Apr. 11, 2011

Boulevard du Montparnasse

by Mary Jo Salter

Once, in a doorway in Paris, I saw
the most beautiful couple in the world.
They were each the single most beautiful thing in the world.
She could have been sixteen, perhaps; he twenty.
Their skin was the same shade of black: like a shiny Steinway.
And they stood there like a four-legged instrument
of a passion so grand one could barely imagine them
ever working, or eating, or reading magazine.
Even they could hardly believe it.
Her hands gripped his belt loops, as they found each other's eyes,
because beauty like this must be held onto,
could easily run away on the power
of his long, lean thighs; or the tiny feet of her laughter.
I thought: now I will write a poem,
set in a doorway on the Boulevard du Mont Parnasse,
in which the brutishness of time
rates only a mention; I will say simply —
that if either one should ever love another,
a greater beauty shall not be the cause.

"Boulevard du Mont Parnasse" by Mary Jo Salter, from Sunday Skaters. © Knopf, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet Christopher Smart (books by this author), born in Shipbourne, England (1722). In his poem "The Citizen and the Red Lion of Brentford," he wrote: "Shall each pert half-witted wit, / That calls me Jack or calls me Kit, / Prey on my time or my table? / No — but let's hasten to the fable." His nicknames were Jack, Kit, and Kitty; and coincidentally for a man known as Kitty, one of his most well-known poems is an ode to his beloved cat, Jeoffry. The ode is a surviving fragment from his great poem Jubilate Agno, which he wrote while he was locked up in an insane asylum.

No one knows whether Christopher Smart was actually insane. He definitely underwent some sort of intense religious conversion, and this was enough to convince his friend Samuel Johnson. Johnson said, "Madness frequently discovers itself merely by unnecessary deviation from the usual modes of the world. My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question."

Smart was sent to the asylum by John Newbery, who was not only his publisher and his landlord but also his father-in-law. Their relationship had deteriorated, and Newbery might have had his own reasons for wanting his son-in-law out of his way. Smart produced his two most famous poems during his confinement — A Song to David (1763) and Jubilate Agno, which wasn't published in its entirety until the 1950s.

Seventy-four lines of Jubilate Agno are devoted to Jeoffry the Cat. T.S. Eliot, the author of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1930), wrote in an essay: "There was one man who had this personal rhythm, though he was not so great a poet — Christopher Smart. But he had to become mad to get it at its best. His poem about his cat is to all other poems about cats what the Iliad is to all other poems on war."

Christopher Smart wrote:
"For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. [...]
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually — Poor
            Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom."

It's the birthday of a noblewoman whom the scholar Samuel Putnam called "the first modern woman": Marguerite de Navarre (books by this author), born in Angoulême, France (1492). Her mother, Louise, was extremely well educated, and when Marguerite's father died a few years after her birth, Louise became the head of the household. She taught her children herself or hired the best tutors for them. Marguerite spoke at least five languages and studied literature. When she was a teenager, she was married off to a duke, Charles IV of Alençon, a man who was kind but basically illiterate. He had no interest in fostering his wife's contributions to the intellectual world of France. They were married for more than 15 years and didn't have any children, but then Charles died and Marguerite married again, this time to Henry II of Navarre. She gave birth to a daughter; and then, when she was 38, to a son, Jean, who died when he was a few months old.

Marguerite was so distraught that she wrote Le miroir de l'âme pécheresse (The Mirror of the Sinful Soul, 1531). It combined her mysticism with her strong ideas for political action within the Church. She was a Catholic, but she believed that the Church needed to be completely reformed, and that didn't go over well with everyone. After the publication of The Mirror of the Sinful Soul, one monk even suggested that Marguerite be put in a sack and drowned in the Seine. But her brother, Francis I, was the King of France, and he made sure that nothing happened to his sister.

Throughout her life, Marguerite advocated for religious reform, was sent on high-profile diplomatic missions, and continued to write. The French historian Brantôme said of Marguerite: "She composed most of these novels in her litter as she traveled, for her hours of retirement were employed in affairs of importance. I have heard this account from my grandmother, who always went with her in her litter as her lady of honor and held her ink-horn for her; and she wrote them down as quickly and readily, or rather more so, than if they had been dictated to her."

Her most famous work was the Heptameron, a collection of more than 70 short stories — stories about women and their relationships with men, and whether it was possible to be virtuous and also experience real love. They are stories of unplanned pregnancies, jealous murders, women locked up for life, corrupt monks, cheating wives, and unforgiving patriarchs. Jane Smiley wrote about The Heptameron: "It is clear from her book that freedom of conscience for women can lead anywhere — if your eternal soul is your own responsibility, and cannot be saved through reliance upon a corrupt church, then it is a short and slippery slope from there to all sorts of freedom, first of belief and thought, then of feeling, then of action."

Marguerite de Navarre had intended for The Heptameron to be a collection of 100 stories, but she died before it was completed. She said, "Never shall a man attain to the perfect love of God who has not loved to perfection some creature in this world."

It's the birthday of the writer and humorist Leo Rosten (books by this author), born in Lodz, in what is now Poland (1908). After working as a tutor for newly arrived immigrants, he was inspired to satirize the process of learning English in his first and most famous book, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1937).

He said, "Why did God give me two ears and one mouth? So that I will hear more and talk less."

And, "People say: idle curiosity. The one thing that curiosity cannot be is idle."

In the introduction to one of his books, he wrote: "Reader, please note: Special Warranty. If you are not completely delighted with this book, just return it to me, with the receipt showing exactly how much you paid. I promise to return your receipt within five days."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of poet Mark Strand (books by this author), born in Summerside, Canada (1934). He spent his early childhood on Prince Edward Island, but his father worked as a salesman, and the family moved frequently. He originally wanted to be a painter, but when he went to Yale for graduate school he got much more praise for his writing than his painting. He said, "You don't choose to become something like a poet. You write and you write, and the years go by, and you are a poet."

He became the fourth national poet laureate in 1990, and he received dozens of angry letters when he announced that he would not write any poems for national public figures, even if the president's dog died. He said: "On the death of my own dog — if I had a dog — I'd be quite capable of writing about her demise. But the president's life is so detached from mine, it would be hard for me to internalize it."

His books of poetry include Dark Harbor (1993); Blizzard of One (1998), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry; and most recently, New Selected Poems (2007).

Mark Strand said, "Poetry is about slowing down. You sit and you read something, you read it again, and it reveals a little bit more, and things come to light you never could have predicted."

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




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