Apr. 16, 2005

Waiting for Icarus

by Muriel Rukeyser

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Poem: "Waiting for Icarus" by Muriel Rukeyser, from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. © International Creative Management, Inc.

Waiting for Icarus

He said he would be back and we'd drink wine together
He said that everything would be better than before
He said we were on the edge of a new relation
He said he would never again cringe before his father
He said that he was going to invent full-time
He said he loved me that going into me
He said was going into the world and the sky
He said all the buckles were very firm
He said the wax was the best wax
He said Wait for me here on the beach
He said Just don't cry

I remember the gulls and the waves
I remember the islands going dark on the sea
I remember the girls laughing
I remember they said he only wanted to get away from me
I remember mother saying    :    Inventors are like poets,
         a trashy lot
I remember she told me those who try out inventions are worse
I remember she added    :    Women who love such are the
    Worst of all
I have been waiting all day, or perhaps longer.
I would have liked to try those wings myself.
It would have been better than this.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the filmmaker and actor Charlie Chaplin, born in London (1889).

He started out as a vaudeville actor in a comedy troupe. He and his fellow actors would rehearse for hours before each performance, performing their slapstick routines with meticulous attention to details. He was playing the role of a drunk when a filmmaker in the audience saw his act and asked him to come to Hollywood to be in movies.

When Chaplin arrived in Hollywood, he was shocked to see how little rehearsal went into each movie. Hollywood directors at the time filmed each scene in a single take, refusing to waste money on extra film. Chaplin tried to get used to the Hollywood style, and he took all the jobs he could get, saving almost all the money he made. But he was disgusted at the quality of the movies. The camera often wasn't pointed in the right direction to capture his movements, and many of his favorite moments ended up on the cutting room floor. At the end of five months, he asked the producer if he could direct his own movie, and he put up $1,500 of his own savings as a guarantee against losses.

That year, 1914, Chaplin directed, wrote, and starred in 16 films in six months. It was that year that he debuted his most famous character: the "little tramp," who's always beaten down by life, always the butt of the jokes, but who never gives up his optimism. Chaplin saw the character as a bum who dreams he is a gentleman. He said, "That is why, no matter how desperate the predicament is, I am always very much in earnest about clutching my cane, straightening my derby hat and fixing my tie, even though I have just landed on my head."

The little tramp character was so successful that Chaplin became the first person to have complete control over every aspect of the movies he made. He was an obsessive perfectionist, and pioneered the use of retakes, shooting each one of his scenes multiple times to make sure he got it right. He spent two weeks filming a single scene in The Kid (1920), in which the small boy stirs pancakes while his adoptive father watches. He ultimately shot 300,000 feet of film to make The Kid, and only used 5,000 feet of it for the final product.

Other Hollywood executives thought he was crazy. But he was the most successful filmmaker in the world for more than 10 years, until the introduction of sound.

He was the last major filmmaker to make silent movies. Two of his greatest films City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) were made after the debut of talkies in 1927. His only concession to sound in those films was the use of a musical soundtrack and some sound effects.

Charlie Chaplin said, "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot."

It's the birthday of the novelist Anatole France, born in Paris (1844). He was one of the most popular French writers at the turn of the 20th century, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921. But after his death, his reputation as a writer went down hill because his work had been so traditional. Though he wrote mostly historical and social novels, today he's best remembered for his one fantasy novel Penguin Island (1909), about the epic history of an imaginary penguin civilization.

Anatole France said, "Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are those which people have lent me."

It's the birthday of the playwright John Millington Synge, born in a small village near Dublin (1871). He's known for the plays he wrote in the last few years of his life, including In the Shadow of the Glen (1903) and Riders to the Sea (1904), about a tiny remote island he visited off the coast of Ireland where people still spoke the Irish language, and Irish culture had gone on unaffected by British rule for centuries.

His plays were incredibly controversial, because he refused to portray the Irish with nobility and decorum, which was the custom at the time. His Irish characters swore and cheated, and in one play they even beat up a priest. The audience at his plays often made so much noise that the performance couldn't continue. His play, The Playboy of the Western World (1907) sparked riots and later had to be performed with police in the audience. But it went on to become a classic of Irish theater.

John Millington Synge wrote, "In Ireland, for a few years more, we have a popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent, and tender; so that those of us who wish to write start with a chance that is not given to writers in places where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten, and the harvest is a memory only, and the straw has been turned into bricks."

It's the birthday of the comic novelist Kingsley Amis, born in London (1922). He was a student at Oxford when he met Philip Larkin who would become his closest friend for the rest of his life. They shared a love of jazz and hatred of pretentious literature. It was Larkin who encouraged Amis' genius for mimicry, and Amis became famous at campus parties for doing impressions of professors, classmates, and even fictional characters.

At first, it was Philip Larkin who wanted to be a novelist and Amis wanted to be a poet. But after Amis moved to Wales and got a job as a professor, he began sending comic descriptions of his campus life to Larkin, and Larkin helped him turn those sketches his first novel: Lucky Jim (1954). It was one of the first modern "campus novels," and is generally considered one of the funniest novels in British literature.

Lucky Jim was controversial when it was first published, because it's about a young assistant professor named Jim Dixon, who has worked his way up from poverty with a good education, but who has no desire to become a gentleman. He never reads any of the books he's supposed to teach, thinks the articles he's publishing are worthless, spends all his time ignoring the pretentious professors who surround him on the faculty and fantasizes about murdering them.

Amis wrote, "Dixon pretended to himself that he'd pick up his professor round the waist, squeeze the furry grey-blue waistcoat against him to expel the breath, run heavily with him up the steps, along the corridor to the Staff Cloakroom, and plunge the too-small feet in their capless shoes into a lavatory basin, pulling the plug once, twice, and again, stuffing the mouth with toilet paper."

Lucky Jim also contains one of the most detailed descriptions of a hangover in western literature. Amis wrote, "Dixon woke up Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again."

Amis went on to wrote many novels about men who try to be polite and courteous and mild-mannered, even though the world is driving them crazy. His novel The Russian Girl (1994) is about a man who tries to ignore his wife's pretentious accent. He wrote, "After a time he had stopped noticing it at all more than a couple of times a day, and for years had given up speculating what speech-sounds she might make if, for example, he were to creep up behind her and fire a loaded revolver past her ear."

Kingsley Amis said, "If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing."

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