Oct. 20, 2007


by Mary Oliver

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Poem: "Hum" by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems: Volume Two. © Beacon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The text of this poem is no longer available.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1892 that the city of Chicago officially dedicated the World's Columbian Exposition. Though it was formally dedicated on this day in 1892, the planning ran behind schedule, so the fair wasn't actually held until the following summer. A giant "white city" was built in the style of classical architecture along the shore of Lake Michigan, and at night, everything was lit up with a string of electric lights, the first time electric lights were used on such a large scale in America. In fact, in was at the Chicago World's Fair that most Americans saw electricity in use for the first time.

The Chicago World's Fair was also the place where most Americans first saw postcards, fiberglass, the zipper, the ice cream cone, Cracker Jack, Quaker Oats, Shredded Wheat, belly dancing, spray paint, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Ferris wheel. The Ferris wheel at the fair was 264 feet high, carried 2,000 passengers at a time, driven by two 1,000 horsepower steam engines turning on a 45-foot axel — the largest single piece of steel ever forged at that time. It was the most successful world's fair ever held in the United States. In its half-year of existence, it drew 27 million visitors, or about half the American population at the time. The novelist Hamlin Garland wrote to his parents, "Sell the cookstove if necessary and come. You must see the Fair!"

It's the birthday of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, (books by this author) born in Charleville, France (1854), who began writing poems when he was just 16 — poems that became the talk of Paris literary society. One of his admirers was the elder poet Paul Verlaine, and the two started living together and fell in love. But they had a bitter break-up. Verlaine tried to murder Rimbaud with a pistol, shooting him in the arm. Verlaine went to prison and Rimbaud went back to live with his mother, where he wrote one of his last books, A Season in Hell (1873), which some critics consider his farewell to poetry. He had started writing when he was 16, and he was just 19 years old when he took off to travel the world and wound up in Africa, where he became an arms dealer. As far as we know, he never wrote another poem.

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Pinsky, (books by this author) born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940). His poetry collections include Sadness and Happiness (1975), The Want Bone (1990), and Jersey Rain (2000). He said, "The longer I live, the more I see there's something about reciting rhythmical words aloud — it's almost biological — that comforts and enlivens human beings."

It's the birthday of the novelist Monica Ali, (books by this author) born in Dhaka, in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) (1967), whose novel Brick Lane was an international best-seller in 2003. It's about two Bangladeshi sisters, one of whom moves to London after being married off to a man twice her age, and the other, who stays home in Bangladesh. Monica Ali said, "[Writing a novel is] like creeping along on your belly with shells exploding around you. It's only occasionally that there's a ceasefire and you can get up and run."

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