Dec. 14, 2004


by Howard Nemerov

The Sound of Trees

by Robert Frost


Poems: "The Sound of Trees" by Robert Frost, from Collected Poems (1969), © Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Reprinted with permission, and "Trees" by Howard Nemerov, from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov, © University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.


To be a giant and keep quiet about it,
To stay in one's own place;
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One's Being deceptively armored,
One's Becoming deceptively vulnerable,
To be so tough, and take the light so well,
Freely providing forbidden knowledge
Of so many things about heaven and earth
For which we should otherwise have no word-
Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather then exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also-though there has never been
A critical tree-about the nature of things.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Stanley Crouch, born in Los Angeles, California (1945). His father was a drug addict and petty criminal, and he was raised mostly by his mother, a domestic worker who earned 11 dollars a day, six days a week. She taught him to read before he started school and took him to cultural events to give him a broader perspective than most of the kids in his neighborhood. He said, "[My mother] was an aristocrat in that strange American way that has nothing to do with money."

He never went to college but he started writing poetry and jazz criticism as a young man, and then became one of the more prominent journalists at The Village Voice, until he got fired for punching out another writer during an argument about rap music.

Losing his job forced him to start writing on a wider variety of topics, and he went on to become one of the leading African American cultural critics of his generation. He's the author of many books, including Notes of a Hanging Judge (1990) and The American Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race (1995).

It's the birthday of Amy Hempel, born in Chicago, Illinois (1951). She always knew she wanted to be a writer, but she didn't have anything to write about, so she moved to California and worked in a series of odd jobs. She took an anatomy class where she performed autopsies on corpses, and then she worked in a counseling group for terminally ill people. But after her best friend died of cancer, she moved to New York City. It was only after she'd left California that she could write about the life she had been living there.

She took a creative writing class from the famous editor Gordon Lish and one day he told her to write down her most terrible, despicable secret, the thing she would never live down. The result was her first short story, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried," about the death of her best friend. It begins, "'Tell me things I won't mind forgetting,' she said. 'Make it useless stuff or skip it.'"

That story became the centerpiece of her first collection, Reasons to Live (1985). She's also the author of At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), Tumble Home (1997). Her newest collection Dog of the Marriage comes out in March of next year.

Amy Hempel said, "I could claim any number of high-flown reasons for writing, just as you can explain certain dog behavior...But maybe it's that they're dogs, and that's what dogs do."

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Shirley Jackson, born in San Francisco (1919). She grew up shy and awkward in California and never got along with her glamorous mother. So she married a literature professor and moved as far away from California as she could, to a small town in Vermont, where she raised four children.

She was a very eccentric woman. For most of her life, she heard voices and music that no one else could hear, and she believed that she was psychic. She kept half a dozen cats in her house and she said they often leapt up on her shoulder and whispered poems in her ear. She read dozens of books about witchcraft, and claimed that she had once used a voodoo doll to break a man's leg.

The people in her town talked about her behind her back, calling her a communist and atheist and a witch. Neighbors said the house was full of monstrous dust balls, and the children always had dirty tangled hair. She felt as though everyone in town was watching her and judging her, and she began to dread running into people at the local grocery store.

One spring afternoon, she returned from her daily errands and sat down to write a short story about a village where one person is chosen by lottery to be stoned to death every year. And that was "The Lottery," the short story that would make her name. She finished it in two hours and sent it off to the New Yorker magazine. When it was published there in 1948, more than four hundred readers wrote to the magazine demanding to know what the story meant, or asking to cancel their subscriptions because they were so disturbed.

Jackson was always proud that the white supremacist government of South Africa had banned "The Lottery," because she felt that they, at least, understood the story.

Even though "The Lottery" made her famous, she still struggled to find time to write while raising four children. She once said, "Fifty percent of my life was spent washing and dressing the children, cooking, [cleaning] and mending." But she loved to inspire her children's imagination. One night, during a fierce thunderstorm, she took all the children out to the front porch and encouraged them to roar back at the thunder.

She eventually wrote two best-selling memoirs about the experience of parenting, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). She also wrote horror novels such as The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

Shirley Jackson said, "I tell myself stories all day long. I have managed to weave a fairy-tale of infinite complexity around the inanimate objects in my house... No one in my family is surprised to find me putting the waffle iron away on a different shelf because...it has quarreled with the toaster... It looks kind of crazy, of course. But it does take the edge off cold reality."

She also said, "[Writing is] a way of making daily life into a wonderfully unusual thing instead of a grind."

It was on this day in 1640 that the novelist Aphra Behn was baptized. We don't know when she was born or much about her life, but she was the first English woman to earn a living as a writer. She's best known for her novel Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (1688). Virginia Woolf said, "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."

It's the birthday of the astrologer Nostradamus, born in Saint-Rémy, France (1503). He was born just after his Jewish family had to convert to Catholicism in order to avoid being run out of town. His grandfather had been a doctor because it was one of the only professions open to Jews at the time, and he decided to follow in his grandfather's footsteps.

He became famous for curing patients suffering from the plague. Many people claimed that he had magical powers, but he said that he just used herbal remedies. He spent much of his time traveling around the countryside, treating patients, and while he was away from home, his wife and children caught the plague and died.

He remarried and started a new family, but it was around that same time that he started to write a series of predictions about the future. He claimed that he drew his predictions from the stars. At the time, astrology was one of the few forms of mysticism tolerated by the Catholic Church. He wrote the predictions down in rhyming, four-line poems, and published them in volumes of 100 poems each, calling them centuries.

The Centuries (1555) have remained in print for more than 400 years. They are the most popular works of prophesy since The Bible. They have been interpreted by some readers as describing the lives and actions of modern figures such as Saddam Hussein, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Yeltsin, Richard Gere, and Jane Fonda.

Near the end of his life, Nostradamus predicted the day he would die, but he died about a year early.

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




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