May 7, 2004

The Sun Has Burst in the Sky

by Jenny Joseph

FRIDAY, 7 MAY, 2004
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Poem: "The Sun Has Burst the Sky," by Jenny Joseph, from Selected Poems. Bloodaxe Books. Reprinted with permission.

The Sun Has Burst the Sky

The sun has burst the sky
Because I love you
And the river its banks.

The sea laps the great rocks
Because I love you
And takes no heed of the moon dragging it away
And saying coldly 'Constancy is not for you'.

The blackbird fills the air
Because I love you
With springs and lawns and shadows falling on lawns.

The people walk in the street and laugh
I love you
And far down the river ships sound their hooters
Crazy with joy because I love you.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Jenny Joseph, born in Birmingham, England (1932). She was an aspiring poet throughout her twenties, supporting herself with odd jobs. Then in 1960, when she was twenty-eight years old, she published a poem called "Warning," that began with the line, "When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple." The poem was moderately successful at first, and published in several anthologies, but then it began to spread across the world among people who don't usually read poetry. It was photocopied and passed around, stuck up on people's refrigerators. People read it at Church gatherings and funerals and senior citizen homes. It was printed on cards, T-shirts, and posters. It appeared on hundreds of thousands of Web sites, and in 1996, in a poll conducted by the BBC, it was voted Britain's favorite post-war poem, beating out Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night."

Somehow, as the poem became more and more popular, Jenny Joseph's name as the author was lost. Other people claimed to have written the poem, or it was attributed to "Anonymous." Jenny Joseph eventually published an authorized, illustrated version of the poem in 1997, which sold thousands of copies, but her name is still mostly unknown. She has published many collections of poetry, including The Thinking Heart (1978), Persephone (1986) and Ghosts and Other Company (1996), and she is considered one of the foremost contemporary British poets.

She doesn't mind that her poem is more famous than she is. She once said, "The absolute of fame [is when your work becomes] so much a part of the world as to rise to the lips of anyone, unaware of authorship, like sayings, like war songs, like ballads." When she was recently asked if she would start wearing purple anytime soon, she replied, "I can't stand purple. It doesn't suit me."

It's the birthday of novelist Peter Carey, born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia (1943). His parents owned and operated the local General Motors car dealership and made enough money to send Carey to a fancy boarding school. In college, he studied chemistry and zoology, but he struggled with the course work. He had just failed his first-year exams when he got into a terrible car accident. He sat there after the accident, covered in glass and blood, and his first thought was that he now had an excuse to leave the university.

He got a job at an advertising agency where most of the other employees were aspiring writers, and they introduced him to books by William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. He had never read great literature before. He said, "Literature arrived in this weird and very exciting way all at once, and it was like every book that I read at that time changed my life."

He began writing fiction. After years of putting up with rejections from publishers, he began to write a series of very strange short stories. In one story, a man peels his wife like an onion, only to find a plastic doll at her center. Another story is about a pig that is addicted to narcotic drugs. These stories were collected in books such as The Fat Man In History (1974), which got great reviews. He continued to support himself by writing advertising copy, even though most of his friends were left-wing hippies and communists, and for a long time he was terrified that someone would find out what he did for a living. His friends did find out, but they were happy that someone like them had infiltrated the capitalist system.

In the 1980s he began to publish novels about businessmen, con artists and criminals. His novel Bliss (1981) is about an advertising executive named Harry Joy who begins to lose his mind after a near-death experience. His novel Illywhacker (1985) is about 139-year-old compulsive liar whose life parallels the history of independent Australia. Oscar and Lucinda (1988) is about two compulsive gamblers traveling through nineteenth century Australia. It won the Booker Prize for literature. His most recent novel, My Life as a Fake, came out last year.

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