Sep. 17, 2006

The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist

by Mary Oliver

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Poem: "The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist" by Mary Oliver from Thirst. © Beacon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The text of this poem is no longer available.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the greatest figures of country music, Hank Williams Sr., born Hiram King Williams in Mount Olive West, Alabama (1923).

It's the birthday of the poet William Carlos Williams, (books by this author) born in Rutherford, New Jersey (1883). Williams fell in love with the poetry of Walt Whitman in high school, and began keeping a series of notebooks full of his own Whitman-esque poems. He wanted to devote his life to writing after graduation, but his parents persuaded him to study medicine. So he became a doctor in his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey. He set up a patients' room off the kitchen of his house at number 9 Ridge Road, and began to treat the poor immigrants who had begun moving into the neighborhood: Italians and Poles and Germans.

He came to believe that the greatest poetry was produced by devotion to the poet's local culture. He paid close attention to the language used by gas station attendants and nurses and shopkeepers, and he began to incorporate that more simple, spoken language into his poetry. And he wrote about ordinary things: plums, wheelbarrows, hospitals, and the New Jersey landscape, with its polluted rivers and suburban lawns.

It's the birthday of the short-story writer who wrote under the name Frank O'Connor, (books by this author) born Michael O'Donovan in Cork, Ireland (1903). His family was too poor to get him a higher education, so he educated himself at libraries, teaching himself to read French, German, and Russian. He joined the Irish Republican Army while he was still a teenager and fought in the Civil War. He was arrested and imprisoned after living for a year as a homeless fugitive. When he got out of prison, he got a job at a library, and began writing stories about his experiences during the war.

O'Connor went on to publish many more books of fiction, but most of them were banned by the Irish government in his lifetime. He eventually moved to the United States, where he published many of his short stories in The New Yorker magazine.

But even though O'Connor had a larger readership in the United States than he did in his home country, he never wrote about anything other than Ireland. He said, "I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people merely because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said."

It's the birthday of Ken Kesey, (books by this author) born in La Junta, Colorado (1935). He moved to Oregon as a kid, where his father became a successful dairy farmer. Kesey did well in school. He was a champion wrestler and voted most likely to succeed by his high school graduating class. He studied communications in college and married his high school sweetheart and considered a career as a Hollywood actor before accepting a fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University. Among his classmates were the poet Wendell Berry and the novelist Larry McMurtry.

He wasn't much of a bohemian himself until a psychology student told him about a CIA-funded experiment being conducted at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Menlo Park. For $75 a day, they would inject you with drugs that were supposed to simulate insanity and then they would ask you to describe your experience. Kesey thought that sounded interesting, so he signed up, and became one of the first Americans to be exposed to a new drug called LSD.

The experience changed his life. He became deeply interested in the nature of sanity and insanity, and took a job as the night attendant on the psychiatric ward of a hospital. That experience helped inspire his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962).

On this day in 1862, 23,000 men from the Union and Confederate armies were killed or wounded at the Battle of Antietam, in the fields near Sharpsburg, Maryland. It's known as the "bloodiest day in American History."

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