Apr. 11, 2004


by Mary Oliver

SUNDAY, 11 APRIL, 2004
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Poem: "Peonies," by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press).

The text of this poem is no longer available.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Easter Sunday.

It's the birthday of religious poet Christopher Smart, born in Shipbourne, Kent, England (1722). His most famous book of poetry is Jubilate Agno, in which Smart attempted to praise God for every single aspect of his life. The manuscript for the poem, written around 1763, went on for hundreds of pages.

In the most famous passage from Jubilate Agno, Smart wrote about his cat:

"For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him . . .
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he's a good Cat . . .
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped . . .
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity."

It's the birthday of poet Mark Strand, born in Summerside, Canada (1934). He became the fourth national Poet Laureate in 1990, and he received dozens of angry letters when he announced that he would not write any poems for national public figures, even if the president's dog died. He said, "On the death of my own dog—if I had a dog—I'd be quite capable of writing about her demise. But the President's life is so detached from mine, it would be hard for me to internalize it."

He has since gone on to write more autobiographical poetry in books such as Dark Harbor (1993) and Blizzard of One (1998), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His most recent collection is Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More (2000).

Strand said, "Poetry is about slowing down. You sit and you read something, you read it again, and it reveals a little bit more, and things come to light you never could have predicted."

It's the birthday of Glenway Wescott, born in Kewashkum, Wisconsin (1901). He grew up in a rural farming community and never got along with his father, who was always challenging his manhood. He ran away from home when he was thirteen and moved in with relatives. For the next twenty years of his life, he moved farther and farther away from his hometown in Wisconsin. But while he was moving away he was writing about his hometown, in novels such as Apple of the Eye (1924) and The Grandmothers (1927), and the collection of short stories Good-Bye Wisconsin (1928).

He moved to Europe just before the stock market crash of 1929, and he joined the community of expatriate writers in Paris. It took him ten years to write The Pilgrim Hawk (1940), a short novel about expatriates that takes place on a single afternoon. It was hailed as a masterpiece. At the time, he was considered one of the best American writers of his generation, on par with Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Mansfield. But though he lived for almost fifty more years, he never published another serious work of fiction, and his work was mostly forgotten. Susan Sontag helped spark a renewed interest in his work when she wrote about The Pilgrim Hawk in The New Yorker magazine. That novel was just brought back into print in 2001.

It's the birthday of humorist Leo Rosten, born in Lodz, Poland (1908). He moved with his parents to the United States when he was three years old. He grew up in Chicago, where his Jewish parents and most of his neighbors spoke Yiddish. As a teenager, he tutored his parents in their English classes, and he loved the way they and their friends used language. While working on his PhD in political science, he taught English classes to immigrants like his parents, and one of his favorite students was a man named Hyman Kaplan, who used English more creatively than anyone he had ever met. Years later, after he got a job in government, he began to write humorous stories based on his memories of that student, and the stories were collected in his book The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1937), which became a bestseller.

He went on to publish many books of fiction and nonfiction, and in 1968 he published the book that many consider to be his masterpiece, The Joys of Yiddish (1968), an unofficial lexicon of Yiddish words, phrases and rhetorical devices, illustrated with proverbs, quotes and jokes. He wrote about Yiddish words like schlep, klutz, schlemiel, glitch, yenta, schmooze, schlump, schnook and schlock. He defined chutzpa as, "That quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan." He described a bagel as, "A donut with a college education." Of the exclamation "oy," he wrote, "Oy is not a word; it is a vocabulary. . . . It is a lament, a protest, a cry of dismay, a reflex of delight. But however sighed, cried, howled, or moaned, oy! is the most expressive and ubiquitous exclamation in Yiddish."

At the time the book was published, Rosten wrote, "It is a remarkable fact that never in its history has Yiddish been so influential—among Gentiles. (Among Jews, alas, the tongue is running dry.)" The book became a bestseller, and it helped revitalize an interest in the study and speaking of Yiddish. Rosten's own mother called him after reading the book and told him that he'd saved the language.

Leo Rosten said, "[Yiddish is] steeped in sentiment [and] sluiced with sarcasm. . . . [It] favors paradox, because it knows that only paradox can do justice to the injustices of life; [it] adores irony, because it knows the only way the Jews could retain their sanity was to view a dreadful world with sardonic, stringent eyes."

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