Aug. 21, 2008

What We Might Be, What We Are

by X. J. Kennedy

If you were a scoop of vanilla
And I were the cone where you sat,
If you were a slowly pitched baseball
And I were the swing of a bat,

If you were a shiny new fishhook
And I were a bucket of worms,
If we were a pin and a pincushion,
We might be on intimate terms.

If you were a plate of spaghetti
And I were your piping-hot sauce,
We'd not even need to write letters
To put our affection across,

But you're just a piece of red ribbon
In the beard of a Balinese goat
And I'm a New Jersey mosquito.
I guess we'll stay slightly remote.

"What We Might Be, What We Are" by X.J. Kennedy, from Exploding Gravy © Little, Brown, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of X. J. Kennedy, (books by this author) born Joseph Charles Kennedy in 1929 in Dover, New Jersey. He spent four years in the Navy and then worked on his Ph.D. for six years but never completed it. He didn't like having the same name as the father of the famous Kennedy clan, so when he got his first poems accepted in The New Yorker, he added an "X" in front of his name, and he's been X.J. Kennedy ever since. His first book of poetry was Nude Descending a Staircase (1961), which was a success. So he kept writing poetry, but his main career was writing textbooks.

During those years, he wrote poems for his kids, poems that he would read a couple of times and then file away in his desk drawer. Then he got a letter from the editor of a poetry anthology for children, requesting some more poems like those in Nude Descending a Staircase, and he realized he might have a new audience. He started writing for kids - books like The Phantom Ice Cream Man: More Nonsense Verse (1979) and Exploding Gravy: Poems to Make You Laugh (2002).

It's the birthday of novelist Robert Stone, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1937. His father left when he was an infant, and he was raised by his schizophrenic mother, who taught elementary school. She was institutionalized when he was six years old, and he spent a few years in an orphanage and then lived with his mother in hotels and flophouses. Stone dropped out of his Catholic high school and joined the navy for four years. When he came back, he got a job as a copy boy on the night shift for the New York Daily News, and he and his friends hung around bars in Greenwich Village hoping that people would think they were part of the Beat scene, but, he said, "we were really kids who people kind of stepped over." His girlfriend (now his wife) waited tables at the Seven Arts Coffee Gallery in Greenwich Village, and that's where Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and their friends would give readings. Stone got to know them and wanted to write and to live like them.

Stone published his novel in 1967, and it was called A Hall of Mirrors. In 1971, a bi-weekly magazine called INK sent Stone as its war correspondent to Vietnam. The magazine folded after just six weeks, but it was enough time for Stone to absorb the underworld of Saigon during the war, and that became the setting for his next novel, Dog Soldiers (1974), about a journalist smuggling heroin out of Vietnam. It won the National Book Award. He wrote a memoir called Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (2007), about the politics and drug culture and social upheaval of the decade.

It's the birthday of the novelist M. M. Kaye, (books by this author)born Mary Margaret Kaye in Simla, India, in 1908 to a prominent British family. Her father read her Kipling's Jungle Book when she was four years old, and as a child she would run away from her servants to listen to storytellers in the Delhi markets. Her family moved back to England and she refused to marry an officer as her mother wanted; instead she lived alone and got a job illustrating novels. She said, "Most of the stuff I was reading was total rubbish, and I used to think I couldn't write worse. So I sat down and wrote one." She earned £64, and she used the money to buy a ticket back to India. She fell in love with an officer there, and they moved around 27 times — to Kenya, Zanzibar, Cyprus, Egypt, and Germany — and these places became the settings for her detective novels like Death Walks in Kashmir (1953) and Cyprus (1956). Her epic novel The Far Pavilions (1978) was a story of love and intrigue during the British occupation of India, and it became an international best seller, but her American editor made her change the ending so that the lovers survived the final battle.

It's the birthday of the boy who inspired the Winnie-the-Pooh books: Christopher Robin Milne, born in 1920 in London, England, the son of the children's writer A.A. Milne. His parents expected a girl and the only name they had picked out was Rosemary, so when they realized they needed to name a boy, they couldn't decide, so each parent chose one.

When Christopher Robin was a year old, he got a teddy bear that he called Edward, and his father took the name "Winnie" from a bear at the London Zoo that Christopher loved. That bear and Christopher's other stuffed toys became the inspiration for the stories his father wrote about Winnie-the-Pooh and friends. But at the same time that A.A. Milne was writing poems and stories about Christopher Robin, the boy was brought up almost completely by a nanny. He was taken downstairs three times a day to visit his parents. He loved to work with his hands — sewing, knitting, dismantling clocks, and rigging up burglar alarms. He took apart and reassembled the lock on his nursery door when he was just seven years old.

Before Christopher Robin started school, he loved to help his father write his stories, but at school his classmates mocked him and recited verses about him from his father's books. Christopher grew to resent his father for making it impossible for him to have a normal life. He went off to the army, and when he returned he felt even more trapped by the fame of being a character in Winnie-the-Pooh, so he decided to leave London and open a bookshop in Dartmouth with his wife, although it attracted lots of customers looking to meet the original Christopher Robin. Eventually, he published three memoirs: The Enchanted Places (1975), Path Through the Trees (1979), and Hollow on the Hill (1982).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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