Dec. 6, 2004

Think and Do

by Ron Padgett

Monday, 6 DECEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "Think and Do" by Ron Padgett, from You Never Know © Coffee House Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission.

Think and Do

I always have to be doing something, accomplishing some-
thing, fixing something, going somewhere, feeling purposeful,
useful, competent - even coughing, as I just did, gives me the
satisfaction of having "just cleared something up." The phone
bill arrives and minutes later I've written the check. The world
starts to go to war and I shout, "Hey, wait a second, let's think
about this!" and they lay down their arms and ruminate. Now
they are frozen in postures of thought, like Rodin's statue, the
one outside Philosophy Hall at Columbia. His accomplish-
ments are muscular. How could a guy with such big muscles be
thinking so much? It gives you the idea that he's worked all his
life to get those muscles, and now he has no use for them. It
makes him pensive, sober, even depressed sometimes, and
because his range of motion is nil, he cannot leap down from
the pedestal and attend classes in Philosophy Hall. I am so
lucky to be elastic! I am so happy to be able to think of the
word elastic! I am so happy to be able to think of the
word elastic, and have it snap me back to underwear, which
reminds me: I have to do the laundry soon.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Susanna Moodie, born Susanna Strickland in Suffolk, England (1803). She grew up in a middle class English family and was accustomed to ordinary life, but as a young woman, she married an adventurous man who had traveled around Africa, and the two of them sailed off to live in the backwoods of Canada, which at the time was still wild country.

She had thought that life in the new colony would be exciting, but in fact she endured extremely harsh winters, malaria, and the economic depression of the 1830's. Her family in England often sent her fancy dresses and dancing shoes, which were completely useless to her in the wilderness. She decided that someone needed to write about the reality of pioneer life to warn other people away from it. But in the course of writing about her experiences, she found that she actually loved her adopted country.

Her book Roughing it in the Bush (1852) became a classic of early Canadian literature. Today most children in Canada read that book, the way most American children read Little House in the Big Woods.

It's the birthday of English essayist Sir Osbert Sitwell, born in London (1892). He wrote many books of poetry and fiction, but he's best known as the author of autobiographical essays about the years before the collapse of the British Empire. He wrote, "I belonged, by birth, education, nature, outlook and period to the pre-war era, a proud citizen of the great free world of 1914...[Now] the sabre-toothed tiger and the ant are our paragons, and the butterfly is condemned for its wings, which are uneconomic."

Sitwell's essays are collected in books such as Left Hand, Right Hand! (1945), Laughter in the Next Room (1948), and Noble Essences (1950).

It's the birthday of Austrian avant-garde playwright and novelist, Peter Handke, born in Griffen, Austria (1942). He's one of the most influential and controversial writers in the German language. When he first started writing plays, he said, "[I] couldn't stand the pretense of reality [in theater] if the actors were under a glass bell." He wanted to destroy the illusion. He went on to write experimental plays like My Foot My Tutor (1969) in which two characters interact for ten scenes without ever speaking. He has also written many novels, including The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) and Nonsense and Happiness (1976). His most recent novel to be translated into English is On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House (2000).

Peter Handke said, "I couldn't say who I am, I haven't the remotest notion of myself; I am someone without antecedents, without a history, without a country, and on that I insist!"

And, "If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood."

It's the birthday of poet (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer, born in New Brunswick, New Jersey (1886). He was a struggling poet, working as a writer of definitions for the Standard Dictionary, when he got a chance to hike through the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. When he got home, he wrote a poem, trying to express the beauty of what he saw in the forest. He called the poem "Trees." It begins, "I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree" and ends with the lines, "Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree."

He never wrote anything else that got so much attention, but "Trees" is still incredibly popular. It was set to music and memorized by millions of people across America. In 1936, a section of virgin forest in North Carolina was named The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, in honor of his famous love of trees.

