Mar. 27, 2011

His Good Felt Hat

by Bruce Taylor

All dogs and children awaiting
his flat ascending steps
up the steepest hill
for miles around,
hunched over, hands deep
into the jingle of his pockets

full of keys and key chain,
change purse, small change,
clean hanky, subway tokens, Tums
and Lifesavers or better yet,

Chicklets, or cough-drops, or gum
he'd give some to any grandchild
who could spell his word for the day
or who had learned another verse
from Proverbs or the Psalms

with his good felt hat in his hand
and his jacket folded neatly
over the other shoulder,
and his always white shirt
and his pin for perfect attendance
in the too wide lapel
of his second best suit

and his braces, belt
with initialed buckle,
vest, vest-chain, fob,
collar-stays, tie-pin,
cuff-links, Parker pen
and pencil set, glasses case,
address book and billfold

and if it was a Sunday
his best blue suit
and his bible, the small one,
and a white boutonniere
for his mother who was dead
and the envelopes for the offering.

"His Good Felt Hat" by Bruce Taylor, from Pity the World. © Plain View Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Louis Simpson, (books by this author) born in Jamaica, West Indies (1923). He's published more than 17 volumes of poetry, and his collection At the End of the Open Road (1963) won the Pulitzer Prize. His father was a second-generation Jamaican of Scottish descent; his mother, a Russian Jew, died while he was a teenager. His stepmom kicked him out of the house and he immigrated to America at age 17.

He studied at Columbia University before joining the U.S. Army during World War II, where he served in the tank corps and then as an infantryman. His longest poem, "The Runner," deals with a soldier's feelings during the Battle of the Bulge, in which Simpson took part. After the war, he finished his bachelor's degree at Columbia and then earned a Ph.D. there.

In the late 1950s, his early, traditional rhyming verse — like that in The Arrivistes (1949) and Good News of Death and Other Poems (1955) — gave way to experimental free verse; he decided old forms were dead, that poetry should spring from the poet's inner life in a more natural way. He said: "The old-fashioned verse of epithets and opinions — writing of the will rather than the imagination — which is still practiced by those who think of themselves as avant-garde — is dead. And objective verse, which is only photography, is boring. Those who still write in these ways are at the mercy of their surroundings; they are depressed, and create nothing. Only in Surrealism, creating images and therefore realities, is there any joy."

He said, "When I write a poem, I don't know quite what it means. If I think I know what it means, I've got a bad poem. I want a poem to be beyond me. I want it to be something that transfers a feeling I don't quite understand the limits of."

It's the birthday of the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, born in Knoxville, Tennessee (1963). His mother was 16 when he was born, and Tarantino never met his father. He moved with his mother to a diverse neighborhood of South Bay, near the Los Angeles Airport. He was diagnosed as hyperactive as a kid and didn't get along with his classmates or his teachers. The only things that calmed him down were comic books and movies. From the time he was a toddler, his mother let him watch whatever movies he wanted. He watched everything from Kung Fu movies to French art house films.

He once scored above 150 on an IQ test in high school, but he hated school so much that he dropped out after 9th grade. He got a job as an usher at a pornographic movie theater. He started taking acting classes, and in his spare time he wrote screenplays of movies he'd already seen from memory. Whatever he couldn't remember, he just made up. These screenplays eventually turned into his own original work, and he realized that he'd rather be a filmmaker than an actor.

Instead of going to film school, Tarantino got a job at video rental store that had one of the largest video collections in Southern California. Several other aspiring filmmakers worked there, and they would watch movies all day at work, discussing camera angles and dialogue. He spent five years working at the video store, writing screenplays, but he wasn't getting anywhere in his career. He finally decided he had to move to Hollywood, and on the same day he'd made that decision, he got a thirteen hundred dollar tax refund in the mail.

Tarantino got a few acting jobs in Hollywood, including a part as an Elvis Impersonator on the TV Show Golden Girls. He sold two of his screenplays. But what he wanted more than anything was to direct his own movie. And then, in the time-honored Hollywood tradition, he met an actor who knew another actor who knew Harvey Keitel, and Keitel agreed to look at one of his scripts. He was impressed enough to volunteer to help Tarantino produce the film, and to act in it himself.

The result was Reservoir Dogs (1992), about a group of bank robbers trying to figure out who set them up. It made Tarantino internationally famous. His next film, Pulp Fiction, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, and it went on to win an Academy Award for best screenplay.

His most recent film, a WWII action flick about a group of mostly Jewish guerilla U.S. soldiers and a French teenage girl's revenge on Nazi's, called Inglourious Basterds (2009), was a decade in the making, and he ultimately produced three scripts for it. He called it the best writing he had ever done, but had a hard time writing an ending. "At the time, people were saying I had writer's block, but I had the opposite. I couldn't stop writing. What I came up with wasn't a movie — it was a 12-hour miniseries. So I put it away, and when I came back to it, I realized the story was the problem. So I kept the characters, but I came up with a new story." Inglourious Basterds was nominated for eight Academy Awards and was Tarantino's highest-grossing film to date.

It's the birthday of the novelist Julia Alvarez (books by this author), born in New York City (1950). She spent her most of her childhood in the Dominican Republic, before her family had to flee the country back to the U.S. because of her father's involvement in the underground movement that was resisting the brutal Trujillo dictatorship. Her first big success was the novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), about four sisters making their way as Dominican refugees in New York. When asked about what shaped her future as a writer, Alvarez said she points to "the watershed experience of coming to this country. Not understanding the language, I had to pay close attention to each word — great training for a writer. I also discovered the welcoming world of the imagination and books. There, I sunk my new roots [...] As a kid, I loved stories, hearing them, telling them. Since ours was an oral culture, stories were not written down. It took coming to this country for reading and writing to become allied in my mind with storytelling."

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote "Happy Birthday to You," Patty Smith Hill, born in Anchorage, Kentucky (1868). Most of her life was spent as a kindergarten teacher. She began teaching in Louisville, Kentucky, and it was there, in 1893, that Hill first wrote the lyrics to the song. But it was originally meant as a welcome to start the school day and was first called "Good Morning to All." Hill's sister Mildred, an accomplished musician, provided the melody. Hill was only 25 when she wrote the lyrics to the famous song.

It became popularized with the invention of radio and sound films. The song appeared in the Broadway musical "The Band Wagon" (1931), and was used for Western Union's first singing telegram in 1933. A third sister, Jessica Hill, noticed the similarities between "Happy Birthday to You" and the song her sisters wrote, and she was able to prove it in a court of law. The song was copyrighted in 1935 and remains under copyright to this day. According to Forbes magazine, the song produces about $2 million in licensing revenue each year. "Happy Birthday to You" is still one of the most popular songs in the English language, along with "Auld Lang Syne" and "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

On this day in 1912, President Taft's wife and the wife of the ambassador from Japan planted the first of Washington D.C.'s cherry trees. The cuttings were scions from the most famous trees in Tokyo, the ones that grow along the banks of the Arakawa River. Workers took over, and thousands of cherry trees, all gifts from the Japanese government, were planted around the Tidal Basin. During the Second World War, Tokyo lost scores of cherry trees in the allied bombing raids; after the surrender, horticulturalists took cuttings from the trees in Washington and sent them back to Tokyo. Years later, some of the Washington trees died, and Tokyo sent cuttings back across the Pacific.

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




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