Feb. 7, 2008

I Close My Eyes

by David Ignatow

I close my eyes like a good little boy at night in bed,
as I was told to do by my mother when she lived,
and before bed I brush my teeth and slip on my pajamas,
as I was told, and look forward to tomorrow.

I do all things required of me to make me a citizen of sterling worth.
I keep a job and come home each evening for dinner. I arrive at the
same time on the same train to give my family a sense of order.

I obey traffic signals. I am cordial to strangers, I answer my
mail promptly. I keep a balanced checking account. Why can't I
live forever?

"I Close My Eyes" by David Ignatow from Against the Evidence: Selected Poems 1934-1994. © Wesleyan University Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet who wrote about the daily lives of urban workers, David Ignatow, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1914). His parents were Russian immigrants, and he was inspired to become a writer by his father's love of Russian literature. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Ignatow thought that his dreams of writing were over when his father forced him to work in the family binding company. But, he continued to write poetry, and when he was commissioned as a WPA reporter, his father paid for the publication of a small edition of David's poetry, Poems (1948). He gained critical acclaim, but he still needed to take on a variety of odd jobs, working as a shoe salesman, a shipyard handyman, and a clerk at a vegetable market to support his family until he finally secured teaching positions at Vassar College and Columbia University. He went on to write many more collections of poetry, including Rescue the Dead (1968) and I Have a Name (1996), but he never forgot his struggle with poverty as a young adult. In an interview with The Paris Review - when asked what would be the worst thing that could happen - Ignatow said, "Well ... losing my job, being out of money. Problems of love, problems of human relationships are secondary."

It's the birthday of novelist (Harry) Sinclair Lewis, (books by this author) born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885). His mother died of a chronic illness when he was six years old, and he never got along with his father, who was the town's physician. He felt stifled by Sauk Centre and once tried to run away to fight in the Spanish-American War when he was 13. He escaped to the East Coast for college at Yale University, and during school vacations he would smuggle himself onto cattle ships heading for England. As a young man, he tried to get a job working on the Panama Canal, and he traveled across 40 states in the U.S. working as a journalist. Though he spent time in 14 countries in Europe and traveled through Venezuela, Colombia, and Russia, the majority of his books are set in small-town Midwestern America. His first success was his novel Main Street (1920), about a rebellious woman named Carol Kennicott, who is ostracized by the citizens of the fictional small town of Gopher Prairie.

He went on to write many other books, including Babbitt (1922) and Arrowsmith (1925). In 1930, he became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature and this time he collected his award.

It's the birthday of Charles Dickens, (books by this author) born in Portsmouth, England (1812), who had a relatively happy childhood until his father's debts sent the Dickens family into poverty. At the age of 12, Charles was pulled out of school and had to work in a factory pasting the labels onto shoe polish, while his younger siblings lived with his parents in debtors' prison. In some of his most famous novels, Oliver Twist (1837-38), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), and A Christmas Carol (1843), he revealed the plight of England's poor. After he became one of the most famous men in England, Dickens used his wealth and influence to convince the upper classes to give to the poor. He was also opposed to capital punishment and worked internationally for prison reform, helped set up a halfway house for former prostitutes, and promoted public education and better sanitation systems throughout England.

It's the birthday of lexicographer Sir James Murray born in Denholm, Scotland (1837). He was the president of the Philological Society in London, and in 1879 he became the editor of a 10-year project called the New English Dictionary (later known as the Oxford Dictionary). When he died in 1915, more than 30 years after he started work on it, Murray had compiled roughly half of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

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