Sep. 17, 2008

Literature in the 21st Century

by Ronald Wallace

Sometimes I wish I drank coffee
or smoked Marlboros, or maybe cigars—
yes, a hand-rolled Havana cigar
in its thick, manly wrapping,
the flash of the match between
worn matchbook and stained forefinger,
the cup of the palm at the tip,
the intake of air, and the slow and
luxuriant, potent and pleasurable
exhale. Shall we say also a glass
of claret? Or some sherry with its
dark star, the smoke blown into the bowl
of the glass, like fog on portentous
morning, the rich man-smell of gabardine
and wool, of money it its gold clip?

Sometimes I wish I had habits
a man wouldn't kick, faults a good man could
be proud of. I'd be an expatriate from
myself, all ink-pen and paper in a Paris café
where the waiters were elegant and surly,
the women relaxed and extravagant
with their bobbed hair and bonbons, their
perfumed Galoises, their oysters and canapés,
and I'd be writing about war and old losses—
man things-and not where I am, in this
pristine and sensitive vessel, all
fizzy water, reticence, and care, all reduced
fat and purified air, behind my deprived
computer, where I can't manage even
a decaf cap, a mild Tiparillo, a glass of
great-taste-less-filling light beer.

"Literature in the 21st Century" by Ronald Wallace from Long for This World: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Constitution Day in the United States, because it was on this day in 1787, at the old State House in Philadelphia, that the final draft of the Constitution was signed.

And it's the birthday of the poet William Carlos Williams, (books by this author) born in Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1883. His father was British and grew up in the West Indies, and his mother was French-Spanish and grew up in Puerto Rico. Williams spent his childhood in Rutherford, but then he went to school at some of the best schools in Switzerland, France, Germany, and the United States. He planned to become a doctor, but he started reading and writing poetry and realized how much he loved it. He considered dropping out of school to write, but he said, "I was determined to be a poet; only medicine, a job I enjoyed, would make it possible for me to live and write as I wanted to." So he became a poet and a doctor.

When he first started writing poetry, Williams was good friends with Ezra Pound. But as time went on, he started to break from writers like Pound and T. S. Eliot because he thought they were trying to be too European. He wanted to write in a very American voice, so even though he had all those years of traveling and studying abroad, he lived most of his life in Rutherford, where he opened his medical practice. He thought that poetry shouldn't be full of fancy allusions and abstract ideas, and that there should be "no ideas but in things." His poems were inspired by the townspeople of Rutherford, especially his patients. A lot of his patients didn't even know that their hardworking doctor — who delivered more than 2,000 babies — spent his nights and weekends writing poems. Those poems were published in books that include Spring and All (1923), Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), and the epic five-volume poem Paterson (1946, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958) about Paterson, New Jersey, the nearest city to his hometown of Rutherford.

He said, "When they ask me, as of late they frequently do, how I have for so many years continued an equal interest in medicine and the poem, I reply that they amount for me to nearly the same thing."

One of his most famous poems is called "The Red Wheelbarrow," and it's only 16 words long:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Williams wrote it in about five minutes. He was making a house call, taking care of a very sick young girl, and he looked out the window at a wheelbarrow and chickens.

It's the birthday of the crime writer John Creasey, (books by this author) born in Southfields, England, in 1908, a man who used many pseudonyms and wrote more than 600 books. In the year 1937 alone, he published 29 books.

In his story "Gideon and the Young Toughs" (1970), Creasey wrote: "Behind Piccadilly, in Soho, there lurked much crime and vice, as well as fine food, some happiness, and quite a lot of goodness."

It's the birthday of the novelist Ken Kesey, (books by this author) born in La Junta, Colorado, in 1935. His parents were dairy farmers, and he liked to fish and hunt and swim. In high school and college, he was a star wrestler and football player. He married his high school sweetheart and he got accepted into the creative writing program at Stanford University. At Stanford, a friend told him that he should participate in a government-funded research project at a nearby hospital, and that they would like Kesey because he was an athlete. So he agreed, and he was given hallucinogenic drugs and asked to report their effects. These drugs included LSD, which was legal at the time. He also worked the night shift at the hospital in a mental ward, and sometimes he could still feel the effects of the drugs when he was working, and one night he had a vision of an Indian sweeping the floor. So he took his experiences with drugs and working in the mental ward, and he smoked peyote and sat down to write, and he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), narrated by a paranoid schizophrenic half-Indian who sweeps the floors of a mental hospital.

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




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