Jun. 26, 2008

Naming the Animals

by Anthony Hecht

Having commanded Adam to bestow
Names upon all the creatures, God withdrew
To empyrean palaces of blue
That warm and windless morning long ago,
And seemed to take no notice of the vexed
Look on the young man's face as he took thought
Of all the miracles the Lord had wrought
Now to be labeled, dubbed, yclept, indexed.

Before an addled mind and puddle brow,
The feathered nation and the finny prey
Passed by; there went biped and quadruped.
Adam looked forth with bottomless dismay
Into the tragic eyes of his first cow,
And shyly ventured, "Thou shalt be called 'Fred.'"

"Naming the Animals" by Anthony Hecht, from Collected Later Poems. © Alfred A Knopf, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet and memoirist Laurie Lee, (books by this author) born in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England (1914). He was the 11th of 12 children in his family and grew up in a tiny English village where everyone lived in crumbling houses with huge families and no electricity or running water. He said, "We lived at the mercy of the seasons, saw little of the outside world, cooked on wood-fires and went to bed by candlelight. I belonged to a kind of tribal community which had lasted for a thousand years, but which has since died out, and I saw the last of it."

He dropped out of high school when he was 15 and worked as an errand boy, but a few years later he decided to go see the world, and walked to London. It took him about a month. He spent nights sleeping in fields and made money during the day playing his violin in villages and taking odd jobs. He didn't like London, though. He said, "There was a smell of rank oil, rotting fish and vegetables, hot pavements and trodden tar; and a sense of surging pressure, the heavy used-up air of the cheek-by-jowl life around me."

Lee took off to Spain, where he witnessed the Spanish Civil War. He published many books of poetry during the 1940s, but he didn't have any great success until he began to write his memoirs, for which he is best remembered, including Cider with Rosie (1959), As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), and A Moment of War (1991).

Near the end of his life, he moved back to his hometown and found out that he'd become famous. Tourists came from the cities to see the village that he'd written about in Cider with Rosie. Once, a tourist walking past his garden asked him if he knew where Laurie Lee was buried.

It's the birthday of novelist Pearl S. Buck, (books by this author) born Pearl Sydenstricker in Hillsboro, West Virginia (1892). Her parents were Presbyterian missionaries, and Buck was born while they were on vacation in the United States. When she was three months old, they took her back to China.

She was the youngest of her parents' seven children, and all but two of her older siblings had died of tropical diseases. Her parents lived in the Chinese community, and Buck learned to speak Chinese before she learned to speak English. She said, "I almost ceased to think of myself as different, if indeed I ever thought so, from the Chinese." She only became aware that she and her parents were foreigners to China at the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion when she was nine years old. She fled her home with her family, but they returned as soon as the violence died down.

As a teenager, she worked in a shelter called the Door of Hope, for girls who had escaped slavery and prostitution. When she was 17, she went to the United States to study psychology, and planned to live there for the rest of her life, but she had to return to China to take care of her mother, who was gravely ill. She wound up spending another 15 years in China, marrying a missionary and teaching English. In 1922, she wrote a description of Chinese daily life and sent it to The Atlantic Monthly, which began to publish her articles regularly.

Buck had been working on her first novel when violence broke out in 1927. Friends tipped her off that Communist forces would be raiding her home, and she escaped about 10 minutes before they arrived. The Communists burned her home and most of her possessions, including the manuscript for her novel.

She was rescued from the spreading violence by American gunboats, and she sailed back to the United States. On the ship to America she started writing a new novel called East Wind, West Wind, which was published in 1930 and became a small success. The following year, she published The Good Earth (1931), about a Chinese peasant who becomes a wealthy landowner. At the time, Westerners saw China as one of the most exotic places on earth. Pearl Buck was the first writer to portray the ordinary lives of Chinese people for a Western audience. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for literature and became an international best seller.

Pearl Buck bought a farmhouse in the United States in 1934, and she never returned to China. She went on to write two sequels to The Good Earth, and many more books of fiction and nonfiction, including biographies of both her parents. She won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1938.

It's the birthday of children's book author Walter Farley, (books by this author) born in Syracuse, New York (1916). From an early age, there was nothing he wanted more in the world than his own horse. Unfortunately, his parents couldn't afford one, so he spent all his time reading and writing about horses.

Between the ages 11 and 15, he wrote dozens of short stories with titles like "The Winged Horse," "My Black Horse," "Red Stallion," and "The Pony." He later said they were all rough drafts for the novel that he finally finished while he was a student at Columbia University, which he called The Black Stallion (1941). It's the story of a boy and a wild stallion who survive a shipwreck and become friends on a deserted island.

The book was so popular that Farley went on to write 20 novels about the horse, including The Black Stallion Returns (1945), The Black Stallion Revolts (1953), and The Black Stallion's Ghost (1969).

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