Aug. 31, 2005

At the Algonquin

by Howard Moss

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Poem: "At the Algonquin," by Howard Moss, from New Selected Poems © Atheneum. Reprinted with permission.

At the Algonquin

He sat at the Algonquin, smoking a cigar.
A coffin of a clock bonged out the time.
She was ten minutes late. But in that time,
He puffed the blue eternity of his cigar.

Did she love him still? His youth was gone.
Humiliation's toad, with its blank stares
Squatted on his conscience. When they went upstairs,
Some version of them both would soon be gone.

Before that, though, drinks, dinner, and a play—
The whole demanding, dull expense account
You paid these days for things of no account.
Whatever love may be, it's not child's play.

Slowly she walked toward him. God, we are
Unnatural animals! The scent of roses
Filled the room above the carpet's roses,
And, getting up, he said, "Ah, there you are!"

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer William Saroyan, born 1908 in Fresno, California, best known for his work that came out during the Depression—humorous short stories about the joys of life in the midst of poverty and hardship. His first collection was published in 1931, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and in the preface he offered this advice to young writers: "Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough." In the '30s and '40s he published several more collections and novels, such as The Human Comedy and My Name is Aram, most of them autobiographical and set in small-town California. Saroyan's parents had fled Armenia and settled in Fresno around the turn of the century, and when Saroyan died in 1981 a portion of his ashes were sent to Armenia. The rest are in Fresno. Shortly before, Saroyan wrote this about the Armenians: "I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia."

It's the birthday of William Shawn, 1907, Chicago, The New Yorker's editor from 1952 to 1987. The last of the great line editors who oversaw the editing, line by line, of every piece he published, even those by famous writers. He published J. D. Salinger, Truman Capote, Pauline Kael, E.B. White, Milan Kundera, Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Philip Roth, Jamaica Kincaid, and dozens of others. He was an anonymous man, and rarely gave interviews or let himself be photographed; people who worked with him for decades knew little more about him than that he was born in Chicago.

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