Jan. 17, 2005

What's in My Journal

by William Stafford

Monday, 17 JANUARY, 2005
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Poem: "What's in My Journal" by William Stafford, from Crossing Unmarked Snow © University of Michigan Press. Reprinted with permission.

What's in My Journal

Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Things, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can't find them. Someone's terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of founding father Benjamin Franklin. Though Philadelphia is regarded as his home, he was born in Boston on this day in 1706. Franklin had a natural curiosity about how things work. He spent much of his life searching for ways for people to live better. After he retired from the printing business in 1749 he turned his attention to science and inventions. He had already invented a safer, heat-efficient stove—called the Franklin stove—which he never patented because he created it for the good of society. He also established the first fire company and came up with the idea of fire insurance.

When he grew tired of taking off and putting on his glasses, Franklin had two pairs of spectacles cut in half and put half of each lens in a single frame, an invention which is now called bifocals. His brother was plagued with kidney stones, so Franklin created a flexible urinary catheter to help him feel better. Among Franklin's other inventions are swim fins, the glass armonica (a musical instrument), the odometer, and the lightning rod.

Franklin eventually retired from public service to spend his time reading and studying. He found, however, that his age left him unable to reach the high shelves in his library. He invented a tool called a "long arm"—a long wooden pole with a grasping claw at the end—to reach the books he wanted to read.

Benjamin Franklin said, "A life of leisure and a life of laziness are two things. There will be sleeping enough in the grave."

It's the birthday of Anne Brontë, born in Yorkshire (1820). Anne Brontë has been remembered primarily as the third Brontë sister. She was meek and more religious-minded than Charlotte or Emily and little is known about her life compared to the lives of her sisters. As a child, she was closest to Emily, the youngest of her older siblings. Together they played with toys, made up stories about them and began to write them down. They created an imaginary world called "Gondal" which provided the setting for the first of Anne's known poems, "Verses by Lady Geralda" (1836) and "Alexander and Zenobia" (1837).

In the summer of 1845, Anne, Emily and Charlotte found themselves at home together without work. They decided to put together a book of poems they'd written over the past five years. They told no one what they were doing. Anne and Emily each contributed 21 poems and 19 were Charlotte's. The sisters agreed to publish under pseudonyms and Charlotte arranged publication of The Poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell through Aylott & Jones, at the authors' expense. The cost of publication was 31 pounds, 10 shillings—about 3/4 of what Anne's annual salary had been as a governess. On May 7, 1846, the first three copies of the book were delivered to the Brontë home. The book received three somewhat favorable reviews and sold a total of two copies.

The sisters turned to writing novels. Charlotte's The Professor and Emily's Wuthering Heights reflected both Gothic and Romantic ideas. Anne was more of a realist and began Agnes Grey—based on her experience as a governess—with the words, "All true histories contain instruction."

The three manuscripts made the rounds of London publishers for a year. In the meantime, Charlotte wrote and published Jane Eyre (1847). Two months later, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were published, in December of 1847. Most of the reviewers' attention was given to Wuthering Heights and the wildly successful Jane Eyre.

Anne went ahead and wrote her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), which was an immediate success. The heroine, Helen Huntingdon, leaves her husband to protect their young son from his influence. She supports herself and her son by painting while living in hiding. In doing so, she violates social conventions and English law. At the time, a married woman had no independent legal existence apart from her husband. It was later said that the slamming of Helen Huntingdon's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.

In the second printing of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë responded to critics who said her portrayal of the husband was graphic and disturbing. She wrote, "Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts-this whispering "Peace, peace," when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience."

After Emily died in 1848, Anne took ill. She died of tuberculosis in May 1849. While on her deathbed, Anne's last words, whispered to Charlotte, were, "Take courage."

It's the birthday of Robert Cormier, born in Leominster, Massachusetts (1928). He wrote the bestseller The Chocolate War (1974), a young adult novel whose hero, Jerry Renault, has a poster in his locker reading, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" He refuses to sell chocolates during a school fundraiser and becomes a scapegoat for the anger of his schoolmates. He is intimidated by administrators and classmates and eventually, brutally beaten. The book opens with the words, "They murdered him."

The novel got great reviews when it was released, but because of its theme of nonconformity many attempts were made to ban the book. Parents said the swear words and content were inappropriate. Cormier spent much of his career defending The Chocolate War. The book was No. 5 on a list of the 50 most frequently banned books in the nation's public libraries and schools in the 1990's. Cormier said, "I think that a controversial book belongs in the classroom where it can be discussed, where a teacher can guide the students, where, in fact, a student can get up in class or write a paper saying that he or she doesn't like the book and objects to facets of it. That's the kind of freedom that we must preserve."

Cormier's other books include, I Am the Cheese (1977) and After the First Death (1979). He died in 2000 at age 75. His final novel, The Rag and Bone Shop (2001), about the brutal murder of a young girl, takes its name from a line in a poem by William Butler Yeats — "I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."

Cormier said, "I think all readers, young and old, in any place or time, want to be told a story, the thousand variations of "Once upon a time... Styles change, slang changes, the music they love changes — but the emotions of childhood and adolescence never change."

It's the birthday of poet William Edgar Stafford, born in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1914, the same year as American poets Weldon Kees and Randall Jarrell and John Berryman. Among his best-known books are The Rescued Year (1966), Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (1977), Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation (1978), and An Oregon Message (1987).

Stafford received a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Kansas at Lawrence and, in 1954, a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. During the Second World War, he was a conscientious objector by refusing to be inducted into the U. S. Army. From 1940-1944 he was interned as a pacifist in civilian public service camps in Arkansas and California where he fought fires and built roads. He wrote about the experience in the 94-page prose memoir Down In My Heart (1947) which opens with the question, "When are men dangerous?"

In 1948 Stafford moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College. His first major collection of poems, Traveling Through the Dark (1962), was published when Stafford was forty-eight. It won the National Book Award for poetry in 1963. He said, "At the moment of writing... the poet does sometimes feel that he is accomplishing an exhilarating, a wonderful, a stupendous job; he glimpses at such times how it might be to overwhelm the universe by rightness, to do something peculiarly difficult to such a perfection that something like a revelation comes. For that instant, conceiving is knowing; the secret life in language reveals the very self of things."

Stafford usually wrote in the early morning. He sat down with a pen and paper, took a look out the window and waited for something to occur to him. He wrote about simple things like farms and dead deer and winter. He wrote about the West and his parents and cottonwood trees. He wrote, "In the winter, in the dark hours, when others / were asleep, I found these words and put them / together by their appetites and respect for / each other. In stillness, they jostled. They traded / meanings while pretending to have only one."

Stafford served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1970, a post now designated "American Poet Laureate." He published more than sixty-five volumes of poetry and prose. He was a professor of English at Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon, until his retirement in 1990. He died on August 28, 1993 at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

About his own works, Stafford once commented, "I have woven a parachute out of everything broken."

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