May 15, 2006

Learning the Bicycle

by Wyatt Prunty

MONDAY, 15 MAY, 2006
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Poem: "Learning the Bicycle," by Wyatt Prunty, from Balance as Belief. © John Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Learning the Bicycle

for Heather

The older children pedal past
Stable as little gyros, spinning hard
To supper, bath, and bed, until at last
We also quit, silent and tired
Beside the darkening yard where trees
Now shadow up instead of down.
Their predictable lengths can only tease
Her as, head lowered, she walks her bike alone
Somewhere between her wanting to ride
And her certainty she will always fall.
Tomorrow, though I will run behind,
Arms out to catch her, she'll tilt then balance wide
Of my reach, till distance makes her small,
Smaller, beyond the place I stop and know
That to teach her I had to follow
And when she learned I had to let her go.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Wyatt Prunty, (books by this author), born in Humboldt, Tennessee (1947). When he went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, he found that he was the only one in his poetry class who had been in the military, the only one with short hair, and the only one who didn't write poetry in free verse.

It's the birthday of author Paul Zindel, (books by this author), born on Staten Island in New York (1935). He has written many novels for young adults, including The Pigman (1968).

It's the birthday of the man who created the land of Oz, Frank Baum, (books by this author), born in Chittenango, New York (1856). He published the first book in his series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in 1900.

It's the birthday of short-story writer and novelist Katherine Anne Porter, (books by this author), born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas (1890). She was a descendant of Daniel Boone, but she actually grew up in poverty, in a small log house on the edge of a dirt farm. Her mother died when she was two years old, and her father was so stricken by grief that he couldn't provide for the family. They had to move in with Porter's grandmother.

Her grandmother died when she was eleven, and Porter had to move in with her cousins. She spent two years in a drama school, the only real education she ever received, and then briefly started a small school of her own devoted to singing and dramatic arts. Just after her sixteenth birthday, she married a twenty-one-year-old railway clerk. But she wasn't happy in her marriage and in 1914 she ran away to Chicago where she hoped to make it as a movie actress. When she arrived in the city, she changed her name, Callie Russell, to her grandmother's name, Katherine Anne.

She got a job in a song-and-dance show, but then she caught tuberculosis. Once the disease was diagnosed, she was sent to a sick house for the poor where there was almost no food for the patients and women were dying all around her. She might have died there herself, but her brother paid for her to switch to a high-class sanatorium in Texas.

Porter spent two years recovering at the sanatorium, surrounded by a group of intelligent young women, including some journalists and writers. Inspired by their example, she got a job as a journalist, and began to write for a variety of newspapers, first in Denver and then in New York City, covering entertainment news and social events.

In 1919, she met a group of Mexican activists, and they persuaded her to go to Mexico to write about the coming revolution there. She used her experience in Mexico to write the story "Flowering Judas," about a young American woman living in Mexico just before the revolution. The story made her literary reputation when it was published, and it became the title story of her first collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1930). She was forty years old.

Her books of stories got excellent reviews, and critics compared her to some of the greatest writers in American history, but she didn't make much money from her fiction and had to support herself with journalism for most of her life. She once said, "I think I've only spent about ten percent of my energies on writing. The other ninety percent went to keeping my head above water."

She worked for more than twenty years trying to write a big novel called Ship of Fools. When it was finally published in 1962, it made her rich, but it got mixed reviews. Most critics consider her best work to be her short stories. Her Collected Stories came out in 1964 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Katherine Anne Porter said, "My life has been incredible, I don't believe a word of it."

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