Feb. 11, 2005

For My Daughter in Reply to a Question

by David Ignatow

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Poem: "For My Daughter in Reply to a Question" by David Ignatow, from Against the Evidence © Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England. Reprinted with permission.

For My Daughter in Reply to a Question

We're not going to die.
We'll find a way.
We'll breathe deeply
and eat carefully.
We'll think always on life.
There'll be no fading for you or for me.
We'll be the first
and we'll not laugh at ourselves ever
and your children will be my grandchildren.
Nothing will have changed
except by addition.
There'll never be another as you
and never another as I.
No one ever will confuse you
nor confuse me with another.
We will not be forgotten and passed over
and buried under the births and deaths to come.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of inventor Thomas (Alva) Edison, born in Milan, Ohio (1847). His best-known invention is the phonograph, and he's also known for his work on the light bulb.

Thomas Edison said, "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."

It's the birthday of novelist, short story writer, and editor Gordon Lish, born in Hewlett, New York (1934). He started off as an English teacher in San Mateo, California, but in 1966 he went to work as an editor for Educational Development Corporation. The first book published with his name on it was a fiction textbook that came with an audiotape of the authors reading their work. Lish wrote Dear Mr. Capote (1983), a novel where the main character is a serial murderer that lives next door to writer Truman Capote. The whole book is a letter to Capote demanding a book contract and a film deal or else the murderer will kill again. Lish said, "My sentences are all I have. My life has always been an engagement with words. I do not have very much of a physical life. I write, I edit, I teach. And in all of these activities the focus of my attention is sentences. Sentences are continuous with my inmost being."

It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Sidney Sheldon, born in Chicago, Illinois (1917). Sheldon won a scholarship to Northwestern University after graduating from high school, but he had to drop out because of money problems made worse by the great Depression. He tried different jobs before moving to New York City to start a songwriting career, but that never worked out. He moved to Hollywood six months later, this time determined to be a screenwriter. He was hired by Universal Studios to read and summarize incoming scripts, and he turned in his own scripts in his spare time. His first major movie screenplay was The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1937). The film starred Cary Grant, and it won an Oscar™ for best original screenplay. Sheldon created both NBC's I Dream Of Jeannie and ABC's The Patty Duke Show. He produced both shows, and wrote almost all of the scripts himself under a pseudonym.

Sheldon's novel The Other Side of Midnight (1974) stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for a year. All of his books have made millions of dollars since then, and he was mentioned in the 1997 Guinness Book of World Records as the most translated author in the world. His books are sold in over 180 countries and in 51 languages.

It was on this day in 1778 that Voltaire returned to Paris after living in exile for 28 years. He was 83 years old when he returned, and it would be Voltaire's last trip. He came back to France for the staging of his latest play, Irene (1778), but the excitement and work of putting on the play brought on illness and he died there. When he came back to Paris he was given a hero's welcome by the Academy, and he met Benjamin Franklin. He was still a bit out of favor with the Court because of his satirical writings. He was able to see Irene staged before he died, and he was crowned with laurels in the box where he sat the night he went to the theater to watch it. The audience cheered for him as if he were a national hero. He said, "Life is thickly sown with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to pass quickly through them. The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us."

Voltaire is considered one of the most important figures in eighteenth century Enlightenment and his ideas were important to the French Revolution. He was taught by Jesuits and he studied law, but he thought that law was boring and started writing, even after his father warmed him that there was no money in writing.

He was sent to prison in the Bastille for ridiculing the regent, the Duc d'Orléans, from 1717 to 1718, and it was there that he rewrote his tragedy Oedipus (1718). It was also in prison where he took on the name Voltaire. His real name was Francois Marie Arouet. He said, "One great use of words is to hide our thoughts."

The play Oedipus made him famous, but it also made him many enemies in the French Court, and he was forced to go into exile in England from 1726 to 1729. There he became friends with Alexander Pope and he studied English literature. He became interested in the philosophies of John Locke, and he became an expert in the ideas behind Isaac Newton's astronomical physics. Voltaire said, "Tyrants have always some slight shade of virtue; they support the laws before destroying them." He also said, "We have a natural right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk and hazard."

Voltaire began his long absence from France in 1750 when Frederick II invited him to Berlin. He was made the King's chamberlain and paid 20,000 francs, and he got to live in one of the royal palaces. But Voltaire wrote satirical criticisms of Pierre de Maupertuis, a French scientist favored by Frederick, and Voltaire left Berlin in March on 1753. They never met again. Voltaire said, "The progress of rivers to the ocean is not so rapid as that of man to error."

Voltaire went to Geneva and finally settled in Ferney, a city four miles away, in 1758. He lived in Ferney until his return to Paris in 1778. It was there that he published his best-known work, a satirical short story titled "Candide" (1759). He also built a private theater there, and established a model community where all its citizens worked in useful industries.

While away from France, Voltaire also put together a library of over 7,500 reference books. The whole library was later moved to St. Petersburg, completely intact. He said, "The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all."

Voltaire's many tragedies were the basis for over 70 operas from that time. His poems, comedies, novels, and other works, taken altogether with his tragedies, inspired more operas than any other writer, with only the exception of Shakespeare. Voltaire said, "Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well."

Voltaire was denied burial in church ground because of his criticisms of the church. He was secretly buried somewhere near Troyes. His body was moved in 1791 with national honors to the Pantheon in Paris, along with Rousseau. Voltaire's last words were, "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition."

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