Oct. 16, 2010

The Thing Is

by Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you've held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

"The Thing Is" by Ellen Bass, from Mules of Love. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Noah Webster, (books by this author) born in Hartford, Connecticut (1758). He's best known as a lexicographer and a spelling reformer, and it's his surname that makes up half of the title of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. He came from a landed Yankee family and went to Yale. He was a political activist, devoted to making America culturally independent from Britain. He was a prolific writer and he was a very serious scholar.

But he was also famously witty. Once, he was undressing the cleaning lady when his wife walked into his study and found them. His wife exclaimed, "Noah, I'm surprised!" The distinguished lexicographer, always a champion of accurate word usage, replied: "No, my dear. I am surprised. You are astonished."

It's the birthday of the man considered by many to be the world's greatest wit: Oscar Wilde, (books by this author) born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, in Dublin (1854). He's the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Salome (1891), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). He once said, "Anybody can write a three-volume novel. It merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature."

He was a brilliant conversationalist. Anecdotes abound about his famous retorts. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (books by this author) wrote in his memoir about how he once had dinner with Wilde: "His conversation left an indelible impression upon my mind. He towered above us all, and yet had the art of seeming to be interested in all that we could say. He had delicacy of feeling and tact. ... He took as well as gave, but what he gave was unique. He had a curious precision of statement, a delicate flavour of humour and a trick of small gestures to illustrate his meaning, which were peculiar to himself."

There are entire books devoted to Oscar Wilde's one-liners. It was Wilde who said,
"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it." And he said, "Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others." And also, "To be premature is to be perfect."

His most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, opened in London on Valentine's Day 1895; he was 40 years old. A few months later, he was convicted of "acts of gross indecency," meaning that he had a male lover. He was sentenced to two years hard labor. When he got out of prison he moved to Paris, where his health deteriorated and he died at the age of 46 in a seedy hotel, at which he was registered under the name Sebastian Melmoth. Poet W.H. Auden later wrote: "From the beginning Wilde performed his life and continued to do so even after fate had taken the plot out of his hands."

Oscar Wilde said, "Life is never fair. ... And perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of American playwright Eugene O'Neill, (books by this author) born in a Broadway hotel room in New York City (1888). His father was a famous actor, and O'Neill spent much of his childhood in trains and hotels, following his father on tours. He went to Princeton, but he was expelled after a year. He got a series of odd jobs, then went off on a gold prospecting expedition in Honduras, where he contracted malaria. After he recovered, he tried out sailing, vaudeville acting, and writing for a small-town newspaper. In 1912, he fell sick again with tuberculosis and spent six months in a sanatorium. While he was there, he began to read classic playwrights and modern innovators like Ibsen and Strindberg.

When he was released, he began writing furiously, coming out with 11 one-act plays in just a few years. In 1916, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he fell in with a group that would become known as the Provincetown Players, which included writers like Susan Glaspell and Robert Edmond Jones. The group began producing O'Neill's plays on a regular basis, and they helped to revolutionize American theater.

In 1920, his play Beyond the Horizon became a popular and critical success on Broadway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. He would go on to win two more Pulitzers in the next eight years, for Anna Christie (1922) and Strange Interlude (1928). He continued to write until 1944, when he was diagnosed with a crippling neurological disease called cortical cerebellar atrophy. In 1956, his work began to be revived, and his posthumous play Long Day's Journey into Night (1956) won the Pulitzer Prize the next year.

It's the birthday of the poet and essayist Thomas Lynch, (books by this author) born in Detroit, Michigan (1948). He's one of the few writers in American history to support himself as an undertaker. He's best known for his books of essays, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (1997) and Bodies in Motion and at Rest (2000). He said “The arrangement of flowers and homages, casseroles and sympathies; the arrangement of images and idioms, words on a page—it is all the same.”

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