Oct. 15, 2005

White Towels

by Richard Jones

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Poem: "White Towels" by Richard Jones from The Blessing: New and Selected Poems. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.

White Towels

I have been studying the difference
between solitude and loneliness,
telling the story of my life
to the clean white towels taken warm from the dryer.
I carry them through the house
as though they were my children
asleep in my arms.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the Roman poet Virgil, born Publius Vergilius Maro near Mantua, Italy (70 B.C.). His father was a peasant, a farm worker who married the boss's daughter. So the boy, Virgil, was sent off to Milan, Rome, and Naples for his education. He missed the countryside, so he came back to the family farm and wrote poetry.

He lived at a time of civil wars, and his first collection of poems, known as the Eclogues, about farmers and shepherds and the rural landscape, was very popular because it reminded people of a simpler time before things had gotten so bad. At the request of the government, he wrote poems to persuade Romans to go back to the countryside and to work the land again. He wrote four volumes of these poems about agriculture, known as The Georgics, and they offered instruction in farming, animal husbandry, and beekeeping.

The emperor Augustus was so impressed by Virgil's work that he gave Virgil two villas to live in and a stipend to live on for the rest of his days. And so Virgil set out to write an epic poem which he called The Aeneid, which told the story of Aeneas, one of the soldiers in the Trojan War, traveling home from Troy to found a new city that would become Rome.

Virgil worked on it for 11 years. He took a trip to Greece so he could pick up some details for one of the sections of the poem. On the voyage he caught a fever, came back to Italy, and died before the poem was completed.

It's the birthday of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, born in Prussia (1844).

It's the birthday of the novelist P.G. Wodehouse, (Pelham Grenville Wodehouse), born in Guildford, England (1881). His father was a magistrate in Hong Kong. His mother traveled back and forth between England and Hong Kong, so Wodehouse was raised by a series of aunts. He wanted desperately to go to college, but his father went bankrupt and couldn't pay for his education. Wodehouse got a job as a bank clerk instead and started writing humorous stories and poems on the side.

It was as a journalist that Wodehouse first came to the United States—to cover a boxing match—and he fell in love with America right away. He said, "Being [in America] was like being in heaven without going to all the bother and expense of dying."

He moved to Greenwich Village in 1909 and started to write stories for the Saturday Evening Post about an imaginary cartoonish England, full of very polite but brain-dead aristocrats such as Bertie Wooster, who was looked after by his butler Jeeves. The first Jeeves book, My Man Jeeves, came out in 1919, and it was followed by many others.

People who knew P.G. Wodehouse said that he was incredibly dull in person, not a funny man at all, and did not seem to have any emotions. But he authored some of the funniest books in the English language.

P.G. Wodehouse wrote, "It was a confusion of ideas between him and one of the lions he was hunting in Kenya that had caused A.B. Spottsworth to make the obituary column. He thought the lion was dead, and the lion thought it wasn't."

It's the birthday of the novelist Italo Calvino, born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba (1923), who edited the anthology Italian Folktales.

It's the birthday of the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., born in Columbus, Ohio (1917), author of The Age of Jackson and A Thousand Days, who said in his autobiography that "People are likely to have read most of the books they're ever going to read by the time they're 25."

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