Feb. 1, 2005

The Sow Piglet's Escape

by Galway Kinnell

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Poem: "The Sow Piglet's Escapes" by Galway Kinnell, from Three Books. © Houghton Mifflin. Reprinted with permission.

The Sow Piglet's Escapes

When the little sow piglet squirmed free,
Gus and I ran her all the way down to the swamp
and lunged and floundered and fell full-length
on our bellies stretching for her, and got her,
and lay there, all three shining with swamp slime,
she yelping, I laughing, Gus gasping and gasping.
It was then I knew he would die soon.
She made her second escape on the one day
when she was big enough to dig an escape hole
and still small enough to squeeze through it.
Every day I took a bucket of meal up to her plot
of rooted-up ground in the woods, until
one day there she stood, waiting for me,
the wild beast evidently all mealed out of her.
She trotted over and let me stroke her back
and, dribbling corn down her chin, put up her little worried face
as if to remind me not to forget to recapture her,
though, really, a pig's special alertness to death
ought to have told her: in Sheffield the dolce vita
leads to the Lyndonville butcher. When I seized her
she wriggled hard and cried oui oui oui all the way home.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Galway Kinnell, born in Providence, Rhode Island (1927). He says he realized the music in language early on through listening to the rhythm of his mother's Irish accent. His Selected Poems (1980) won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He received letters, phone calls, and telegrams from people all over the world congratulating him, most of them from people he had never met. He was so moved by a letter from the widow of his best friend from childhood that he carried the letter around with him in his wallet.

He said, "What troubles me is a sense that so many things lovely and precious in our world seem to be dying out. Perhaps poetry will be the canary in the mine-shaft warning us of what's to come." He also said, "Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can."

It is the birthday of poet and novelist Langston Hughes, born in Joplin, Missouri (1902). He was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance and he wrote over 50 books in his lifetime. He was also a journalist. His first assignment came in 1937, when he worked as the Madrid correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American during the Spanish Civil War.

Hughes went on to write a witty column for the black weekly Chicago Defender from 1942 until 1965, which took what he called a "laugh to keep from crying" approach to looking at racial intolerance. Hughes said, "Humor is laughing at what you haven't got when you ought to have it."

It's the birthday of novelist, critic and BBC Radio personality Stephen Potter, born in London, England (1900). He wrote several humorous books about how to outwit other people, including the book The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating (1947).

He said, "My first novel, The Young Man, had no plot, no characters, and no action (all this seemed O.K. in 1928)." He wrote while pacing up and down, and he claimed to have invented the word "gamesmanship" and the term "Eng Lit," defining it as "the racket, the flummery, the techniques and the gambits of English Literature teaching." He said, "If you have nothing to say, or, rather, something extremely stupid and obvious, say it, but in a 'plonking' tone of voice—roundly, but hollowly and dogmatically."

It's the birthday of novelist Muriel Spark, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1918). She's best known for her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), which was later turned into a play. She began writing stories as a child, and she wrote love letters to herself, signing them with fake men's names and hiding them in the family couch for her mother to find. When she was a teenager, if she came home after 10 o'clock, her dad would wait for her at the front door dressed as a ghost and making spooky noises to scare her.

She said, "I see no reason to keep silent about my enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work." She also said, "When a noble life has prepared old age, it is not decline that it reveals, but the first days of immortality."

It's the birthday of aviator and novelist Charles Nordhoff, born in London, England (1887) to American parents. He served as an ambulance driver in France during World War I, and later as a pilot in the French Air Service. He wrote about his experience in France during the war in articles for the Atlantic.

Nordhoff wrote only three novels on his own during the mid-1920s. Most of his writing was done in collaboration with his friend and fellow pilot James Norman Hall. The two men co-authored a book about their flying unit right after the war, and then they both moved to Tahiti with an advance from Harper's to write travel articles about the South Pacific. Together they wrote their most successful work, a three-volume piece about the late 18th century mutiny aboard the H.M.S. Bounty. The trilogy sold millions of copies, and the books were made into films in 1935, 1962, and 1984. The best-known book from the trilogy is Mutiny on the Bounty (1932).

Nordhoff and Hall worked very closely when they wrote. They usually tackled separate chapters, but would often write single paragraphs together. They wrote three more historical and adventure novels after the success of the Bounty trilogy before Nordhoff left Tahiti in 1941.

He said, "Anthropology interests me more than anything else; if I had my life to live over, I should do the necessary groundwork and become a professional anthropologist." Nordhoff committed suicide in 1947. At the time of his death he was working on another collaborative novel with Tod Ford.

It's the birthday of humorist S(idney) J(oseph) Perelman, born in Brooklyn, New York (1904). He's best known for his collaboration with the Marx Brothers on the film comedies Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), and for his Academy Award™-winning screenplay, Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). He also wrote for the New Yorker.

Perelman was raised in Rhode Island and attended Brown University in 1921. He had a hard time fitting in with the school's fraternity scene because he was disliked for being Jewish and from a lower-middle-class background. He ended up becoming close friends with another literary-minded student who would later come to be known as the novelist Nathanael West. West became Perelman's brother-in-law when he married West's sister, Laura, in 1929.

Perelman loved playing with words. He was greatly influenced by James Joyce. Perelman often parodied Joyce's steam of consciousness style, and he had a habit of mixing in obscure words and references. Perelman's last piece for the New Yorker was even titled "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cat's Paw" (1979). He wrote his own introduction for his book The Best of S. J. Perelman (1947) under the pseudonym Sidney Namlerep (Perelman backwards).

The names of Perelman's characters and titles of his pieces came from what he called his "lifetime devotion to puns." He carried clippings that he tore out from newspapers in his pockets, his favorite being articles with people that had funny or complicated names. He had an airmail subscription to the London Times and read it every day, because he thought the names in that paper were more unusual than those in American papers.

Perelman wrote in Hollywood for 11 years, but he was happier with his career writing for the New Yorker, and his pieces were collected in books like Strictly from Hunger (1937).

After his wife died in 1970, he traveled and wrote, lived for a time in London, and finally came back to Manhattan, living at the Gramercy Park Hotel. He always wore a pair of oval, steel-rimmed glasses that he found in Paris in 1927. He said, "I'm highly irritable and my senses bruise easily, and when they are bruised I write."

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