Sep. 26, 2004

Ode to Languor

by David Kirby

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Poem: "Ode to Languor" by David Kirby, from I Think I Am Going to Call My Wife Paraguay © Orchises Press, Virginia, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Ode to Languor

My father and I are watching the opera Susannah,
      or at least I am, for my father has fallen
into a deep and dreamless slumber, the way

he always has - when I was young, he used
      to take me to the National Geographic Film
series on Wednesdays, and once.

as the Mud Men of New Guinea were shaking
      their spears at the camera, Johnny Taylor
(I was too self-conscious to sit with

anyone not my age) nudged me and said,
      "Look at that old man sleeping!" Forty
years later, I am almost an old man myself

and grateful for the quality of languor,
      almost certainly genetically transmitted.
Blessed parent! He is also the perfect

erotic role model, i.e. not. My father
      chased no skirts— after a while,
not even my mother's. When I think of

friends who have broken their hearts
      in the pursuit of unattainable women,
I am all the more grateful to my drowsy father.

Keats praised languor: easeful death was something
      he was more that half in love with,
though he didn't mean a passing like his own.

Keats wanted a death-in-art, a rich death,
      and with a nightingale pouring forth its soul
as Susannah, wronged by the lustful elders,

pours forth hers, my eyes closing,
      my head bending toward that
of my dreamless father, this good man sleeping.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1960 that the first televised debate between presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy took place. More than 60 million Americans tuned in to watch the first-ever televised debate between the two candidates running for the White House.  Vice President Nixon, the Republican candidate, and Senator John F Kennedy, the Democrat, appeared at a CBS studio in Chicago, Illinois, for the first of a series of four debates. 

The first "Great Debate" centered on domestic issues. The moderator was Howard K. Smith. Each candidate was given eight minutes to make an opening speech. There followed a series of questions from a panel of correspondents – including Walter Cronkite of CBS News, John Edwards from ABC News, and John Chancellor of NBC News.  Each candidate was given three minutes and twenty seconds for a final statement.

Kennedy appeared tanned, relaxed, and confident after campaigning in California. Nixon had recently undergone knee surgery and was rather pale – though he refused any make-up to improve his appearance.

In his summation, Mr. Nixon said: "It is essential that a man who is President of this country, certainly stand for every program that will mean growth, and I stand for programs that will mean growth and progress." Kennedy replied: "The question before us can freedom in the next generation conquer, or are the Communists going to be successful? That's the great issue. And if we meet our responsibilities I think freedom will conquer."

Among television viewers, Mr. Kennedy was regarded the clear winner of the first debate, while radio listeners felt the contest had been close. The power of political debates seemed clear, as did the dangers of a poor performance. The presidential debate would take 16 more years to emerge again when, in 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter and Vice President Gerald Ford faced each other on the television screen.

It's the birthday of Jane Smiley, born in Los Angeles (1949). She grew up in St. Louis and then went to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.  She worked for a year on an archeological dig in Europe and then got a PhD at Iowa with a dissertation on Old Norse.  She wrote Age of Grief(1988), Greenlanders (1993), and A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. It's about a man who owns farmland in Iowa that he plans to divide between his three daughters.  Her most recent book is A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck (2004), a memoir about horses' lives and people whose lives are about horses.

Smiley has also written many essays for such magazines as Vogue, The New Yorker, Practical Horseman, Harper's, the New York Times Magazine, Victoria, Mirabella, Allure, The Nation and others. She has written on farming, horse training, child rearing, literature, impulse buying, getting dressed, politics, Barbie, marriage, and the craftspeople of the Catskill Mountains.

Jane Smiley said, "I think a lot of things are hilariously funny, and that's kind of the way I live my life. And I also believe that it's only possible to live if you can detach yourself and detach your sort of sense of what's going on a little bit and take a kind of observational position on everything...Being detached is the first step to being comic."

It's the birthday of poet T(homas) S(tearns) Eliot, born into a prominent Unitarian family in Saint Louis (1888).  His most famous poem is The Waste Land (1922), a dark and complex poem about the search for redemption in a post-World War I world.  From a young age, Eliot wrote about moral decay and aging and the hopelessness of life. When he was sixteen he wrote, "For time is time, and runs away." 

In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915), he wrote,
I grow old...I grow old...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?  Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each
I do not think that they will sing to me.

In his 1948 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, T. S. Eliot said, "Partly through his influence on other poets, partly through translation ... partly through readers of his language who are not themselves poets, the poet can contribute toward understanding between peoples... I stand before you, not on my own merits, but as a symbol, for a time, of the significance of poetry."

And he said, "The one thing you can do is to do nothing. Wait ... You will find that you survive humiliation and that's an experience of incalculable value."

And, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."

And, "Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers."

It's the birthday of composer George Gershwin, born Jacob Gershowitz, in Brooklyn, New York (1898).  He was born to Russian immigrants and spent his childhood in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. As a young boy, he was more athletic and sociable than he was musical.  But he went to work on Tin Pan Alley for the Jerome Remick Company handing out the publishers' newest sheet music to any potential customers who wandered by. He eventually began composing his own songs.  At 19, he and a childhood friend, Irving Caesar, wrote a song together called "Swanee."  Al Jolson made the song a huge hit, and Gershwin was on his way.

Gershwin wrote Concerto in F (1925), An American in Paris (1928), and the famous folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935).  It was based on the book Porgy (1925), by DuBose Heyward. It's the story of black life in a ghetto of Charleston, South Carolina. Gershwin's music was influenced by black spirituals, Jewish chants, ragtime, and classical opera, and his songs include "Summertime," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," and "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'."

Gershwin had a close friend named Oscar Levant, also a pianist. Levant complained to the composer that when they traveled together on trains he always had to take the upper berth while Gershwin had the lower. Gershwin replied: "That's the difference between talent and genius."

When Gershwin was in his mid-thirties, what started as simple headaches became more serious and chronic. He started to forget portions of his compositions while performing. Doctors found a brain tumor and suggested emergency surgery. Specialists were to be flown in to California to perform the potentially life saving operation, but Gershwin did not survive the surgery and died on July 11, 1937 in Hollywood.

He also said, "True music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans and my time is today."

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




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