Feb. 1, 2008

Lincoln Theatre

by Langston Hughes

The head of Lincoln looks down from the wall
While movies echo dramas on the screen.
The head of Lincoln is serenely tall
Above a crowd of black folk, humble, mean.
The movies end. The lights flash gaily on.
The band down in the pit bursts into jazz.
The crowd applauds a plump brown-skin bleached
Who sings the troubles every woman has.
She snaps her fingers, slowly shakes her hips,
And cries, all careless-like from reddened lips!
  De man I loves has
  Gone and done me wrong...

While girls who wash rich white folks clothes by day
And sleek-haired boys who deal in love for pay
Press hands together, laughing at her song.

"Lincoln Theatre" by Langston Hughes, from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. © Vintage Classics, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Reynolds Price, (books by this author) born in Macon, North Carolina (1933). He once described his birthplace as, "a town of 227 cotton and tobacco farmers nailed to the flat red land at the pit of the Great Depression." On the day Price was born, he and his mother almost died from complications. In his memoir Clear Pictures (1989), he wrote that his father, who was a hard-drinking salesman, "fled the house in the freezing dawn, went out to the woodshed; and there he sealed a bargain with God, as stark and unbreakable as any blood pact in Genesis - if Elizabeth lived, and the child, he'd never drink again." Reynolds grew up feeling like the anchor that held his family together. His most recent book is Letter to a Godchild: Concerning Faith (2006).

It's the birthday of poet Galway Kinnell, (books by this author) born in Providence, Rhode Island (1927). He became obsessed with the poetry of William Butler Yeats in college when his roommate, the poet W. S. Merwin, woke him up one night and read Yeats to him until dawn. After that night, Kinnell devoted himself to writing poetry in the style of Yeats. He eventually found his own voice as a poet, but he named all of his children after important figures in Yeats's work.

He said, "To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment."

It's the birthday of novelist Muriel Spark, (books by this author) born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh, Scotland (1918). When she was growing up, she liked to write love letters to herself that she signed with men's names and hid in the sofa cushions in the hope of shocking her mother. During World War II, she got a job writing false news stories for the British Political Intelligence Department, with the goal of demoralizing the German people. In one such story she wrote that a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler had succeeded in blowing off his trousers.

She was almost 40 years old when she published her first work of fiction, The Comforters (1957), but she then went on to write many more dark satirical novels. She's best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), about a strange teacher at a girls' school.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Langston Hughes, (books by this author) born in Joplin, Missouri (1902). His father divorced his mother and moved to Mexico when Hughes was just a baby. He was raised by his mother and grandmother, but after high school he went to Mexico to get to know his father for the first time. He was disgusted when he found that his father was obsessed with money and more racist than most white men Hughes had ever known.

He went to Columbia University for a year, but then he decided that he wanted to learn from the world rather than books. He quit college, hopped a boat to Africa, and as soon as the boat left New York Harbor, he threw all his college books overboard. He took odd jobs on ships and made his way from Africa to France, Holland, Italy, and finally back to the United States.

He got a job working as a busboy in a Washington, D.C., hotel, and one day he left three poems he had written next to the plate of the poet Vachel Lindsey. Lindsey loved them and read them to an audience the very next day. Within a few years, Hughes had published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926).

He got involved in the Harlem Renaissance and started to write poetry influenced by the music he heard in jazz and blues clubs. He said, "I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street... [songs that] had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."

Hughes was one of the first African-American poets to embrace the language of lower-class black Americans. In his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), he said, "[I want to write for] the people who have their nip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round."

In his poem "Laughers," he made a list of what he called "my people": "Dish-washers, / Elevator boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers, / Nurses of Babies, / Loaders of Ships, /Rounders,/ Number writers, / Comedians in Vaudeville / And band-men in circuses - / Dream-singers all."

It's the birthday of humorist S(idney) J(oseph) Perelman, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1904). He wrote essays for The New Yorker magazine for years, and he's the author of the collections The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1952) and Chicken Inspector No. 23 (1966). He was famous for his bizarre, absurdist humor. One of his essays begins, "I guess I'm just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws."

Perelman said of himself, "Button-cute, rapier-keen, wafer-thin and pauper-poor is S.J. Perelman ...that he owns one of the rare mouths in which butter has never melted [is a] legend treasured by every schoolboy."

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