Mar. 1, 2006


by Howard Nemerov

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Poem: "Manners" by Howard Nemerov from Trying Conclusions. © University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.


Prig offered Pig the first chance at dessert,
So Pig reached out and speared the bigger part.

"Now that," cried Prig, "is extremely rude of you!"
Pig, with his mouth full, said, "Wha, wha' wou' 'ou do?"

"I would have taken the littler bit," said Prig.
"Stop kvetching, then, it's what you've got," said Pig.

           So virtue is its own reward, you see.
           And that is all it's ever going to be.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Hass, born in San Francisco, California (1941). He's the author of several collections of poetry, including Human Wishes (1989) and Sun Under Wood (1996), and he served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997.

Robert Hass said, "Everyone ... wants to say in their own terms what it means to be alive. Poetry is the most common way, because the material of poetry is the stream of language that is constantly going on in our heads. It's very low tech. Anyone can do it."

He also said, "Take the time to write. You can do your life's work in half an hour a day."

It's the birthday of poet Robert Lowell, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1917). He came from one of the most distinguished and famous families in Boston. He went to Harvard University as all his male ancestors had done, but he dropped out after two years, unsure of what to do with his life. He decided to devote his life to poetry under the mentorship of Allen Tate.

He wrote his early poems in the style of Milton, with elaborate meter and rhyme schemes, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his first major collection, Lord Weary's Castle (1946), which included poems about whale hunters and Napoleon. But after World War II, Lowell began to write more and more about himself and the people he knew, his relatives and friends, and the most ordinary details of his daily life. His collection Life Studies (1959) was one of the most baldly autobiographical collections of poetry ever published at that time. He was criticized at first for writing what was called "confessional poetry," but it quickly became the standard style of American poetry.

Lowell had an erratic life, suffering from manic depression and three difficult marriages. One of his few stable relationships was with his friend, the poet Elizabeth Bishop. After they met for the first time, Bishop said, "It was the first time I had ever actually talked with someone about how one writes poetry ... like exchanging recipes for making a cake."

It's the birthday of the poet Richard Wilbur, born in New York City (1921). He entered the military during World War II and was supposed to go into cryptography. But his superior officer thought he had dangerously radical ideas and reassigned him to the frontline infantry where he witnessed his fellow soldiers being machine-gunned around him or driven over by jeeps.

During lulls in the fighting, Wilbur sat in his foxhole reading Edgar Allan Poe and writing poems about the war. Those poems became his first book The Beautiful Changes (1947), and it was a big success. Ten years later, he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collection Things of this World.

Wilbur was one of America's leading poets at a time when most of America's poets were suffering from mental illness and alcoholism. While those other poets wrote about their madness in increasingly more experimental styles, Wilbur kept writing precise, rhythmical verse with meter and rhyme, living the life of a successful writer and literature professor. Of the major poets of his generation, he is one of the last still living and writing.

Richard Wilbur said, "I think that all poets are sending religious messages, because poetry is, in such great part, the comparison of one thing to another ... and to insist, as all poets do, that all things are related to each other, comparable to each other, is to go toward making an assertion of the unity of all things."

It's the birthday of poet Howard Nemerov, born in New York City (1920). His Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. He's also written several novels, including The Melodramatists (1947) and The Homecoming Game (1957). He grew up in New York City, went to Harvard, fought in World War II, and spent almost the rest of his life teaching at Bennington College in Vermont. He once said he liked teaching because he could do all of his explaining in class, and that allowed him to write poetry with no explanations.

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1914). He played cornet in high school and wanted to become a classical musician. He decided to study music at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but he didn't have enough money to pay for the train fare, so he hitched his way there on freight trains.

Ellison went to New York after his first year at the music institute, hoping to make enough money to pay for his second year. It was here that he met the great African-American writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. They encouraged him to write stories and book reviews for New York magazines, and Ellison decided to quit studying music and devote his life to writing.

One day, Ellison was sitting in a barn on his friend's farm in Vermont, staring at a typewriter, when he typed the sentence, "I am an invisible man." He didn't know where it came from, but he wanted to pursue the idea, to find out what kind of a person would think of himself as invisible. The sentence turned into his first novel, Invisible Man, published in 1952.

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