Jul. 21, 2004

all that

by Charles Bukowski

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Poem: "all that," by Charles Bukowski, from Open All Night. © Black Sparrow Press. Reprinted with permission.

all that

the only things I remember about
New York City
in the summer
are the fire escapes
and how the people go
out on the fire escapes
in the evening
when the sun is setting
on the other side
of the buildings
and some stretch out
and sleep there
while others sit quietly
where it's cool.

and on many
of the window sills
sit pots of geraniums or
planters filled with red
and the half-dressed people
rest there
on the fire escapes
and there are
red geraniums

this is really
something to see rather
than to talk about.

it's like a great colorful
and surprising painting
not hanging anywhere

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Wendy Cope, born in Erith, Kent, England (1945). She's known for her humorous poems, collected in such books as Serious Concerns (1993), Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986) and If I Don't Know (2001).

It's the birthday of novelist John Gardner, born in Batavia, New York (1933). He's best known for his novel Grendel (1971), which retells the epic poem Beowulf from the point of view of the monster.

It's the birthday of poet Tess Gallagher, born in Port Angeles, Washington (1943). Her poetry collections include Moon Crossing Bridge (1992) and Amplitude: New and Selected Poems (1988).

It's the birthday of poet Hart Crane, born Harold Crane in Garrettsville, Ohio (1899). In 1930, he published his masterpiece, the epic poem The Bridge.

It's the birthday of Ernest Hemingway, born in Oak Park, Illinois (1899). He gave us the novels The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Old Man and the Sea (1952). He went off to fight in World War I when he was just seventeen years old. He had bad eyesight, so he volunteered as an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross in Italy. His job wasn't very glorious: One of his main duties was to give away chocolate and cigarettes to the Italian troops. One day, just a month after he had arrived in Italy, he got hit by shrapnel from an exploding shell. He spent weeks in the hospital and then returned to his parents' home in Oak Park.

He dreamed of becoming a writer, and he wrote a few short stories while he was recovering from his wounds, but he was frustrated that he wasn't able to convey the intensity of his emotions about the war. He spent weeks lying around his parents' house, reading and talking to his sisters. He was one of the first American soldiers to return from Italy, and that made him a kind of celebrity in Oak Park. He gave talks about the war at places like the Oak Park High School, for ten dollars each. But his parents wanted him out of the house; they accused him of wasting his youth and not thinking seriously about his future. They suggested he go to the University of Wisconsin, but Hemingway said that he got all the education he needed in the war.

In 1920, when he was twenty years old, Hemingway started writing stories for Chicago newspapers and magazines. The next year, he offered to be the foreign correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star, to be paid by the word. They agreed, and a few months later he left for Paris with his wife Hadley.

He moved into an apartment in the Latin Quarter, in a neighborhood full of drunks, beggars and street musicians. Rent was 250 francs a month, or about eighteen dollars. He wrote to his friend John Dos Passos, "[My apartment] is on top of a tall hill in the oldest part of Paris and directly above a fine place called the Bal du printemps .... The noise of the accordion they dance to you can hear if you listen for it, but it doesn't intrude." Hemingway liked to give the impression that he was a bohemian, struggling just to get by, but he actually had plenty of money. He and his wife could afford to travel around Europe, go to the horse races and eat dinner at nice restaurants.

Paris was full of well-known expatriate American and British writers in the '20s, and Hemingway became friends with most of them, including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford. Hemingway liked to meet writers at Sylvia Beach's English-language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, and talk to them about the classics. His friend Gerald Murphy called Hemingway "an enveloping personality, so physically huge and forceful, and he overstated everything and talked so rapidly and so graphically and so well that you found yourself agreeing with him."

Hemingway wrote every day, perfecting his writing style, following his motto, "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." Sometimes he wrote in his apartment and sometimes in cafés. He wrote in a letter to his father: "I'm trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can't believe in it. Things aren't that way. It is only by showing both sides—3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write the way I want to."

In 1925 Hemingway published the collection of short stories In Our Time, and the year after that he published his first big success, The Sun Also Rises (1926), about a group of Americans living hedonistic, directionless lives in Europe. In one of the epigraphs to the novel Hemingway quoted Gertrude Stein's comment, "You are all a lost generation," and Hemingway became known as the leading spokesman for the disillusioned post-World War I generation.

By the time Hemingway came out with A Farewell to Arms in 1929, he was one of the best-known writers alive. Strangers would approach him at cafés, and he moved with his second wife to Key West. Young American men tried to act like "Hemingway heroes," speaking in staccato sentences from the sides of their mouths. In 1952, when Life magazine published The Old Man and the Sea in a single issue, it sold more than five million copies in two days.

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