Nov. 28, 2010


by Lawrence Raab

Every day there's something old
to feel sorry about—
what I should have done and didn't,
or what I did, and kept on doing.

I want to believe
everyone's forgotten by now.
Then I picture them thinking back.

And those who've died
and earned the wisdom death allows
just shake their heads and sigh.
"Very funny," my father would say

after my sister and I played
some cruel little joke on him.
"Ha, ha," he'd add,
to let us know he got the point.

We want to forget
until we start to forget.
We want the past to change,
and we want it back.

"Enough is enough,"
my father used to say
to tell us it was over.

"Regret" by Lawrence Raab, from The History of Forgetting. © Penguin Poets, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer and physicist Alan Lightman, (books by this author) born in Memphis (1948). He said that as a kid, "I was always troubled and awed by the big questions. Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the meaning of life? How did the universe begin?" He grew up fascinated by both science and literature, and he couldn't decide which career to pursue. Then in high school, he realized that he could think of quite a few scientists who later became writers, but he couldn't think of anyone who started out as a writer and then became a scientist. So he chose to study science and figured that he could move into writing later on in life.

And that is what he did. He studied physics at Princeton and got a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology and then taught at Harvard and Cornell. He started writing and publishing poems, and in 1989 he was hired at MIT as a joint professor in physics and writing. He published poems, stories, and a lot of essays. As he set out to establish himself as a writer, his biggest influence was E.B. White, whom he considered the greatest American essay writer. So he read White's essays, over and over, and would practice trying to write sentences just like him. He said, "Of course, once you're able to do that, you stop doing it and you just file it away as a tool in your tool box."

In 1992, he published Einstein's Dreams,a novel that chronicled the dreams Einstein might have had as he worked on his theory of relativity. It was composed of 30 small vignettes, each a separate dream about time. Einstein's Dreams was an international best-seller. And it led him into a new line of work — a Unitarian minister in Cambodia called and asked him if he could use Einstein's Dreams in a sermon. Lightman agreed and asked the minister about his work, and he and his wife ended up establishing a project to empower female students in Cambodia, and spend part of each year there.

Since then, he has written four more novels, Good Benito (1995), The Diagnosis (2000), Reunion(2003), and Ghost (2007). He said: "I don't automatically start on a new book as soon as I've finished the previous one. There are some writers who can — they're like chain-smokers, and I'm not a chain-smoker. I want an idea to simmer and stew for a long period of time. […] It's important to me that every book that I do be really a completely fresh and new look at the world. And of course, that makes it frightening to start a new book because you can't really depend upon what you've done with previous books." His most recent book is Song of Two Worlds (2009), a book-length poem about a middle-aged Muslim man living in a crumbling villa on the Mediterranean, who has experienced some mysterious tragedy and is reassessing his life and ideas. In it, he wrote:
"Footsteps —
It's Abbas, dear Abbas.
I know that old shuffle,
Grey stubble, haired mole,
And the yellowing teeth.
Clatter of pots in the kitchen.
He's making some tea.
'Are you awake?' he roars.

Smells of hot peppers and onions
With cinnamon, hazelnut,
Baklava, sugared cream.

I rise from my bed, middle aged,
Balding, the white scar on my arm,
Shrunken chest,
Losing more weight every year —
In thirteen, by my estimate, I'll weigh zero."

He said, "I believe in survival of the fittest of the ideas: if an idea has survived for a few years within the jungle of my mind, then I feel like it's worth pursuing and writing a book."

In Einstein's Dreams, he wrote:
"A person who cannot imagine the future is a person who cannot contemplate the results of his actions. Some are thus paralyzed into inaction. They lie in their beds through the day, wide awake but afraid to put on their clothes. They drink coffee and look at photographs. Others leap out of bed in the morning, unconcerned that each action leads into nothingness, unconcerned that they cannot plan out their lives. They live moment to moment, and each moment is full. Still others substitute the past for the future. They recount each memory, each action taken, each cause and effect, and are fascinated by how events have delivered them to this moment, the last moment of the world, the termination of the line that is time.

