Oct. 7, 2004

The First Night of Fall and Falling Rain

by Delmore Schwartz

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Poem: "The First Night of Fall and Falling Rain" by Delmore Schwartz, from Last and Lost Poems of Delmore Schwartz © The Vanguard Press. Reprinted with permission.

The First Night of Fall and Falling Rain

The common rain had come again
Slanting and colorless, pale and anonymous,
Fainting falling in the first evening
Of the first perception of the actual fall,
The long and late light had slowly gathered up
A sooty wood of clouded sky, dim and distant more and
Until, as dusk, the very sense of selfhood waned,
A weakening nothing halted, diminished or denied or set
Neither tea, nor, after an hour, whiskey,
Ice and then a pleasant glow, a burning,
And the first leaping wood fire
Since a cold night in May, too long ago to be more than
Merely a cold and vivid memory.
Staring, empty, and without thought
Beyond the rising mists of the emotion of causeless
How suddenly all consciousness leaped in spontaneous
Knowing without thinking how the falling rain (outside, all
In slow sustained consistent vibration all over outside
Tapping window, streaking roof,
    running down runnel and drain
Waking a sense, once more, of all that lived outside of us,
Beyond emotion, for beyond the swollen
    distorted shadows and lights
Of the toy town and the vanity fair
    of waking consciousness!

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, born Diane Fink in Waukegan, Illinois (1948). A writer who has always been interested in the outside world more than her own life, she wrote her first book of poetry, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (1976) entirely about astronomy. She has since written many other poems about science, as well as cattle farming, flying an airplane, and soccer. She became a journalist as well, specializing in essays about animals, and she once put a bat on top of her head to see if it would really get tangled in her hair. It didn't, but she described how it coughed gently.

She is best known for her book A Natural History of the Senses (1990), a collection of wide-ranging essays about her own thoughts and experiences of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

Ackerman has put so much effort into experiencing the world to the fullest that she has broken ribs while mountain climbing in albatross country, and has ingested intestinal parasites while swimming in the Amazon River. But she still believes that you can find wonder in your own back yard. She said, "When the deer leap the fence behind my house and come up to eat the apples that are slightly fermented on the ground underneath a fresh layer of snow, that's magic."

Her most recent book is An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, which came out this year.

It's the birthday of the poet James Whitcomb Riley, born in Greenfield, Indiana (1849). As a boy, he loved to read, but he constantly ran away from school to go for walks in the countryside. His father, a lawyer, told him that if he didn't want to go to school he had to get a job. So, he joined a traveling medicine show, where he worked as a sign painter, advertising jingle writer, and minstrel. In his jingles, he specialized in using the language of the rural Midwest, and he eventually began to send his lyrics to newspapers, where they were published.

He went on to become one of the most popular poets of his day. He's best remembered for his poem "Little Orphant [sic] Annie" (1899) about a woman who tells scary stories to children to get them to behave.

James Whitcomb Riley wrote,

"Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn't say his prayers,--
An' when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an' his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An' when they turn't the kivvers down, he wuzn't there at all...
All they ever found wuz thist his pants an' roundabout:--
An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you
Ef you

It's the birthday of the poet, and novelist Sherman Alexie, born on an Indian reservation near Spokane, Washington (1966). As an infant, he was diagnosed hydrocephalic, underwent brain surgery, and his doctors were amazed that he survived. He suffered from seizures for the rest of his childhood. For that reason, and because he was constantly reading books, he didn't fit in at the school on his reservation.

He transferred to a mostly white school, where he was an honor student and the class president and the captain of the basketball team. People treated him as though he were white. His own high school girlfriend once told him that she hated Indians, apparently unaware that she was dating one.

In college, Alexie studied poetry, and he said, "[At first] I didn't see myself in [Western literature], so I felt like I was doing anthropology, like I was studying white people. [But] something was drawing me in that I couldn't intellectualize or verbalize, and then I realized that the poems weren't just about white people. They were about everybody."

He started writing poetry, but he also started drinking, and soon dropped out of college. Both his parents had suffered from alcoholism, and he said, "[I almost became] one of those Indians upholding our stereotype." But he quit drinking the day he found out his first collection of poetry The Business of Fancydancing (1992) was accepted for publication.

His first big success was his collection of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993). It was one of the first works of fiction to portray Indians as modern Americans who watch all the same TV programs and eat the same breakfast cereal as everybody else. He has since written about Indians who are gay intellectuals, basketball players, middle-class journalists, elderly movie extras, rock musicians, construction workers, or reservation girls whose cars only go in reverse because all the other gears are broken. His most recent is the story collection Ten Little Indians, which came out last year.

Sherman Alexie said, "All too often, Indian writers write about the kind of Indian they wish they were. So I try to write about the kind of Indian I am. I'm just as much a product of 'The Brady Bunch' as I am of my grandmother."

It's the birthday of the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, born LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey (1934). One of the most controversial poets of recent memory, he got his start as a poet writing about the Black Power movement in the 1960's. He was named the Poet Laureate of New Jersey in 2002, but a poem he wrote about September 11th was so controversial that he was asked to step down from the position. He refused, and so the state of New Jersey abolished its poet laureate program. His most recent collection of poems is Funk Lore (1996).

It was on this day in 1982 that the musical Cats first opened on Broadway. It was based on a book of children's poems by T.S. Eliot called Old Possum's Practical Book of Cats (1939), which describes an annual feline gathering and celebration, at the end of which one cat is chosen to ascend into heaven. It went on to become the longest running musical in history, with 7,485 performances in New York City and 8,949 performances in London.

Cats had one of the most expensive production designs ever assembled; it had no plot; all the characters were cats; and the lyrics were written by one of the more difficult poets of the 20th century. Most people in the theater industry thought it would be a huge flop. Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote the music, had to mortgage his own house to get the project off the ground.

But it turned out that the cats Eliot had invented for his godchildren: Macavity, Mungojerrie, Rumpelteazer, Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tugger, and the tawdry Grizabella, were extraordinarily popular. At the time, the musical industry was on the wane, and most musicals on Broadway were revivals. Cats proved that musical theater could be big business again, and it sparked a renaissance of new musicals such as Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, and Phantom of the Opera.

Over the course of Cats' eighteen-year life, more than 1.8 million pounds of dry ice were used during the show to create fog onstage, and 3,247 pounds yak hair were used for wigs. One of the musical's most popular songs, "Memory," has been recorded 180 times by different artists around the world.

Cats finally closed on Broadway in 2000, but it is still going strong in other parts of the world, including Budapest, Hungary; Stuttgart, Germany; and Pretoria, South Africa. It is estimated that Cats has been seen by more than 50 million people in 30 countries.

T.S. Eliot said, "When a Cat adopts you there is nothing to be done about it except to put up with it until the wind changes."

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




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