Oct. 27, 2004

Cezanne and the Love of Color

by Stephen Dobyns

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Poem: "Cezanne and the Love of Color" by Stephen Dobyns, from Body Traffic © Penguin. Reprinted with permission.

Cezanne and the Love of Color

Because his wife refused to miss a dress fitting,
she missed his death instead. He painted to the last,
a portrait in profile of his gardener sitting
in a green light, with a sprawling shadow cast
on the wall behind him. His son too arrived too late,
preferring with his mother the rich life of Paris.
Then, thinking his fame wouldn't last and heavy in debt,
they quickly sold his paintings, foolishly reckless
in their acceptance of small sums. "You see," his wife
told Matisse, "Cezanne couldn't paint. He didn't have
the talent to complete his pictures." Her fear
cost her a fortune. At the very end of his life
Cezanne wrote, "Long live those who have the love
of color - true representatives of light and air."

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of two poets who died young, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath.

Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, Wales (1914). The name Dylan was an extremely rare name at the time of his birth. His father found the name in a collection of old Welsh folk tales. Today, Dylan is the nineteenth most popular boy's name in the United States.

He was a poet who always looked back on his childhood in Wales as a kind of lost paradise. He said, "I grew up ugly, lovely town...crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore where truant boys and sandfield boys and old men from nowhere, beach combed, idled, and paddled, watched the dock-bound ships or the ships steaming away to wonder and India, magic and China...on Saturday summer afternoons [we] listened to the brass band, watched the Punch and Judy, or hung about on the fringes of the crowd to hear the fierce religious speakers who shouted at the sea, as though it were wicked and wrong to roll in and out like that, white horsed and full of fishes."

Thomas's best friend was a boy named Dan Jones, and the two became obsessed with modern poetry. They read and wrote poetry together, and they composed radio shows that they pretended to broadcast over an imaginary radio. Thomas kept a notebook for his poems as a teenager, and he continued to borrow lines and even whole poems from that notebook for his entire career. Almost every poem he wrote as an adult had an early version in that original notebook.

Thomas tried to support himself as a journalist, but he eventually decided that poets shouldn't concern themselves with earthly things like earning a living. He lived in friends' apartments, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, surviving day to day by drinking beer and eating cake. He wrote, "[Poets are] men stepping on clouds, snaring a world of beauty from the trees and sky, half wild, half human."

He published his first collection, 18 Poems, in 1933. It got great reviews, but most general readers found it very difficult to understand. Thomas himself said, "I agree that much of [my] poetry is impossibly difficult; I've asked, or rather told, [my] words to do too much." He said, "[I am] a freak user of words, not a poet."

During World War II, he lived through the bombing raids on London, and wrote a series of poems about them that made him famous, including "Ceremony After a Fire Raid," "Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid Was a Man Aged a Hundred" and "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London."

Once he'd become famous, he spent most of his time going on reading tours, especially in the United States, where he could make the money he needed to support his family. He had an extraordinarily deep, sonorous reading voice, and people came in droves to listen to him read his own poetry as well as the poetry of others. People were also drawn to his reckless behavior. Elizabeth Hardwick said, "Would he arrive only to break down on the stage? Would some dismaying scene take place at the faculty party? Would he be offensive, violent, obscene? These were alarming and yet exciting possibilities."

In the last eight years of his life, Thomas wrote only eight poems. He spent most of his energy writing letters to friends, and many of those letters read like poems. In one letter he wrote, "The heat! It comes round corners at you like an animal with windmill arms. As I enter my bedroom, it stuns, thuds, throttles, spins me round by my soaking hair, lays me flat as a mat and bat-blind on my boiled and steaming bed. We keep oozing from the ice-cream counters to the chemist's. Cold beer is bottled God."

He died on his last reading tour of the United States in 1953. Alfred Kazin wrote in his journal when he heard the news, "Dylan. How much light goes out with the passing of our wizard...he embodied the deepest cry of poetry, he was our young singer!"

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts (1932). Unlike Dylan Thomas, she was virtually unknown for most of her life. And instead of living like a bohemian, she was a straight-A student, got into Smith on a scholarship and won all the prizes for writing contests. She was beautiful and outgoing, and she wrote cheerful letters home to her mother about all her successes.

She went to England on a Fulbright Scholarship, and it was there that she met her future husband, the poet Ted Hughes. She spent the years of their marriage helping support his career-typing his manuscripts and writing letters to editors for him. He encouraged her to write her own poetry, but she didn't have much time after caring for the children and working part-time as a teacher. When she published her first book of poems, The Colossus (1960), it got mixed reviews, and she fell into despair at the idea that she would never amount to anything.

Plath's marriage with Hughes broke up in 1962. Living alone with her two children, she began to wake up every morning at 4:00 AM and write until the children woke up. She'd always been a slow, painstaking writer, but in the fall of 1962 she developed a kind of nursery rhyme style, finishing one or two poems every day.

At the end of October, during which she had finished thirty new poems, she wrote to her mother, "I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name." But when Plath sent her new poems out for publication, but the editors of various magazines rejected them as too strange and disturbing.

That winter in England was one of the coldest on record, and Plath spent the coldest days cooped up in the house with her children, suffering from a fever. On the morning of February 11, she committed suicide.

A collection of her late poems, including "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," was published as Ariel in 1965, and it became the model for a new kind of confessional poetry. When her Collected Poems was published in 1981, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Sylvia Plath said, "Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing."

It's the birthday of novelist and memoirist Maxine Hong Kingston, born Maxine Hong in Stockton, California (1940). Her parents were Chinese immigrants who started a laundromat when they came to American. As a little girl, Kingston worked long hours helping wash the clothes with the rest of the family. Her first language was Chinese, and when she started school, she flunked out of kindergarten because she refused to speak.

Growing up, she loved listening to her parents tell stories about her ancestors, and she noticed that the stories changed with each telling, because they were part truth and part fiction. After studying at the University of California at Berkley, she decided that she wanted to write a book about her family, and she used the same mix of fact and imagination, telling the same stories from multiple angles.

That book was Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976), which helped inspire a whole generation of Asian American writers. It begins, "'You must not tell anyone,' my mother said, 'what I am about to tell you.'"

Her most recent book is The Fifth Book of Peace (2003).

It's the birthday of the novelist Zadie Smith, born in London (1975). She grew up in a working-class London suburb where she was one of the few black kids in the neighborhood. She said, "If you're black...everyone turns and looks at you. So my instinct...was always to over-compensate by trying to behave three times as well as every other child in the area." Her good behavior got her into Cambridge University.

She was still a college undergraduate, in the middle of her final exams, when she began writing her first novel. She sold it to a publishing house after having only written the first chapter. She was twenty-one years old. It took her two years to finish the novel, White Teeth (2000), which is a multi-generational story of immigrant families in London. In order to understand one of her Muslim characters, Smith read seven different translations of the Koran.

White Teeth became an international best-seller, and it made Zadie Smith into a literary celebrity, which she did not appreciate. British tabloids have speculated on her boyfriends, her clothes, her hair length, and even her glasses. She has since moved to America to get away from that.

She is her own harshest critic. She called White Teeth, "The literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old." She hopes someday to write a novel she is proud of.

Her most recent novel is The Autograph Man (2003).

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




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