Jan. 31, 2005

A Poison Tree

by William Blake

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Poem: "A Poison Tree" by William Blake.

A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears
Night and morning with my tears,
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright,
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine, —
And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of John O'Hara, author of many novels and short stories, born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania 100 years ago today (1905). He is well-known for the "Pal Joey" stories. Of them, O'Hara said, "They're about a guy who is master of ceremonies in cheap night clubs, and the pieces are in the form of letters from him to a successful band leader."

O'Hara was deeply influenced by his upbringing in Pottsville, especially by the fact that those of Irish descent, like the O'Haras, were not welcome in parts of town dominated by Protestants. O'Hara desperately wanted to attend Yale and receive an Ivy League education like those Protestants he despised, but the sudden death of his father made that impossible. Instead, O'Hara became a reporter for the Pottsville Journal before leaving town. He first moved to Chicago and worked as a boat steward, a soda jerk, an amusement park guard and a freight clerk for the railroad. It was during this difficult time that O'Hara began to drink heavily, a problem he would have throughout much of his life.

When O'Hara moved to New York City, he began to have some success as a writer. He began writing for the Daily Mirror, and even became a radio columnist under the pseudonym "Franey Delaney." O'Hara then had a story accepted for publication in the New Yorker and that encouraged him to write more stories and begin a novel. O'Hara eventually published dozens of stories in the New Yorker.

O'Hara's first novel was Appointment in Samarra (1934), and it was met with critical praise and strong sales. The novel is set in the fictional city of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania—inspired by O'Hara's own home town—and the story is set against the tensions between Irish Catholics and Protestants. This theme reflected O'Hara's own youth, and it dominated many of his short stories and novels.

O'Hara was hired as a screenwriter for Warner Bros., mainly because of his gift for writing smooth dialogue, and he lived in Los Angeles on several different occasions. He also wrote several more novels, including Ten North Frederick (1955), which won a National Book Award but was banned for obscenity in Detroit and Albany.

O'Hara did not win many awards for his work, a fact which bothered him, but he took great pride that his books were regulars on best-seller lists. And so he said, "You must not expect modesty from me. I am just as aware as anyone else that my books have sold something like 15 million copies, and I could not have attained that circulation if I had not been readable."

John O'Hara said, "They say great themes make great novels... but what these young writers don't understand is that there is no greater theme than men and women."

It's the birthday of Norman Mailer, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1923). Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead (1948), considered one of the best novels about World War II, and helped found The Village Voice, an independent weekly newspaper in New York City. He is the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.

Mailer was considered very bright as a young boy, and he had so much energy that it was necessary to keep him occupied at all times. According to a story, one summer Mailer's mother handed her son a pad and paper and said, "Here, write something." He wrote his first story at 10 years old. It was called "The Martian Invasion" and reached 35,000 words in length.

Mailer entered Harvard University when he was just sixteen, where he studied aeronautical engineering. He also wrote a short story called "The Greatest Thing in the World," which won Story magazine's undergraduate prize, and he also wrote a lot of fiction in the style of Ernest Hemingway.

Mailer graduated from Harvard in 1943 and found himself in the Army, fighting in World War II, less than a year later. He served as a rifleman with a reconnaissance platoon in the Philippine mountains and, while there, got the idea for his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. He wrote that novel after he was discharged, and it made him famous.

Norman Mailer said, "The final purpose of art is to intensify, even, if necessary, to exacerbate, the moral consciousness of people."

Mailer was also interested in journalism, and in 1954 he helped found The Village Voice, and wrote a weekly column for a short time. Mailer was also one of the first to write in the style of "new journalism," which mixes autobiography with journalism. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his "new journalism" book The Armies of the Night (1968), a personalized account of the 1967 march on Washington, D.C., which Mailer participated in and was arrested for. Mailer has also written "interpretive biographies" of such people as Lee Harvey Oswald and the young Pablo Picasso.

And he said, "Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing."

It's the birthday of Thomas Merton, born in Prades, France (1915). Merton was a Trappist monk, but he was also the author of more than 50 books, 2,000 poems and a personal diary that spanned much of his lifetime.

Merton was educated in France and the United States before beginning his university career at Cambridge University. But he left after only one year and returned to America to attend Columbia University and live with his grandparents. Merton decided to write his master's thesis on William Blake, and he found himself deeply influenced by Blake. He converted to Christianity, and in 1941 he entered a Trappist abbey in Kentucky, where he remained for most of his life. In his diary from this time, Merton wrote, "Going to the Trappists is exciting. I return to the idea again and again: 'Give up everything, give up everything!'" Merton had become well-known throughout the world, in part because of his writing, in particular his autobiography The Seven Story Mountain (1948).

He said, "An author in a Trappist monastery is like a duck in a chicken coop. And he would give anything in the world to be a chicken instead of a duck."

Merton was also known for his dialogue with other faiths, and for advocating non-violence during race riots and the Vietnam War. Merton was encouraged to write at the abbey, but he was not allowed to leave. And so a new abbot allowed Merton to leave the abbey in 1968 for a tour of Asia, where he met the Dalai Lama, and where he died accidentally, touching an electric fan as he stepped from his bath.

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




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