Jan. 31, 2006

Giving Up Smoking

by Wendy Cope

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Poem: "Giving Up Smoking" by Wendy Cope from Making Cocoa for Kingsly Amis. © Faber and Faber. Reprinted with permission.

Giving Up Smoking

There's not a Shakespeare sonnet
Or a Beethoven quartet
That's easier to like than you
Or harder to forget.

You think that sounds extravagant?
I haven't finished yet—
I like you more than I would like
To have a cigarette.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1865 that the House of Representatives passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery by just two votes. Representative Cornelius Cole from California wrote to his wife, "We can now look other nations in the face without shame. ... The one question of the age is settled. Glory enough for one session, yes, even for a life."

It's the birthday of short-story writer and novelist John O'Hara, born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (1905). He got a job as a newspaper reporter and started writing fiction on the side. His upbringing had made him very sensitive to social distinctions and he began to write fiction that examined in precise detail the way people dressed, the way they talked, what kinds of cars they drove and what schools they went to.

He went on to become one of the most popular serious writers of his lifetime writing many best-selling novels including Appointment in Samarra (1934) and A Rage to Live (1949). Most critics consider his best work to be his short stories, which were published as The Collected Stories of John O'Hara (1984). He holds the record for the greatest number of short stories published by a single author in New Yorker magazine, more than three hundred.

It's the birthday of Norman Mailer, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1923). He was an engineering student at Harvard when he was drafted into the army in 1944 and he served in the Philippines and Japan until 1946. After his discharge he moved to New York City and spent fifteen months writing a novel about the war called The Naked and the Dead (1948).

That book became the definitive literary novel about World War II and it made Norman Mailer famous at the age of 25. It begins, "Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach. ... All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead."

Mailer also helped invent a new style of journalism in which the journalist himself was a character in his own stories. He wrote about political conventions, boxing matches, protest rallies and the space program. He would include himself in the story and write about himself in the third person, often exposing his own faults in the process.

In his book The Armies of the Night (1968), he describes his experience of getting up at a protest rally and giving a drunken speech about his trip to the bathroom, and how the audience booed him and shouted that he get off the stage. He wrote, "[Mailer] did not have a notion of what he would say next, but it never occurred to him that something would not come. His impatience, his sorrow, his jealousy were gone, he just wanted to live on the edge of that rhetorical sword he would soon try to run through the heart of the audience." The Armies of the Night won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

He went on to win a second Pulitzer Prize for his nonfiction novel The Executioner's Song (1979). His most recent book is The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing (2003).

Norman Mailer once wrote of himself, "[The] warrior ... embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world, wise father of six children, radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hardworking author, champion of obscenity ... amiable bar drinker, and much exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter ... had ... a fatal taint, a last remaining speck of the one personality he found absolutely insupportable—the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn."

It's the birthday of Thomas Merton, born in Prades, France (1915). Merton was a Trappist monk, but he was also the author of more than fifty books, two thousand poems and his autobiography The Seven Story Mountain (1948).

It's the birthday of novelist Kenzaburo Oe, born on the island of Shikoku, Japan (1935). He fell in love with Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn (1885). He's best known for his novel A Personal Matter (1964), about a father struggling to love his deformed son. He went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.

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