Sep. 12, 2004

September 12, 2001

by X. J. Kennedy

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Poem: "September Twelfth, 2001," by X.J. Kennedy, from The Lords of Misrule (Johns Hopkins University Press).

September Twelfth, 2001

Two caught on film who hurtle
from the eighty-second floor,
choosing between a fireball
and to jump holding hands,

aren't us. I wake beside you,
stretch, scratch, taste the air,
the incredible joy of coffee
and the morning light.

Alive, we open eyelids
on our pitiful share of time,
we bubbles rising and bursting
in a boiling pot.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, born in Lviv, Poland (now Ukraine) (1921). He studied to be a doctor, but he had to go undercover and hide his Jewish identity when the Nazis invaded Poland. During World War II, he pretended to be a Christian mechanic and sabotaged as much Nazi machinery as he could without getting caught. After the war, he began to write fiction. He decided that regular realistic fiction wasn't sufficient to describe the world anymore, so he wrote fiction that took place thousands of years in the future. He's best known for his novel Solaris (1961), about a scientist who travels to a space station near a strange planet and meets the ghost of his wife. His most recent novel is Peace on Earth (1987), about a future where all wars are fought on the moon by machines, so that humans don't get hurt.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje, born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) (1943). He's the author of many poetry collections, including The Cinnamon Peeler (1989), and novels such as The English Patient (1992) and Anil's Ghost (2000). His parents got a divorce when he was a boy, and his mother took him to England and eventually to Canada. He didn't return to Sri Lanka until almost 30 years after he left. When he did go back, he wrote a memoir about the experience called Running In the Family (1982). He said, "The past is still, for us, a place that is not safely settled."

It's the birthday of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, born in New York City (1892). He went to college to become a lawyer, but he fell in love with literature and decided to devote his life to it. At the time, the publishing world was a kind of gentlemen's club and Knopf had a hard time fitting in because he was Jewish. He was the first Jewish employee at Doubleday. One of his first projects was to republish all of Joseph Conrad's books in a set, which he did with the help of H.L. Mencken. At the time that Knopf got into the publishing business, before television and widespread radio, people said that Americans didn't read books—they just read the newspapers. Knopf thought that Americans might be more likely to read good books if books were beautiful to look at. He used beautiful, easy to read type and high quality paper, and he was the first publisher to cover his books with brightly colored jackets. When Knopf founded his own publishing company, he didn't have enough money to publish big-name American authors, so he published European authors instead. Most American publishers didn't care about European literature, so Knopf was able to cheaply publish writers like Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus. When several of his authors won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. became known as one of the best literary publishing houses.

It's the birthday of the essayist and editor H(enry) L(ouis) Mencken, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1880). One of the most influential journalists of the 20th century, he became a journalist at a time when most educated Americans tried to speak and write like Europeans. Mencken hated Europe. He was one of the first journalists to write serious essays in conversational American English. But he was also critical of America. He invented a character that he called "Boobus Americanus," the average, ignorant American. He believed that it was his job to wake up the boobs of America by writing about all the shams and con artists in the world. He attacked chiropractors and the Ku Klux Klan, politicians and other journalists. Most of all, he attacked Puritan morality. He called Puritanism, "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Mencken lived with his mother in the Baltimore house where he had grown up until her death when he was 45 years old. She brought him plates of sandwiches as he wrote non-stop in his study. At the height of his career, he edited and wrote for American Mercury magazine and the Baltimore Sun newspaper, wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column for the Chicago Tribune, and published two or three books every year. He said, "There is always a sheet of paper. There is always a pen. There is always a way out." He published dozens of books, most of them about things he hated. He called his essays "prejudices." But lots of people think his masterpiece is a book he wrote about something he loved, a book called The American Language (1919). The book is about the evolution of the American vernacular speech, and it includes long lists of slang terms for things like strong drink: "panther-sweat, nose-paint, red-eye, corn-juice, forty-rod, mountain-dew, coffin-varnish, bust-head, stagger-soup, tonsil-paint, squirrel-whiskey." When asked what he would like for an epitaph, he wrote, "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."

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