Sep. 20, 2004

The judge was decent, but…

by Donald Hall

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Poem: The judge was decent... Donald Hall, from This Old Life © Houghton-Mifflin. Reprinted with permission.

The judge was decent

The judge was decent, but
judge's chambers were judge's chambers,
     yellow and municipal
in downtown Ann Arbor. My kids
     were dear and anxious.
Jane's brother and sister-in-law, mother,
     and father stood up
with us for the rapid legality
     we followed with lobster
and champagne at the Gandy Dancer.
     Depressed the next
morning, I knew it was a mistake. I was
     wrong. We remarried
five years later in New Hampshire, joyful
     in a wooden church,
a Saturday afternoon in April,
     only Jack Jensen our
friend and minister with us, saying
     the prayer book's words
among lilies and wine in holy shadow.


     It didn't matter that
I had toasted the Queen at Oxford
     while Jane crayoned
into her Coronation Coloring Book.
     Married in the spring,
we flew to London in September, ate
     pub lunches, visited
friends in Cambridge, and found a Maltese
     restaurant in Kensington.
We learned how to love each other
     by loving together
good things wholly outside each other.
We took the advice of my
dear depressed and heartsick Aunt Liz,
     who wrote us at our flat
in Bloomsbury: "Have fun while you can."

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Stevie Smith, born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull, Yorkshire, England (1902).  She lived in the same house from the time she was three years old until her death in 1971. She approached a publisher with her first book of poems when she was in her thirties. He told her to go away and write a novel instead. So that's what she did. Her first novel was Novel on Yellow Paper (1936) and she went on to write other novels and short stories, but her greatest love was always poetry.  She actually wrote one of her short stories in meter, and later published it as a poem. 

She was known for writing light verse about dark subjects. Her most famous collection of poems is Not Waving but Drowning (1957).  In the title poem she wrote, "Nobody heard him, the dead man, / But still he lay moaning; / I was much further out than you thought / And not waving but drowning."

It's the birthday of poet Donald Hall, born in New Haven, Connecticut (1928). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including The Dark Houses (1958), Kicking the Leaves: Poems (1978), and most recently Willow Temple: New and Selected Poems (2003).

As a boy, he grew up listening to his grandfather recite long narrative poems like "Casey at the Bat."  He said, "I sat...on a three-legged stool watching him milk his Holsteins as his dear voice kept time with his hands and he crooned [those] wonderful bad poems."

He wrote his first poem to impress his babysitter.  The poem was about death.  When he was sixteen, he met Robert Frost at a writer's conference, and while he was in college he met the elder poets T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Dylan Thomas. He said that meeting professional poets gave him the idea that being a poet was something that you worked at steadily, for a long time.  He wrote less experimental poems than his college friends Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, but he became an obsessive reviser and sometimes spent years working on a single poem.

He got a job teaching literature at the University of Michigan, but after seventeen years he decided to quit and live by his wits. He moved to the farm in New Hampshire that had belonged to his family for generations. 

He said, "I try every day to write great poetry - as I tried when I was 14...What else is there to do?"

It's the birthday of the muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1878).  He's best known as the author of The Jungle (1906), a novel about the meat packing industry.  The son of a hat salesman, he finished high school and started college when he was fourteen years old. He supported himself by writing boys' adventure stories for pulp magazines.  In 1900, he grew disgusted with the materialistic world he lived in, and moved to a shack in the woods in Quebec, Canada, where wrote his first novel Springtime and Harvest (1901).

He eventually moved back to the United States.   In 1904 he spent two months living  undercover as a meatpacking worker to investigate the industry. He was so horrified by what he saw that he wrote a novel based on the experience.   He described the workers' horrific working conditions, surrounded by rats, losing their fingers, and many of those rats and fingers ending up in the cans of meat. 

The Jungle (1906) made him famous.  President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to the White House to discuss it. But instead of enacting legislation to protect the workers who were frequently injured and killed in the packinghouses, Congress enacted legislation to protect the safety of the meat for consumers.   He tried to stay in Washington, D.C. to give Teddy Roosevelt more advice, but Roosevelt sent him home.

Sinclair went on to write many more political novels and he almost won an election to become governor of California.  He said, "You don't have to be satisfied with America as you find it. You can change it.  I didn't like the way I found America some sixty years ago, and I've been trying to change it ever since."

It's the birthday of one of the greatest editors of the twentieth century, Maxwell Perkins, born in New York City (1884). He joined the editorial staff of Charles Scribner's Sons when it was still the most conservative of all the major publishing houses.  Perkins created a bit of controversy at the publishing house when he acquired a manuscript by a young man named F. Scott Fitzgerald. When This Side of Paradise came out in 1920, the other editors at Scribner's thought it was filthy trash. One editor said he wouldn't even let his wife read it. It sold more than 50,000 copies, which was almost unheard of for a first novel at the time. It was the beginning of Scribner's becoming one of the most important publishers of fiction written by members of the so-called "Lost Generation."

Perkins went on to edit other hard drinking, tough talking authors like Ring Lardner and Ernest Hemingway, and when he edited The Great Gatsby (1925) it became the first novel that Scribner's had published that contained foul language. Even though Perkins edited these risqué books, he himself was never known to use a foul word in his life. The worst thing anyone ever heard him say was, "My god."

Perkins was known for his ability to help authors when they couldn't finish a book.  He wrote long, detailed letters about how he thought a book could be improved. One author said, "He never tells you what to do...He suggests to you, in an extraordinarily inarticulate fashion, what you want to do yourself." 

He is perhaps most famous for editing Thomas Wolfe's novels Look Homeward Angel (1929) and Of Time and the River (1935).  Perkins had five daughters and treated Wolfe like the son he'd always wanted. When Wolfe turned in the manuscript for Of Time and the River, it was more than three thousand pages long, and the pages weren't numbered.  Perkins spent the next year cutting out passages that he thought were unnecessary, but as he cut, Wolfe just kept on writing more. When they went out for drinks to talk, the night usually ended with Wolfe screaming obscenities at Perkins and Perkins saying nothing. Finally, Perkins sent the manuscript to the printer without Wolfe's permission, and forbade him to make any changes. Wolfe decided Perkins was right, and he dedicated the novel to Perkins, calling him, "a great editor and a brave and honest man."

After the book came out, the story of the editing process got so much press that Wolfe grew jealous and decided never to work with Perkins again. But at the time of his death, Wolfe was working on a manuscript about the relationship between an author and his editor, and he left all his unfinished manuscripts to Perkins in his will.

Near the end of his life, after Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald had died, Perkins started to think that literature had grown less interesting.  He said, "Perhaps the trouble with literature in our time is that there aren't as many rascals as there used to be."  But he still had a pile of manuscripts next to his bed on the day he died.

Maxwell Perkins said, "If a man will only stick to the thing he loves most he will do it right, and end right."

It's the birthday of poet Ray Gonzalez, born in El Paso, Texas (1952). He grew up reading comic books and writing science fiction and said that he never would have gotten interested in poetry if it hadn't been for rock and roll.  He loved listening to the lyrics of songs by the Beatles, and he started writing poetry to imitate them. 

He's the author of poetry collections such as The Heat of Arrivals (1996) and short story collections such as The Ghost of John Wayne (2001). He is also one of the most important anthologizers of Latino literature.  He has edited collections such as Muy Macho: Latino Men Confront Their Manhood (1996), and Touching the Fire: Fifteen Poets of the Latino Renaissance (1998).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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