Apr. 14, 2007

The Trees

by Philip Larkin

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

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1961). While many of this genre's writers are known for their striking visual art, Clowes is known as one of the best writers among his generation of graphic novelists.

After college, Clowes tried to support himself as a freelance illustrator, but he said, "I felt like I had a set of talents that were of absolutely no use to the world. It was as if I were a great blacksmith or something." So he started his own series of comic books called "Eightball," which mixed elements of old-fashioned comics like Archie with surrealism, detective stories, and autobiography. His big breakthrough was Ghost World (1998) about two teenage girls named Enid and Becky who take great pleasure in hating almost everything about their suburban lives and the popular culture of their generation. It was made into a movie in 2001.

Daniel Clowes said, "[Comics] are in a sense the ultimate domain of the artist who seeks to wield absolute control over his imagery. Novels are the work of one individual but they require visual collaboration on the part of the reader. Film is by its nature a collaborative endeavor. Comics offer the creator a chance to control the specifics of his world in both abstract and literal terms."

It was on this day in 1828 that Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language (books by this author). He was a man who'd grown up in America at a time when Americans from different states spoke with radically different accents and even different languages. Americans in Vermont spoke French, New Yorkers spoke Dutch, and the settlers in Pennsylvania spoke German. All these different languages were influencing American English, and there were no standards of spelling or meaning. Webster wanted to standardize American English so that people across the country would be able to understand each other. He spent 20 years working on his dictionary, which contained 70,000 words, and he did all the research and the handwriting of the book by himself. He is believed to be the last lexicographer to complete a dictionary without any assistance.

Webster's dictionary had the result he intended. His standardized spelling and pronunciation guides helped ensure that Americans who speak English speak more or less the same English. The United States has the fewest dialects of any major country in history.

Today is the anniversary of Black Sunday, the day in 1935 when a windstorm hit a part of the Great Plains known as the Dust Bowl. When the day started, the weather was sunny and calm. People were on their way home from church, or out visiting friends for lunch, when they saw huge flocks of birds flying south, away from a dark black cloud on the northern horizon. As the cloud approached, people realized that it wasn't a storm cloud, but a cloud of dirt, blown up by the wind. Witnesses said it was like a black tidal wave came down from the sky. It became as dark as night as soon as the cloud descended. Static electricity stalled cars and shorted out telephone lines. People standing a few yards away from their homes got lost in the darkness, and grabbed onto fence posts to keep from being blown to the ground. It was later estimated that the storm carried 300 million tons of soil through the air.

Coincidentally, it was four years later on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck (books by this author) published his novel about the farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl drought: The Grapes of Wrath. The novel tells the story of three generations of the Joad family, who lose their farm in Oklahoma and set off across the country for the paradise of California, only to encounter extreme poverty and corrupt corporations trying to make a profit off of them. Steinbeck interspersed the story of the Joads with chapters describing the migration as a whole, to give the impression of a social history as well as a personal story.

Between 1936 and 1938, Steinbeck spent several weeks in the valleys of southern California, observing the horrible conditions of the migrant farmers there and doing his best to help them. He saw entire families living in tiny tents flooded with more than a foot of water, with almost no food and no medicine. Sometimes he worked so hard bringing food and supplies to the farmers that he would collapse in the mud at the end of the day.

He began writing about what he saw in a 1936 article for The Nation. But Steinbeck was determined to write a book about migrant farmers in California. Finally, in May of 1938, he started work on The Grapes of Wrath. He wrote the novel at an incredible rate—about 2,000 words a day. When it came out, it sold out an advance edition of 20,000 copies in just a few days and eventually became the best-selling book of 1939, with more than 400,000 copies sold.

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