Oct. 16, 2004

Break of Day

by Galway Kinnell

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Poem: "Break of Day," by Galway Kinnell.

Break of Day

He turns the light on, lights
the cigarette, goes out on the porch,
chainsaws a block of green wood down the grain,
chucks the pieces into the box stove,
pours in kerosene, tosses in the match
he has set fire to the next cigarette with,
stands back while the creosote-lined, sheet-
metal rust-lengths shudder but just barely
manage to direct the cawhoosh in the stove—
which sucks in ash motes through gaps
at the bottom and glares out fire blaze
through overburn-cracks at the top—
all the way to the roof and up out through into
the still starry sky starting to lighten,
sits down to a bowl of crackers and bluish milk
in which reflections of a 40-watt ceiling bulb
appear and disappear, eats, contemplates
an atmosphere containing kerosene stink,
chainsaw smoke, chainsmoke, wood smoke, wood heat,
gleams of the 40-watt ceiling bulb bobbing in blue milk.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Irish writer Oscar Wilde, born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, in Dublin (1854). He's the author of the plays Lady Windermere's Fan (1893), A Woman of No Importance (1893), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895); and he's one of the most quotable authors in the English language.

His mother was a famous poet, journalist and Irish nationalist; and his father was a noted ear and eye doctor. He went to college at Oxford, where he began affecting an aristocratic English accent and dressing in eccentric suits and velvet knee breeches. He stayed in England after college, and made a name for himself as a brilliant conversationalist in the high society of London. A movement in art and literature called Aestheticism was becoming popular at the time, and Wilde became known as one of its leading spokesmen. The movement's motto was "Art for art's sake." Wilde began lecturing on the importance of art and beauty in people's everyday lives. He said, "We spend our days looking for the secret of life. Well, the secret of life is art." And he said, "Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong."

He worked for a women's magazine, and he wrote essays, stories, and plays. But he didn't become well known as a serious writer until he came out with his first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1891, about a beautiful young man who remains young while a portrait of him grows old. Wilde then burst upon the British theater scene with four consecutive comedy hits: Lady Windermere's Fan (1893), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Wilde attended the opening of Lady Windermere's Fan wearing a green carnation in his suit. After the final curtain went down and the crowd erupted in applause, Wilde came out on stage and said: "Ladies and gentlemen: I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendering of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on a great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself."

Wilde was married and had two children, but he was never completely comfortable with family life. He experimented with homosexuality, and fell in love with a young poet from Oxford named Lord Alfred Douglas. Eventually, Wilde was charged with sodomy and went to trial. He was found guilty, and sentenced to two years in prison. On the last day of the trial, Wilde wrote to Lord Douglas, "This is to assure you of my immortal, my eternal love for you. Tomorrow all will be over. . . . Your love has broad wings and is strong, your love comes to me through my prison bars and comforts me, your love is the light of all my hours." Wilde was released from prison in 1897, and died three years later, in a cheap hotel in Paris.

Oscar Wilde wrote:

"It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances."

" The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it."

" It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

"Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes."

"Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes."

It's the birthday of Noah Webster, born in Hartford, Connecticut (1758). When he was 43 years old, he began writing the first American dictionary, which was published in 1806. Spelling and pronunciation were different in different parts of the country, and Webster wanted to standardize American English. He also wanted the American language to have its own rules rather than relying on British dictionaries like Samuel Johnson's 1755 edition. It's thanks to Webster that the American and English spellings are different for words like "catalog," "honor," "theater," and "center."

It's the birthday of German novelist Gunter Grass, born in Danzig, Germany (now Gdansk, Poland) (1927). He's best known for his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959), and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. He joined the Hitler Youth in the 1930s, and he was drafted into the army when he was sixteen years old. He fought in World War II, then held jobs as a farmer, a miner, a stonemason, and a jazz musician. In 1956, he started writing The Tin Drum, and it was published three years later. The main character has decided to stop growing, in protest of the cruelties of German history. He gains the ability to scream loudly enough to break glass, and he communicates only through his toy drum. The Tin Drum is the first novel of a trilogy that also includes Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963). Grass's most recent work is Crabwalk (2002), a bestseller about how German guilt has become taboo. Grass said, "Whenever there has been talk of exterminating rats, others, who were not rats, have been exterminated."

It's the birthday of American playwright Eugene O'Neill, born in a Broadway hotel room in New York City (1888). His father was a famous actor, and O'Neill spent much of his childhood in trains and hotels, following his father on tours. He went to Princeton, but he was expelled after a year. He got a series of odd jobs, then went off on a gold prospecting expedition in Honduras, where he contracted malaria. After he recovered, he tried out sailing, vaudeville acting, and writing for a small town newspaper. In 1912, he fell sick again with tuberculosis and spent six months in a sanatorium. While he was there, he began to read classic playwrights and modern innovators like Ibsen and Strindberg.

When he was released, he began writing furiously, coming out with eleven one-act plays in just a few years. In 1916, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he fell in with a group that would become known as the Provincetown Players, which included writers like Susan Glaspell and Robert Edmond Jones. The group began producing O'Neill's plays on a regular basis, and they helped to revolutionize American theater.

In 1920 his play Beyond the Horizon became a popular and critical success on Broadway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. He would go on to win two more Pulitzers in the next eight years, for Anna Christie (1922) and Strange Interlude (1928). He continued to write until 1944, when he was diagnosed with a crippling neurological disease called cortical cerebellar atrophy. In 1956, his work began to be revived, and his posthumous play Long Day's Journey into Night (1956) won the Pulitzer Prize the next year.

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