Oct. 17, 2005

To a Skylark

by Kate Barnes

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Poem: "To a Skylark" by Kate Barnes from Kneeling Orion. © David R Godine. Reprinted with permission.

To a Skylark

The fervor of images. The rising poet
on a reading tour of American colleges
spending an impulsive night in bed
with one of his listeners, a woman student
on a scholarship. She was, he felt,
lucky, really,
to get the chance, privileged,
if his poetry meant anything like as much to her
as she said it did.
                      Next morning,
after the poet had flown back to his wife
and young family, the student gave up
her scholarship, sold her books and computer,
and cleaned out her savings. She believed
every word the god had spoken, and she used
her last penny to fly off to England
after him.
           How was it
exactly, I wonder, when she knocked
at the door of that artfully restored
stone cottage? The taxi drove away; the morning
grew very still. She heard a skylark
singing, for the first time in her life,
as she waited on the doorstep, rehearsing
her greetings. What did busy Mrs. Poet
say when she finally answered
the knock? And what did Mrs. Poet
tell her husband, later? Who paid
for the return flight of a young woman
much richer, now, in experience, if poorer
by the loss of almost everything
she owned? How long
was the incident discussed
in the poetic household?
                                            But there's nothing unusual
in this story - is there? - it's been like that
forever, women immolating themselves
in the flames of art - I suppose
it's art - and poets
needing someone on hand to defend them
from the words they mutter when they have no idea
what they're saying, when they're overcome
by the fumes that rise from the smoldering tinder
of their anxious natures.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein in New York City (1904). He was the son of a Jewish immigrant who became a wealthy building contractor.

He went off to college and then got a job managing a hotel in New York City where he met a woman who wrote an advice column for the paper. She showed him a few of the letters she had gotten from readers. She thought he'd find them funny; instead, he was heartbroken at how desperate these people were. He wrote his first novel Miss Lonely Hearts, which came out in 1933, about an advice columnist overwhelmed by the sadness of the people who write to him. The book got great reviews, but within weeks the publishing house went bankrupt.

Nathanael West next wrote a parody of Horatio Alger novels called A Cool Million. It didn't sell. He decided to move to Hollywood. He stayed there for a few years, couldn't find a job, but he got to know people who lived on the margin of Hollywood, people who'd hoped they'd make it as movie stars and failed. He wrote a novel about them called The Day of the Locust, now considered one of the best novels ever written about Hollywood.

Nathanael West became a friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was in Hollywood trying to make it at the same time. And it was one day after the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald that Nathanael West and his wife were killed in a car crash. West was 37 years old.

It's the birthday of Arthur Miller, born in New York City (1915), whose play Death of a Salesman, first staged in 1949, has become one of the most widely produced plays in the world, particularly popular in China and Japan.

It's the birthday of Jimmy Breslin, born in Jamaica, New York (1930), the newspaper columnist for the Daily News and novelist, author of The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez.

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