Apr. 7, 2007


by Philip Larkin

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Poem: "Dublinesque" by Philip Larkin, from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Down stucco sidestreets,
Where light is pewter
And afternoon mist
Brings lights on in shops
Above race-guides and rosaries,
A funeral passes.

The hearse is ahead,
But after there follows
A troop of streetwalkers
In wide flowered hats,
Leg-of-mutton sleeves,
And ankle-length dresses.

There is an air of great friendliness,
As if they were honoring
One they were fond of;
Some caper a few steps,
Skirts held skillfully
(Someone claps time),

And of great sadness also.
As they wend away
A voice is heard singing
Of Kitty, or Katy,
As if the name meant once
All love, all beauty.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, (books by this author) born in Cockermouth, England (1770). He studied at Cambridge, and during a vacation, he and a friend sailed to France for a 12-week walking tour of the Alps, during which they covered about 3,000 miles. He wrote letters home to his sister, Dorothy, trying to describe the beautiful sights he'd seen, and he later said, "Perhaps scarce a day of my life will pass by in which I shall not derive some happiness from those images."

Wordsworth was an early supporter of the French Revolution, which was an unpopular political view in England at the time. But he eventually came to see the French Revolution as a huge mistake. He alienated all his political friends by turning away from politics, and it was in the next 10 years — between 1797 and 1807 — that he wrote most of his greatest poetry, including "The Prelude," "Tintern Abbey," "She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways," "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal," "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," and "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud."

At the time, most poets were writing poetry about broad topics of history and religion and philosophy. Wordsworth wrote about ordinary things and private thoughts, the view from a bridge, daffodils. Critics thought he was wasting his time on uninteresting subjects. But by the time he had reached middle age, he became a cult sensation and his collections of poetry became best-sellers. Tourists from London would take day trips up to the Lake District where Wordsworth lived and gawk at him through the window of his house. His wife once wrote in a letter, "At this moment, a group of young Tourists are standing before the window. ... William is reading a newspaper — and on lifting up his head a profound bow greeted him from each."

It was on this day in 1927 that an audience in New York saw an image of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover speaking from Washington, D.C. in the first successful long-distance demonstration of television. The broadcast began with a close-up of Hoover's forehead, because he was sitting too close to the camera. But Hoover backed up to deliver the speech, and he was followed by a comedian performing jokes in blackface.

At the time, there were several competing versions of television, and this version was a mechanical process that used a metal disc, punched with holes in a spiral pattern, which transformed light into electrical impulses. It was called "Radio Vision," but it never really caught on. Instead, the TV as we know today was an entirely different technology, invented by a high school student from Utah named Philo Farnsworth.

It's the birthday of Donald Barthelme, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1931). He's the author of four novels, including Snow White (1967) and The Dead Father (1975), but he's best known for his strange, fragmented short stories, compiled in the books Sixty Stories (1981) and Forty Stories (1987).

His father was an architect who designed the house in Houston that Barthelme grew up in. His parents had a large collection of contemporary art and kept a library full of books by writers like James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, which Barthelme began reading at an early age. In 1962, he went to New York to become a writer.

He edited journals for a couple of years until, in 1964, his first short story was published in The New Yorker. His first collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, was published later that year. It was full of absurd, surrealistic stories that jump from one topic to another without transitions. In one story, Batman is ashamed of himself because he doesn't think he's doing a good enough job fighting crime. A story called "Me and Miss Mandible" is narrated by a middle-aged man who finds himself trapped in the body of a sixth-grader.

"Me and Miss Mandible" begins: "Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal's office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven't quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I've been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind. In the meantime we are studying common fractions."

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