Feb. 10, 2005

A Spiral Notebook

by Ted Kooser

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Poem: "A Spiral Notebook" by Ted Kooser, from Delights & Shadows © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.

A Spiral Notebook

The bright wire rolls like a porpoise
in and out of the calm blue sea
of the cover, or perhaps like a sleeper
twisting in and out of his dreams,
for it could hold a record of dreams
if you wanted to buy it for that
though it seems to be meant for
more serious work, with its
college-ruled lines and its cover
that states in emphatic white letters,
a part of growing old is no longer
to have five subjects, each
demanding an equal share of attention,
set apart by brown cardboard dividers,
but instead to stand in a drugstore
and hang on to one subject
a little too long, like this notebook
you weigh in your hands, passing
your fingers over its surfaces
as if it were some kind of wonder.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who gave us the novel Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, born in Moscow (1890). In Russia, Pasternak is best known for his poetry, and he was one of the few poets to flourish during the rule of Josef Stalin.

Pasternak wanted desperately to be a musician when he was a boy, and he spent six years studying music and composition. But, after all that time, he could hardly play the piano, and he even had difficulty reading music. He turned to poetry, and published his first collection of poems The Twin in the Clouds, in 1914. Pasternak still had difficulty supporting himself with writing alone, so he tutored the son of a Moscow industrialist for two years, and then he spent two winters in the Urals, doing clerical work in factories.

Many of Pasternak's friends were murdered during Stalin's purges, and it's not certain why Pasternak survived. Many people think he lived because he translated the poetry of Georgian writers admired by Stalin himself. He also translated the work of Shakespeare and several others during a time when the Soviet government would not let him publish his own writing.

Pasternak wrote Doctor Zhivago (1958) after Stalin's death. The book was not popular with Soviet authorities, and again Pasternak was not allowed to publish his writing in the Soviet Union. Pasternak eventually found a publisher in Italy. Despite serious efforts to suppress the novel's publication, Doctor Zhivago won international acclaim, and Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. He refused the honor, probably due to pressure from his government.

Boris Pasternak said, "What is laid down, ordered, factual is never enough to embrace the whole truth: life always spills over the rim of every cup."

It's the birthday of the English essayist Charles Lamb, born in London (1775). He is best known for essays he wrote under the pen name "Elia."

A family friend named Samuel Salt used his influence to gain Lamb entrance into Christ's Hospital, a prestigious school for boys. While there, Lamb met another boy named Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who would go on to become a famous poet. Coleridge later helped Lamb publish his first poem, and the two remained close friends throughout their lives.

Lamb's family had a history of mental illness, and Lamb himself was committed to an asylum for a short time. But it was his sister Mary who suffered from severe mental illness. One time, Mary grabbed a knife and chased a servant girl with it, then stabbed their parents. Their elderly father survived; their mother did not. Lamb was named his sister's guardian, and they would be constant companions for the rest of Lamb's life. Together, they would publish several children's books, including Tales from Shakespeare (1807).

Lamb was interested in joining the church in some way, but a speech impediment forced him to consider a different line of work. And so, Lamb worked for many years as a clerk in the accountant office of the East India Company. He found the work steady but dull, and it left very little energy for his literary interests. He called himself "a prisoner to the desk... almost grown to the wood." It was many years before his success as a writer allowed him to retire from his desk job.

In 1820, Lamb began publishing essays under a pseudonym in London Magazine, and he became well known for these essays. He would later collect these essays together in the book Essays of Elia (1823).

Charles Lamb said, "What is reading, but silent conversation."

It's the birthday of Bertolt Brecht, born Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht in Augsburg, Germany (1898). He is well known for his innovations in "epic theater," and for his plays Baal (1919) and Drums in the Night (1922), which were so controversial they caused riots at their openings. He also wrote political poetry. Brecht was also known for his unshaven face, and he was once barred from a reception held in his honor because of his disheveled appearance.

Brecht was fiercely nationalistic as a young man, but that changed during World War I. He worked for a brief time at a military hospital, and the experience was profound. Brecht said, "I saw with my own eyes how they patched up people so as to ship them back to the front as soon as possible." And so, Brecht wrote the poem "The Legend of the Dead Soldier," which was critical of this practice. It made him famous but eventually earned him a place on Hitler's blacklist.

Brecht came to believe that theater should cause rational reflection on the part of an audience, and not rouse emotional responses. And so, he developed ways to remind audiences that they were witnessing merely an imitation of life, not life itself. These techniques included having actors directly address the audience, exaggerated stage lighting, and placards used for explanation. Many of Brecht's innovations were absorbed into mainstream film and theater, and remain there today.

Brecht fled Germany when Hitler was voted into power. He lived in exile throughout the world, including on an island off the mainland of Denmark and in the United States. Brecht lived in Santa Monica, but he was virtually unknown in the United States, and so Brecht had difficulty getting his plays produced. After World War II, Brecht decided to live with his family in East Berlin, because Nazi officials held government posts in West Germany. Brecht kept his study on the second floor of their home, and there he would write, and look out the window at Dorotheen Cemetery, where Hegel, his favorite philosopher, was buried.

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