Dec. 13, 2008

Poor North

by Mark Strand

It is cold, the snow is deep,
the wind beats around in its cage of trees,
clouds have the look of rags torn and soiled with use,
and starlings peck at the ice.
It is north, poor north. Nothing goes right.

The man of the house has gone to work,
selling chairs and sofas in a failing store.
His wife stays home and stares from the window into the trees,
trying to recall the life she lost, though it wasn't much.
White flowers of frost build up on the glass.

It is late in the day. Brants and Canada geese are asleep
on the waters of St Margaret's Bay.
The man and his wife are out for a walk; see how they lean
into the wind; they turn up their collars
and the small puffs of their breath are carried away.

"Poor North" by Mark Strand, from New Selected Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet Kenneth Patchen, (books by this author) born in Niles, Ohio (1911). His father worked in the steel mills, and Kenneth started working in the mills at the age of 17. But his dream was to be a writer. He loved Dante, Homer, Shakespeare, and Melville.

He went to college briefly, then dropped out and became a migrant laborer in the Deep South. He moved to New York City, and there he met his future wife, the Finnish socialist Miriam Oikemus.

Patchen experimented with multimedia forms. He set some of his poetry to jazz music and read alongside the Chamber Jazz Sextet. He illustrated many of his own book covers and composed dozens of paintings that were exhibited with poems.

He became an invalid after he got a terrible back injury while he was trying to fix a car. It left him almost completely immobilized, and he was confined to his bed for the final two decades of his life.

Even though Kenneth Patchen was friends with all the famous poets of his era — T.S. Eliot, W.H Auden, E.E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams — he never became that famous himself. He was a pacifist, and he even opposed U.S. involvement in World War II. His books include The Journal of Albion Moonlight (1941) and Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer (1945).

It's the birthday of poet James Wright, (books by this author) born in Martin's Ferry, Ohio (1927). His father worked for 50 years at a glass factory, his mother worked in a laundry, and many of Wright's poems are about the poverty and loneliness of hardworking people. His Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

It's the birthday of the mystery novelist who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald, (books by this author) born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California (1915). His father abandoned the family, and his mother struggled to support him, occasionally begging for money on the street. He read a lot growing up, even climbing the fire escape of the town library at night so that he could read the authors who were off limits to young people during the day.

One summer, he won a typewriter in a radio quiz show. He started publishing stories and humor pieces, and wrote some moderately successful spy and crime novels. And then he invented a private investigator named Lew Archer. He wrote a book about his new character, a book called The Moving Target (1949), and he went on to write 18 Lew Archer novels. Most of these novels are about characters trying to uncover some mystery at the heart of their families, often having to do with lost fathers. Millar became known as one of the authors who helped elevate the mystery novel to the level of serious literature.

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