Apr. 13, 2005

The Old Pilot

by Donald Hall

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Poem: "The Old Pilot" by Donald Hall, from Old and New Poems. © Houghton-Mifflin. Reprinted with permission.

The Old Pilot

He discovers himself on an old airfield.
He thinks he was there before,
but rain has washed out the lettering of a sign.
A single biplane, all struts and wires,
stands in the long grass and wildflowers.
He pulls himself into the narrow cockpit
although his muscles are stiff
and sits like an egg in a nest of canvas.
He sees that the machine gun has rusted.
The glass over the instruments
has broken, and the red arrows are gone
from his gas gauge and his altimeter.
When he looks up, his propeller is turning,
although no one was there to snap it.
He lets out the throttle. The engine catches
and the propeller spins into the wind.
He bumps over holes in the grass,
and he remembers to pull back on the stick.
He rises from the land in a high bounce
which gets higher, and suddenly he is flying again.
He feels the old fear, and rising over the fields
the old gratitude. In the distance, circling
in a beam of late sun like birds migrating,
there are the wings of a thousand biplanes.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer Eudora Welty, born in Jackson, Mississippi (1909). Her mother was a schoolteacher, and Welty learned to love books before she was even able to read them. She said, "It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass."

She tried working in advertising but said, "It was too much like sticking pins into people to make them buy things they didn't need or really want." So she became a writer.

Though she wrote several novels, including The Optimist's Daughter (1972), she's best known for her short stories in collections such as The Wide Net (1943) and The Golden Apples (1949). She wrote and rewrote, revising her stories by cutting them apart with scissors at the dining-room table and reassembling them with straight pins.

Her story "Why I Live At the PO" begins, "I was getting along fine with Mama, Pap-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whitaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared here in China Grove, taking 'Pose Yourself' photos, and Stella-Rondo broke us up. Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I'm the same. Stella-Rondo is exactly twelve months to the day younger than I am and for that reason she's spoiled."

A critic once asked Welty to explain where she got the idea for a marble cake in one of her stories. She replied, "It's a recipe that's been in my family for some time."

It's the birthday of the playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett, born in a rich suburb of Dublin, Ireland called Foxrock (1906). His mother was a tall, strict woman, famous in her neighborhood for her short temper. Beckett started rebelling against her at an early age by climbing trees and jumping out of them, spreading his arms to break his fall on the branches.

He moved to Paris and became one of James Joyce's assistants and disciples. He wanted badly to write like Joyce, but he had little success. He was struggling to support himself as a translator and miserable about his failures as a writer, when one day he was attacked and stabbed in the chest by a pimp, the knife barely missing his heart.

Word spread that he was in the hospital, and a surprising number of people came to visit him. He didn't know he had so many friends. James Joyce brought him yellow roses and Nora Joyce baked him a custard pudding. Even the Irish ambassador came. One of his visitors was a French woman named Suzanne who had seen him give a lecture. She later became his wife.

Beckett got involved in the French Resistance during World War II, and he helped transmit secret messages across the boarder in packs of cigarettes. He had been struggling for years to write a novel, and the effort had only made him miserable, so in the midst of the war he decided to try playwriting. He said, "Life at the time was too demanding, too terrible, and I thought theatre would be a diversion."

Beckett never published the first play he wrote, but he began to use playwriting as a way to cheer himself up after he got blocked writing a novel. He was struggling with a new play just after the war was over, so he decided to write another play. As an exercise, he made it as simple as possible: it would be a play about two men, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for a man named Godot, who never arrives. He finished it in just a few months, faster than he'd ever finished anything he'd ever written. And that was Waiting For Godot (1952), the play in which Beckett wrote, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!"

He didn't have much hope that it would ever be produced, but his wife thought it was a masterpiece, and she showed it to everyone involved with the theater that she could find. It was finally produced in 1953, and became an international sensation.

Samuel Beckett said, "I did not want to write, but I had to resign myself to it in the end."

He also said, "All I know is what the words know, and dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning and a middle and an end, as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead."

He also wrote, "I didn't invent this buzzing confusion. It's all around us...the only chance of renewal is to open our eyes and see the mess."

It's the birthday of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, born in Mossbawn, Northern Ireland (1939). He is the oldest of nine siblings. His father was a cattle dealer, and Heaney grew up in a three-room thatched farm. He said, "[It was] an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other."

Heaney began publishing poems in the 1960's about his childhood memories of ordinary things, like potatoes and bullfrogs. He received a letter from the editor of Faber & Faber asking if he'd like to publish a collection. Faber & Faber had published T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Robert Lowell, and Heaney said, "Getting that letter was like getting a letter from God the Father." That first collection was Death of a Naturalist (1966) and it made his name as a poet.

He continued to write beautiful poems about nature, but in 1969 violence broke out in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, and Heaney felt obligated to address the political situation in his books Wintering Out (1972) and In North (1975). After writing his first political poems, he said, "I felt that I had vindicated poetry in myself and vindicated the word 'poet' for myself, and when I stood up, it was with the full force of my being."

He's gone on to write many more books of poetry and prose, and in 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His most recent book of poetry is Electric Light (2001).

It's the birthday of the man who invented the game Scrabble. Alfred M. Butts was born in Poughkeepsie, New York (1899). He was an architect, but during the Depression he was out of a job and decided he'd invent an adult game. He classified games into three groups—chance, skill and a combination of both—and decided that the last was the most promising. He went methodically through the dictionary and several popular newspapers and counted by hand the frequency of letter usage to come up with the point value for each letter.

He trademarked the game in 1949. He had trouble selling it to major board game companies, but a friend of his decided to produce it on an assembly line in an abandoned schoolhouse. The first few years, only a few thousand copies of the game were sold, but in the 1950's the president of Macy's played the game on vacation and got hooked. He ordered more for his store, and Scrabble became a great success.

Alfred Butts enjoyed playing Scrabble with his wife, who was a good opponent. He said, "Nina knows more words and spells better than I, but my architectural training helps me to plan better." The game has been beloved by many writers, including the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who had a special Russian version made for himself and his wife.

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