Apr. 17, 2004


by Alice Oswald

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Poem: "Wedding," by Alice Oswald, from The Thing in the Gap-stone Style (Oxford University Press).


From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it's like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it's like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it's like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions . . .
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it's like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it's like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick, born in New York City (1928). Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, and both worked as pharmacists. Ozick grew up in the care of her grandmother, who was always telling her stories. She grew up to write several more novels full of Jewish mysticism and history, including The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) and The Puttermesser Papers (1997), but she's perhaps best known for her essays, collected in Art and Ardor (1983), Metaphor and Memory (1989) and Quarrel and Quandary (2000).

Ozick said, "I believe a writer can weave in and out of genres—do it all. It is a gluttonous point of view, to be sure. Then again, when it comes to writing, that is what I truly am and nothing less: a glutton."

It's the birthday of Isak Dinesen, born Karen Dinesen on a rural estate called Rungsted near Copenhagen, Denmark (1885). She came from a wealthy family of landowners and writers. Her grandfather was a friend of Hans Christian Andersen. Her father committed suicide when she was ten years old, and she spent the rest of her childhood in a house full of women—her mother, her grandmother, and all her aunts. As a girl, she loved listening to stories about Danish mythology. She started writing at an early age, and one of the first stories she published was about a woman who has a love affair with a ghost.

In college she fell in love with the son of Baron Blixen of Sweden. But when he refused to marry her, she decided to get revenge by marrying his twin brother. She and her husband then moved to Kenya, where they started a coffee plantation. She fell in love with Africa, and thought of it as a kind of Eden. But she and her husband did not get along, and they separated in 1925. Alone and unhappy on the coffee plantation, she said, "I began in the evenings to write stories, fairy-tales and romances, that would take my mind a long way off, to other countries and times." The plantation grew less and less profitable, and she struggled to stay in business. After a swarm of locusts and a drought, she finally had to sell the farm to a local developer.

But just as she was leaving Africa for good, Dinesen sent some of her stories to a publisher, and they were published as the collection Seven Gothic Tales (1934). Her American publisher wanted her to write a new book as soon as possible, to capitalize on her success, so she decided to write about her experiences in Africa. Instead of writing an ordinary memoir, she wrote about her time in Africa as though it were a half-remembered dream. She wrote, "Looking back on a sojourn in the African high-lands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air." That book became Out of Africa (1937), and it made her one of the most popular Danish writers of all time. Years later, when Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he said that it should have gone to her.

Dinesen said, "All sorrows can be borne, if you put them into a story."

It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, born in Madison, Wisconsin (1897). As a boy, he lived near a university theater where they performed Greek dramas, and his mother let him participate as a member of the chorus. He never forgot the experience, and decided then that he would try to write for the theater someday. He produced his first play, The Trumpet Shall Sound (1926), while he was still an undergraduate at Yale.

After graduating from college, his father sent him to Rome, where he worked on an archaeological dig at the site of ancient Roman ruins. He later said, "Once you have swung a pickax that will reveal the curve of a street four thousand years covered over which was once an active, much-traveled highway, you are never quite the same again." The experience inspired him to begin writing fiction about characters caught up in the forces of fate and history. His second novel was The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), about a group of unrelated characters who are all killed by the collapse of a bridge in Peru. That novel was a huge success, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Wilder got a job at the University of Chicago, and began to write a series of experimental one-act plays that used almost no scenery or props, and often included an all-knowing character called the Stage Manager. Then, in 1938, he produced the play for which he is best known, Our Town, one of the first major Broadway plays to use almost no stage scenery, so that the audience had to imagine the world in which the characters lived. Wilder said, "Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in 'scenery'. . . . [A play] needs only five square feet of boarding and a passion to know what life means to us."

Our Town is about the New England village of Grover's Corners, where the characters George Gibbs and Emily Webb grow up, fall in love at the soda fountain, and get married. When Emily dies in childbirth, she gets to relive the day of her twelfth birthday and realizes how little she cherished life while she was alive. She says, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it,—every, every minute?" The play ran for 336 performances on Broadway, and it also won a Pulitzer Prize.

Wilder went on to write many more plays, screenplays and books of fiction. Near the end of his life, he realized that he might not be remembered as well as some writers who had written darker stories, but he said, "My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate."

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