Jan. 7, 2011

Night Journey

by Theodore Roethke

Now as the train bears west,
Its rhythm rocks the earth,
And from my Pullman berth
I stare into the night
While others take their rest.
Bridges of iron lace,
A suddenness of trees,
A lap of mountain mist
All cross my line of sight,
Then a bleak wasted place,
And a lake below my knees.
Full on my neck I feel
The straining at a curve;
My muscles move with steel,
I wake in every nerve.
I watch a beacon swing
From dark to blazing bright;
We thunder through ravines
And gullies washed with light.
Beyond the mountain pass
Mist deepens on the pane;
We rush into a rain
That rattles double glass.
Wheels shake the roadbed stone,
The pistons jerk and shove,
I stay up half the night.
To see the land I love.

"Night Journey" by Theodore Roethke, from Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems. © Library of America. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man most responsible for reviving Hebrew as a spoken language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, (books by this author) born in Luzhki, part of the Russian Empire (1858). He wanted to make sure that Jewish people from around the world could communicate with each other. Though children from Jewish families often learned some Hebrew at Hebrew school, at the time no one on earth spoke modern Hebrew at home as a first language. Many European Jews spoke Russian or Yiddish, a Germanic language written in the Hebrew alphabet.

Ben-Yehuda felt that reviving the Hebrew language was firmly intertwined with the creation of a Jewish homeland, which did not yet exist. He raised his child to be the first native speaker of modern Hebrew, and he's the author of first modern Hebrew dictionary. Today, modern Hebrew is spoken by more than 7 million people in Israel. It's one of Israel's two official languages. The other is Arabic.

It's the birthday of a man who said, "When I first wanted to be a writer, I learned to write prose by reading poetry." Nicholson Baker, (books by this author) born in New York City (1957). He's the author of the recent novel The Anthologist (2009), about a poet struggling to write the introduction to a poetry anthology.

He went to a free experimental school called The School Without Walls, where the students were encouraged to learn about whatever excited them, and then given bus tokens to spend the day around town pursuing their interests. He mostly spent these school days at home watching sitcoms and playing the bassoon and thinking he was going to be a musician.

He even started at a music conservatory for college, but one day after he found his mother at home reading, laughing out loud to herself at an essay John Updike had written about golf for The New York Times Book Review, Baker decided he wanted to be a writer. He said: "Nothing is more impressive than the sight of a complex person suddenly ripping out a laugh over some words in a serious book or periodical. … Here was Updike making people happy. That was obviously something to be proud of."

He worked some odd jobs and tried to write, but he was having a hard time coming up with a plot he was satisfied with. He decided to take six months off of paid work in order to sit and write. And during that time, he wrote his first book, The Mezzanine (1988), which is practically devoid of plot: the entire novel takes place over the course of an office worker's lunch hour, as he rides an escalator up to the mezzanine level of his building. It's a stream-of-consciousness-style record of his thoughts — about shoelaces, the evolution of milk cartons, vending machines, popcorn, plastic straws and classic corporate paper towel dispensers — punctuated with some really long footnotes. The office worker thinks things like: "Staplers have followed, lagging by about ten years, the broad stylistic changes we have witnessed in train locomotives and phonograph tonearms, both of which they resemble."

He once explained: "When you write non-fiction, you have to at least pretend to be a person of some unflappable normalcy who is making reasonable judgments. Fiction, on the other hand, allows you to be a little more provisional and vulnerable, and truer. You can think over the self-medicational function of rhyme and, on the same day, cut some of your finger off with a breadknife."

The Anthologist (2009) begins: "Hello. This is Paul Chowder, and I'm going to try to tell you everything I know. Well, not everything I know, because a lot of what I know, you know. But everything I know about poetry. All my tips and tricks and woes and worries are going to come tumbling out before you. I'm going to divulge them."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of Zora Neale Hurston, (books by this author) who said she "heard tell" she was born on this day in Notasulga, Alabama. She wrote an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and she's best known for her book Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

It's the birthday of Charles Addams, born in Westfield, New Jersey (1912). He had a normal, happy childhood and went on to draw macabre cartoons. He created The Addams Family.

It was on this day in 1896 that Fannie Merritt Farmer published The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, later renamed The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. It was the first cookbook to use accurate measurements.

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