Joyce Kilmer said, "It is perilous work to thrust your hand in the sun and pull out a spark of immortal flame to warm the hearts of men."

And he wrote, "Nothing keeps a poet / In his high singing mood / Like unappeasable hunger / For unattainable food."

It's the birthday of lyricist Ira Gershwin, born Israel Gershvin on the East Side of New York City (1896). He's considered one of the great lyricists of the twentieth century, best known for writing the lyrics to songs like "I've Got Rhythm" (1930) and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (1937). But he always felt overshadowed by the talent of his younger brother, the composer George Gershwin. The two brothers worked together on many songs, and Ira once heard a radio announcer say, "Here is a new song by George Gershwin and his lovely wife Ira."

He originally wanted to write for H. L. Mencken's satirical magazine Smart Set, but he only got published there once and they only paid him a dollar. So he got a job as the business manager of a traveling carnival. When his brother broke into the musical world, he decided to try writing lyrics. On his first few songs, he used the pseudonym Arthur Francis so that his work would not be judged by his brother's reputation.

The Gershwin brothers were complete opposites. George loved parties, loved being in the spotlight; he was outgoing and talkative and a ladies man. Ira was shy and quiet and a bookworm. But they worked well together. When asked whether the music came first or the lyrics, Ira said, "What usually comes first is the contract."

They collaborated on many musicals, including Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band! (1930), and Porgy and Bess (1935). After George died of a brain tumor in 1937, Ira took a break from songwriting for four years, but he eventually came back and worked with other composers like Jerome Kern and Kurt Weill. He also wrote new lyrics to his brother's music for the movie An American in Paris (1951).

Though Ira Gershwin won a Pulitzer Prize for his lyrics in 1932, he was always modest about his work. When he published a collection of his lyrics in 1959, he wrote in the introduction, "Any resemblance to actual poetry, living or dead, is highly improbable." His secretary said that he almost always criticized his own work, but occasionally he would pat himself on the shoulder and say, "Good job, Gershwin. Good job."

He said he hated writing love songs, but some of his best songs are about longing for love, including "Someone To Watch Over Me" (1926) and "But Not For Me" (1930).

He wrote, "They're writing songs of love - but not for me
A lucky star's above - but not for me
With love to lead the way I've found more clouds of gray
Than any Russian play could guarantee."

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, born in Middlesex, England (1893). Her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), was about a woman who makes a deal with the Devil and becomes a witch in order to get away from her restrictive family.

She wrote, "When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded...They are like trees towards the end of summer, heavy and dusty, and nobody finds their leaves surprising, or notice them until they fall off." Lolly Willowes became the first ever Book of the Month Club Selection, and it was a bestseller in the United States.

It's the birthday of photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, born in a part of Prussia that is now Tczew, Poland (1898). Considered one of the fathers of photojournalism, he's best known for taking the famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse at the end of World War II. Ironically, he fought against the Allies during the first World War. In 1917, a British shell struck his artillery battery, and he was the only soldier in the battery who survived.

He started taking photographs after the war, while working as a button and belt salesman. He was one of the first photographers to use a camera that could take multiple pictures without being reloaded, and he had a genius for capturing odd, surprising moments. He was just over five feet tall, and he said people never noticed him. In 1933, he a caught the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels glaring at the camera. The following year, he photographed Hitler and Mussolini shaking hands for the first time, each of them looking a little nervous.

People who met Eisenstaedt said they could never forget the look in his eyes, always watching, always curious. He said, "Anticipation is one of the secrets of my success." He went out in hurricanes and climbed into a gorilla's cage to get the pictures he wanted. Once, two angry pimps chased him down the street after he took a photo of a prostitute with a whip.

In 1935 he moved to the United States and joined a new magazine that was devoted to photojournalism, LIFE magazine. Eighty-six of his pictures were featured on the cover of LIFE magazine, including the picture of the famous kiss on VJ Day. Over his lifetime, he took more than a million photographs.

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