Sep. 25, 2004

The Rules of Evidence

by Lee Robinson

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Poem: "The Rules of Evidence" by Lee Robinson, from Hearsay Fordham University Press, New York, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

The Rules of Evidence

What you want to say most
is inadmissible.
Say it anyway.
Say it again.
What they tell you is irrelevant
can't be denied and will
eventually be heard.
Every question
is a leading question.
Ask it anyway, then expect
what you won't get.
There is no such thing
as the original
so you'll have to make do
with a reasonable facsimile.

The history of the world
is hearsay. Hear it.
The whole truth
is unspeakable
and nothing but the truth
is a lie.
I swear this.
My oath is a kiss.
I swear
by everything

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet and translator C. K. (Charles Kenneth) Scott-Moncrieff, born in Stirlingshire, Scotland (1889). He's best known for translating the work of Marcel Proust into English.

He was severely wounded in World War I, and spent the next several years studying languages and literature while he recovered. He began contributing articles to magazines and translating French poetry to support himself. In 1920, he got a job at the London Times.

Around the same time, he began translating the first volume of a novel that had been getting a lot of attention in France by an author named Marcel Proust. Scott-Moncrieff published the first volume of his translation, which he called Swann's Way, in 1922, a few weeks before Proust's death. It was wildly successful in England, and the translation was hailed as one of the greatest translations of all time.

Scott-Moncrieff spent the rest of his life translating the remaining volumes, but he died before he finished the last one. Instead of translating the title literally as "In Search of Lost Time," he borrowed a line from one of Shakespeare's sonnets and called the multi-volume work "Remembrance of Things Past." His translation stood as the only translation of Proust's work in English for most of the twentieth century. People have recently begun revising his work, and some translators have attempted new translations of individual volumes, but no one else has ever attempted to translate the whole thing.

It's the birthday of the cartoonist, poet, songwriter and playwright Shel Silverstein, born in Chicago (1932). He's best known as the author of several children's books, including Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974), A Light in the Attic (1981). But he got his start drawing cartoons for adults in Playboy magazine in 1956. When he started writing children's books, they were somewhat mischievous. His book Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book: A Primer for Tender Young Minds (1961) suggested that children feed sugar cubes to the pony in the family car's gas tank.

His early children's books didn't have typically happy endings or easy morals for children to understand. He said, "Happy children's books create an alienation in the child who reads them. The child asks why don't I have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back."

His first successful children's book was The Giving Tree (1964), the story of a tree that sacrifices its shade, fruit, branches, and finally its trunk to a little boy in order to make him happy. His publishers told him that it wouldn't sell very well because it wasn't really children's book or an adult book, and at first those publishers were right. But The Giving Tree became the subject of church sermons and Sunday school reading lists, and its sales doubled every year for about ten years. It's become a standard gift for Mother's Day and for weddings. It still sells more than 250,000 copies a year, forty years after it was first published.

Silverstein was also known for writing the lyrics to the song "A Boy Named Sue" (1969). He gave the lyrics to Johnny Cash just before Cash was about to perform at San Quentin prison, and Cash asked Carl Perkins to set it to music. It became a big hit, and sold over a million copies.

Silverstein was a recluse, and wouldn't let his publisher give out any biographical information about him. For most or his life he refused to give any interviews or go on any book tours. He lived in a houseboat full of musical instruments in Key West, Florida. He never owned a car, and walked everywhere he went.

Shel Silverstein wrote,
"Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-gumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
'Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain't been there before."

It's the birthday of William (Cuthbert) Faulkner, born Falkner in New Albany, Mississippi (1897). Faulkner wrote almost all of his books about his hometown of Oxford, which he called "a little postage stamp of native soil," a village of unpaved streets with a population of 1500 people. He dropped out of high school, but took a few courses at the University of Mississippi, where he got a "D" in English.

He was forced to resign from his job at the post office because he kept magazines until he'd read them, let holiday hams spoil before he delivered them, and closed down early to drive out to the golf course in his yellow Model T Ford. He ran up so many bills that they called him "Count No Count." When shop owners sent people to his house to collect, he'd dress up in overalls and a straw hat and sweep his driveway, posing as hired help. When they asked where Faulkner was, he'd keep his head down and say, "Ain't seen 'im. Been here sweepin' all day an' I ain't seen 'im a-tall."

Faulkner went to New Orleans, where he met the writer Sherwood Anderson. Anderson encouraged him to try fiction, and Faulkner moved into his apartment and wrote his first novel, Soldiers' Pay (1926). With his next few books, he began to write in a more experimental style. He said, "I began to approach language with a kind of alert respect, as you approach dynamite." He decided he didn't care if he got published. He said, "One day it suddenly seemed as if a door had clamped silently and forever ... between me and all publishers' addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write."

In a four-year span Faulkner wrote some of his best novels: Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), and Light in August (1932). He created a fictional Mississippi county he called "Yoknapatawpha," a post civil war wasteland where the old aristocrats were exhausted and corrupt and the lower classes had become sociopaths, arsonists, and rapists. He said, "[Yoknapatawpha is an] Indian word meaning 'water runs slow through flat land'."

He wrote his books in longhand, and he didn't own a dictionary or a thesaurus. He often made up his own words, combining other words or turning nouns into verbs, verbs into nouns. If he ran into a roadblock on a word, he walked down to the local drugstore and asked the man there to look things up for him. Or he would stop people on the street and say, "I'm looking for a word. It means the same as 'running fast' but I don't want to use 'running fast'." He was obsessed with the idea of history, and how every moment of the present is connected to the past. He tried to write sentences that captured the relationship between the present and the past, and the result was that he wrote some of the longest sentences in American literature. His 1942 story "The Bear" contains a single sentence that is 1800 words long.

At the time, most scholars thought Faulkner's work was too dark and lurid. By 1944, all but one of his books was out of print. People in his town thought he was a washed-up loser, a man who aired the dirty laundry of the south, and impolite to boot. He never even said hello when he passed people on the street.

But in 1945, Malcolm Cowley helped publish a Portable Faulkner edition, which brought attention back to his work. Then in 1949, he won the Nobel Prize for literature. All his books were brought back into print, and they have stayed in print ever since. He is now one of the most studied authors in the English language. More than 1300 books have been written about him and his work.

William Faulkner said, "Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out the window."

And, "It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died."

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




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