Jun. 17, 2004


by Ron Padgett

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Poem: "Album," by Ron Padgett, from You Never Know. © Coffee House Press. Reprinted with permission.


The mental pictures I have of my parents and grandparents and my childhood are beginning to break up into small fragments and get blown away from me into empty space, and the same wind is sucking me toward it ever so gently, so gently as not even to raise a hair on my head (though the truth is that there are very few of them to be raised). I'm starting to take the idea of death as the end of life somewhat harder than before. I used to wonder why people seemed to think that life is tragic or sad. Isn't it also comic and funny? And beyond all that, isn't it amazing and marvelous? Yes, but only if you have it. And I am starting not to have it. The pictures are disintegrating, as if their molecules were saying, "I've had enough," ready to go somewhere else and form a new configuration. They betray us, those molecules, we who have loved them. They treat us like dirt.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Ron Padgett, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1942). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including Great Balls of Fire (1969), Tulsa Kid (1979) and his latest, You Never Know (2002). He's also translated the works of many French poets, including Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire.

He grew up in Tulsa, the son of a bootlegger who bought liquor in Missouri and sold it to Oklahomans. When he was fifteen, he got a job at a local bookstore, and he discovered the work of contemporary poets like LeRoi Jones and Frank O'Hara. When he went to college at Columbia, he met the poets whose work he had been reading. Along with other young poets and artists like Ted Berrigan and Joe Brainard, he became a central part of the New York School of poetry, most of whom lived in East Village in Manhattan and read their poems at the Church of St. Mark's-in-the Bowery.

Padgett said, "I wish the entire world were made of pieces interchangeable among all puzzles. I like to be at home among Vermont loggers, Scottish aristocrats, Colombian housemaids, and Chinese photographers. I love it when people very unlike me like me."

It's the birthday of novelist and journalist John Hersey, born in Tianjin, China (1914). His parents were missionaries, and he spent the first years of his life in China, learning to speak fluent Chinese before he could speak much English. His family moved back to the United States when he was ten years old, and he went to college at Yale and then Cambridge. While he was at Cambridge he decided he was going to do whatever it took to get a job at Time magazine.

In 1937, Hersey found work as Sinclair Lewis's private secretary and driver. Later that year there was an opening for a journalist at Time, and Hersey got the job. He immediately became a correspondent in China and Japan, and he covered World War II in the Far East and the Mediterranean. He survived four plane crashes during the war. On one occasion, the plane he was in crashed into the ocean, capsized and sank. Hersey freed himself from the plane, swam to the surface, and immediately started worrying about all of the notes he had been taking. He later said he "felt in both my hip pockets. No books. Then something bumped my head, and there they were floating in the water within easy reach of my hand. I never could figure out how they got there. By rights they should have sunk straight off."

Hersey's first big success was the novel A Bell for Adano (1945), about an Italian-American officer put in charge of a Sicilian town liberated by the Allies in World War II. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1945, and it was made into a play and a movie.

In 1945 and '46, Hersey was in Japan covering the postwar situation for The New Yorker. While he was there, he discovered a document written by a Jesuit missionary who had survived the atom bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima. Hersey tracked down the priest, and the priest introduced him to many more survivors. Hersey chose six of them to write about for The New Yorker, and their stories were included in a single issue in 1946. They were later serialized in newspapers across the country, and then published as the book Hiroshima.

It's the birthday of religious leader John Wesley, born in Lincolnshire, England (1703). Near the end of his life, he did the thing he's most remembered for today: he officially established the Methodist Church.

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