Dec. 8, 2006

Regarding (Most) Songs

by Thomas Lux

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Poem: "Regarding (Most) Songs" by Thomas Lux, from The Street of Clocks. © Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Regarding (Most) Songs

        Whatever is too stupid to say
        can be sung.
                  –JOSEPH ADDISON (1672-1719)

The human voice can sing a vowel to break your heart.
It trills a string of banal words,
but your blood jumps, regardless. You don't care
about the words but only how they're sung
and the music behind — the brass, the drums.
Oh the primal, necessary drums
behind the words so dumb!
That power, the bang and the boom and again the bang
we cannot, need not, live without,
nor without other means to make sweet noise,
the guitar or violin, the things that sing
the plaintive, joyful sounds.
Which is why I like songs best
when I can't hear the words, or, better still,
when there are no words at all.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the humorist James Thurber, (books by this author) born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). He started submitting humor pieces to The New Yorker in 1926, when the magazine was barely a year old. He said, "My pieces came back so fast I began to believe The New Yorker must have a rejection machine."

He was living in a basement apartment with his first wife. She thought that after 20 of his humor pieces had failed to find a publisher, he should probably give up. But one night, he set his alarm clock to go off 45 minutes after he'd fallen asleep, and he woke up in sleepy daze and wrote the first thing that came to mind: a story about a man going round and round in a revolving door, attracting crowds and the police, and eventually setting the world record for revolving door laps. It was the first piece of his published in The New Yorker.

He published more than 30 books of short pieces. Most of his work is collected in Writings & Drawings (1996). He became famous for writing stories and drawing cartoons about a certain type of exasperated man. E. B. White said, "These 'Thurber men' ... are frustrated, fugitive beings; at times they seem vaguely striving to get out of something without being seen (a room, a situation, a state of mind), at other times they are merely perplexed and too humble, or weak, to move."

It's the birthday of the novelist Mary Gordon, (books by this author) born in Far Rockaway, New York (1940). After college, Gordon published several novels, including Final Payments (1978) and Men and Angels (1985), and in each one there was usually a character based on her father. After years of writing about him in her fiction, she decided to write a nonfiction book about his life. But once she began to do some research, she realized that she hadn't known anything about him at all.

She had grown up thinking he was a Harvard graduate, but in fact he'd never passed 10th grade. She'd always thought he was a writer, but he was a publisher of pornography magazines. And though he'd grown up Jewish, he'd converted to Catholicism and become an anti-Semite. She remembered his going to work in the city every day, but in fact, her mother had supported the family. Gordon wrote about the experience of investigating her father in the memoir The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father (1996).

A new collection, The Stories of Mary Gordon, came out this year (2006).

It's the birthday of the novelist John Banville, (books by this author) born in Wexford, Ireland. He's the author of many novels, including The Book of Evidence (1989), Ghosts (1993), and Shroud (2002).

It's the birthday of the travel writer Bill Bryson, (books by this author) born in Des Moines, Iowa (1952). As a young man he settled in England and supported himself with a series of jobs as a copy editor, and then he began writing about books lexicography, including The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words (1984). He had been living outside of the United States for more than a decade, when he got the idea go back to America and write about how the country had changed in his absence. He borrowed his mother's Chevy and began driving to all the places he'd visited with his family on vacations as a child. He ultimately covered almost 14,000 miles, and visited 38 states.

The result was his book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America (1989), in which Bryson poked fun at his home country, while reminiscing about his Iowa childhood. He wrote, "Much as I resented having to grow up in Des Moines, it gave me a real appreciation for every place in the world that's not Des Moines."

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