"In the little cafe with the six outdoor tables and the row of petunias, a young man sits with his coffee and pastry. He has been idly observing the street. He has seen the two laughing women in sweaters, the middle-aged woman at the fountain, the two friends who keep repeating goodbyes. As he sits, a dark rain cloud makes its way over the city. But the young man remains at his table. He can imagine only the present, and at this moment the present is a blackening sky but no rain. As he sips the coffee and eats the pastry, he marvels at how the end of the world is so dark. Still there is no rain, and he squints at his paper in the dwindling light, trying to read the last sentence that he will read in his life. Then, rain. The young man goes inside, takes off his wet jacket, marvels at how the world ends in rain. He discusses food with the chef, but he is not waiting for the rain to stop because he is not waiting for anything. In a world without future, each moment is the end of the world. After twenty minutes, the storm cloud passes, the rain stops, and the sky brightens. The young man returns to his table, marvels that the world ends in sunshine."

It's the birthday of William Blake, (books by this author) born in London (1757).

By 1782, Blake had apprenticed with an engraver and taken classes at the Royal Academy, and he was writing some poetry on his own. He was heartbroken because the woman he loved did not feel the same about him, and was seeing other men. He went to visit the farm village of Battersea, where some of his distant relatives lived, and he was having dinner with a poor market gardener and his family. One of the man's daughters, Catherine, was very pretty. As soon as Blake entered the room she fell in love with him, and felt so faint that she had to leave the room for a while. But she came back, and after Blake had told the whole family his sad story of unrequited love, he asked Catherine if she pitied him. She said yes, and he said, "Then I love you."

They were married one year later. She had no qualms about his strange spiritual visions, which had been ongoing ever since he was nine years old and saw a tree full of angels. And he was fine with the fact that she was illiterate — she signed their marriage contract with an "X." They ended up with a happy marriage. Blake called his wife his "sweet shadow of delight." He taught her to read and to help him with his engravings.

Blake's most memorable poetry was self-published, and produced by a methodical hand-printing process. He would use acid-resistant liquid to write out his poems in reverse and draw on copper plates, then put the plates in acid so everything else would be eaten away. He said that this method came to him in a dream. Then he would ink the plates and print them onto paper, transferring the ink by rubbing with the back of a spoon — eventually he bought a wooden press. Catherine helped him print and watercolor each piece. In this way he printed poetry like Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and The Four Zoas.

Blake was not particularly famous during his own lifetime, and he lived most of it in poverty. He exhibited a retrospective of paintings between 1809 and 1810, which almost no one visited. The only printed review was by Robert Hunt, Leigh Hunt's brother, who called Blake "an unfortunate lunatic" and trashed his art, describing it as "a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity." After the failed exhibition, he produced almost nothing for the next 10 years. But toward the end of his life, a group of younger artists gathered around him, and he met some generous patrons who encouraged his work.

He kept working up through the day he died, which he spent working on watercolors for an illustrated version of Dante's Inferno. Catherine was at his bedside while he worked, and finally he put his work aside and said to her, "Stay, Kate! Keep just as your are — I will draw your portrait — for you have ever been an angel to me." So he drew his wife's portrait, and then he started to sing — she later described the songs as "songs of joy and triumph." One of his young disciples, George Richmond, was present at Blake's death. He wrote in a letter to a friend: "He died on Sunday night at 6 Oclock in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all his life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ — Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he burst our Singing of the things he saw in Heaven."

After Blake died, Catherine continued to sell her husband's work, but she would tell customers that she had to consult with Mr. Blake first — his spirit regularly appeared to her after his death. When Catherine died a few years later, she also went calmly, reciting Bible passages and repeatedly informing her husband that she was on her way to see him.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the philosopher and writer Friedrich Engels, (books by this author) born in Barmen, Prussia (now Germany) in 1820. He dropped out of high school, went to work as an office clerk, then served in the army. He was excited by radical philosophy, which did not please his father, who sent his son to England to work in a textile firm where he was a shareholder, hoping to change the boy's opinions. Instead of convincing young Friedrich to abandon his views, working in England just made him more radical, and he wrote a book, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1845). Engels decided to go back to Germany, but on his way he stopped in Paris to meet Karl Marx at a café and talk. They ended up becoming good friends, and Engels ended up staying in Paris. He helped Marx with the book he was working on, and a few years later, they co-authored the Communist Manifesto (1848).

Friedrich Engels said, "An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory."

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