Jul. 28, 2010

Her First Novel

by James Tate

When Connie finished her novel she came
over to my place to celebrate. I mixed up a
shaker full of Manhattans and we sat out on the
porch. "Here's to… What's the title?" I
asked. "Well, that's a problem. The title's
kind of awful. It's called THE KING OF SLOPS."
"Gosh," I said, "that's unfortunate. I think
you can probably do better than that." We took
a drink and reflected. "It's about a hospital
orderly." "Ouch," I said. "It doesn't sound
very promising, does it?" "Is there a love
angle?" I asked hopefully. "No," she replied,
"everybody hates him. He's a creep." "Then
Why…?" "I don't know. I got started and
I couldn't stop. I wanted to kill him off,
but I just couldn't. He's the loneliest guy
in the world." "It's beginning to sound pretty
good to me," I said. "How's it end? Upbeat,
I hope?" "That's another problem I'm afraid.
He tries to marry a corpse, and when the priest
finds out he throws him out the twelfth-story
window." Tears were streaming down Connie's
face. I was desperate to find anything com-
forting to say. "Well," I said, "you could
call it THE GOOD PRIEST." Connie smiles, and
the wake continued long into the night.

"Her First Novel" by James Tate, from Memoir of the Hawk. © The Ecco Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the children's author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, (books by this author) born Helen Beatrix Potter in London, England (1866). She's the author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903), The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904), and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908).

And it's the birthday of the poet John Ashbery, (books by this author) born in Rochester, New York (1927). His father was a fruit farmer and his mother a high school biology teacher, and neither of them was very interested in literature. But his grandfather lived nearby and had a big library, and the boy would spend hours in there reading everything he could. He said, "There is the view that poetry should improve your life. I think people confuse it with the Salvation Army."

It's the birthday of one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era, Gerard Manley Hopkins, (books by this author) born at Stratford, England (1844). He's known for being a technical master of poetic devices like alliteration, assonance, and sprung rhythm.

Hopkins was nervous, intense, and often despairing. He'd grown up in an Anglican family and in his 20s decided to convert to Catholicism along with a few friends. And then he went even further — he decided to become a priest, a Jesuit.

He set fire to all his early poems, judging them to be too "worldly." Even among a campus full of Jesuit seminarians in rural Wales, he earned a reputation for being particularly odd and eccentric. In the winter, he would go stare at ponds that had frozen over, fixated on the arrangement of little bubbles stuck inside. After it rained, he would run outside to see how the water formed dew drops on the grass. He absolutely loved nature, and he wrote that lying down and staring up at willow trees overhead was "the summit of human happiness."

After he graduated from seminary, the Jesuits sent him off to teach kids at inner-city grade schools around Great Britain. He was miserable in these industrial cities, where the skies were polluted and there were not many ponds or fields for him to look at. He wrote that his "muse turned utterly sullen in the Sheffield smoke-ridden air."

Eventually, he was appointed classics professor at University College–Dublin where, according to biographer Richard Ellmann, Hopkins was "out of place in the Irish scene but at home in a state of exalted misery." He died of typhus at the age of 44.

He wrote:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

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




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