Jul. 14, 2005


by Howard Nemerov

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Poem: "Dandelions" by Howard Nemerov, from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. © University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.


These golden heads, these common suns
Only less multitudinous
Than grass itself that gluts
The market of the world with green,
They shine as lovely as they're mean,
Fine as the daughters of the poor
Who go proudly in spangles of brass;
Light-headed, then headless, stalked for a salad.

Inside a week they will be seen
Stricken and old, ghosts in the field
To be picked up at the lightest breath,
With brazen tops all shrunken in
And swollen green gone withered white.
You'll say it's nature's price for beauty
That goes cheap; that being light
Is justly what makes girls grow heavy;
And that the wind, bearing their death,
Whispers the second kingdom come.
— You'll say, the fool of piety,
By resignations hanging on
Until, still justified, you drop.
But surely the thing is sorrowful,
At evening when the light goes out
Slowly, to see those ruined spinsters,
All down the field their ghostly hair,
Dry sinners waiting in the valley
For the last word and the next life
And the liberation from the lion's mouth.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote the first big cowboy novel, Owen Wister, born in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1860). He went to Harvard, studied music in Paris, and became a lawyer in Philadelphia. He became ill and needed to rest for the summer, and went to Wyoming and became fascinated by the Old West. He used that fascination to write The Virginian, which made the cowboy into an American literary hero and set the standard for all Western novels to come. It also made famous the line, "When you call me that, smile."

It's the birthday of Isaac Bashevis Singer, born in Leoncin, Poland (1904). His father was a sort of unofficial rabbi who counseled the people in his neighborhood, and Singer sat in the corner eavesdropping as they told his father their problems. His father was devout, but Singer's older brother was a free thinker. His father forbade him to read anything other than religious writings, but his older brother gave him a copy of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

Singer moved to New York City in 1935 and felt very homesick. He sat in cafeterias reading Yiddish newspapers and taking long walks. He got a job writing reviews for the Jewish Daily Forward in Yiddish. He wrote almost no fiction at all for almost 10 years because he felt he was living in the shadow of his brother who had also moved to New York and had become a successful writer.

In 1944, his brother died of a heart attack, and though it was a terrible misfortune for Singer, it also cured his writer's block. The result was his book, The Family Moskat (1950), the story of a Jewish family in Warsaw at the turn of the century.

Isaac Bashevis Singer's work was translated into English and soon had a much larger audience in English than he had in Yiddish. The Yiddish community to which he'd belonged came to see him as a sell-out. He went on to become one of the most popular writers of the 20th Century and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

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