). He came from a wealthy family, and his father sent him to Rome to study rhetoric so that he could become an orator. Ovid began a legal career, but he quickly gave it up for poetry. At a time when other poets were flattering soldiers and politicians, he made his name with a book of poems about seduction, The Amores (c. 16 B.C). The Roman emperor Augustus had just instituted a new family values program in the Roman empire, encouraging fidelity and good manners. Ovid openly defied the emperor by writing a poetic how-to manual about adultery called The Art of Love (c. 1 B.C.). It made him the most popular poet in Rome. Ovid's poetry encouraged people to pursue love before all other things, and he became an enemy of the government.

After having written many light, popular works, Ovid began his masterpiece, The Metamorphoses (c. 8 A.D.), a collection of all the Greek and Roman myths that deal with transformation, told in chronological order from the origin of the universe to the death of Julius Caesar. It begins, "Of bodies changed to various forms I sing: / Ye gods, from whom these miracles did spring."

Ovid had just completed The Metamorphoses when he received word that Augustus had banished him from Rome. Historians do not know precisely what crime he committed, but he had to spend the last years of his life on the edge of the empire, in a tiny outpost on the shore of the Black Sea. In a letter from exile, he wrote, "The country here is grotesque, the people savage, the weather awful, the customs crude, and the language a garble. . . . [The people] all carry knives at their belts and you never know whether they're going to greet you or stab you. . . . Among such people your old friend, Ovid, the dancing-master of love, tries to keep from hysterical laughter and tears."

The Metamorphoses went on to become one of the most popular works of classical literature, influencing writers such as Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. It helped preserve many of the myths of Ovid's day, including the story of Venus and Adonis, Echo and Narcissus, Pygmalion, and King Midas.

Ovid wrote: "There's nothing constant in the world,
All ebb and flow, and every shape that's born
Bears in its womb the seeds of change."

It was on this day in 1852 that Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published. It was the first widely read novel that attempted to portray the lives of African-American slaves. The Mexican War had just ended, and there was a fierce debate about slavery in the United States. Huge areas of land in the West were being settled and turned into states, and people fought bitterly over whether they would be slave states or free states. In the years before she began writing her book, Stowe lived in Cincinnati, where she met and got to know many fugitive slaves fleeing from the South. Her husband was a conservative Bible scholar who believed that abolitionists were too radical, but the more abolitionists that Harriet met, the more she felt persuaded by their ideas.

Then, in 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which punished anyone who aided or abetted a slave's escape from his or her master. Stowe was outraged, and she decided she had to aid the cause of abolition. She wrote, "Up to this year I have always felt that I had no particular call to meddle with this subject. . . . But I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak."

The book was an immediate sensation, selling more than three hundred thousand copies in its first year and more than three million copies by the start of the Civil War. It was translated into thirty-seven languages, and Stowe traveled the world talking about it.

It's the birthday of playwright Henrik Ibsen, born in Skien, Norway (1828). He is generally considered to be the father of modern drama. His father was a wealthy merchant in Norway's timber trade, but when Ibsen was eight years old his father went bankrupt, and the family had to move to a rundown farm outside of town. Their family friends stopped talking to them, Isben's father became abusive, and his mother fell into depression. When he was sixteen, Ibsen left home and never saw his family again. He worked for a while at a pharmacy, writing poetry on the side, and then moved to the capital to try to make it as a playwright. He got a job as assistant stage manager for a new theater, where it was his job to produce a new drama each year based on Norway’s glorious past. He produced a number of plays, but none got any attention. Overworked and on the edge of poverty, he applied to the government for a stipend to travel abroad, and got it. He spent the next twenty-seven years living in Italy and Germany.

He found that by leaving his homeland, he could finally see Norway clearly, and he began to work on creating a true Norwegian drama. At a time when most people were writing plays full of sword fights and murders, Ibsen started to write plays about relationships between ordinary people. He used dialogue rather than monologues to reveal his characters' emotions, and he stopped writing in verse. He said, "We are no longer living in the age of Shakespeare. . . . What I desire to depict [are] human beings, and therefore I [will] not let them talk the language of the gods."

One of Isben's first realistic plays was A Doll's House (1879), about a woman named Nora who refuses to obey her husband and eventually leaves him, walking out of the house and slamming the door in the final scene. When it was first produced, European audiences were shocked, and it sparked debate about women's rights and divorce across the continent. It also changed the style of acting. At the time, most actors were praised for their ability to deliver long poetic speeches, but Ibsen emphasized small gestures, the inflection of certain words, and pauses, and he inspired a new generation of actors to begin embodying the characters they played.

A Doll's House made Ibsen a controversial celebrity across Europe. When he published his play Ghosts (1881), about a man with venereal disease, it was so scandalous that no one would produce it onstage for two years. A London newspaper called it, "An open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly." But eventually, after writers like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde began calling him the greatest living playwright, audiences began to accept his work as literature.

After publishing several more plays, including The Wild Duck (1885) and Hedda Gabler (1890), he finally moved back to Norway, where he had become a national hero, and lived there for the last fifteen years of his life.

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