Apr. 18, 2011

Where Dreams Come From

by Marge Piercy

A girl slams the door of her little room
under the eaves where marauding squirrels
scamper overhead like herds of ideas.
She has forgotten to be grateful she has
finally a room with a door that shuts.

She is furious her parents don't comprehend
why she wants to go to college, that place
of musical comedy fantasies and weekend
football her father watches, beer can
in hand. It is as if she announced I want
to journey to Iceland or Machu Picchu.
Nobody in their family goes to college.
Where do dreams come from? Do they
sneak in through torn screens at night
to light on the arm like mosquitoes?

Are they passed from mouth to ear
like gossip or dirty jokes? Do they
sprout from underground on damp
mornings like toadstools that form
fairy rings on dewtipped grasses?

No, they slink out of books, they lurk
in the stacks of libraries. Out of pages
turned they rise like the scent of peonies
and infect the brain with their promise.
I want, I will, says the girl and already

she is halfway out the door and down
the street from this neighborhood, this
mortgaged house, this family tight
and constricting as the collar on the next
door dog who howls on his chain all night.

"Where Dreams Come From" by Marge Piercy, from The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2010. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It is the birthday of the man who inspired the word "beatnik" in the 1950s: poet Bob Kaufman (books by this author), born Robert Garnell Kaufman, in New Orleans, Louisiana (1925). Kaufman's mother was a Roman Catholic woman from Martinique who loved to play the piano and buy books at auctions. His father was a German Jew; "my Negro suit has Jew stripes," Kaufman often said of his lineage. Details of his life are hazy because he didn't keep a diary or leave behind any letters, and while he completed three volumes of poetry, he preferred to recite his poems in coffee houses rather than write them down.

As a teenager, he joined the Merchant Marine. In his 20 years as a sailor, he circled the globe nine times and survived four shipwrecks. On his first ship, the Henry Gibbons, he became friends with the first mate, who lent him books and encouraged him to read.

It was at sea when he first read about the Beat poets, many of whom also had maritime ambitions. Gary Snyder wanted to experience the culture in port cities around the world, and he worked as a seaman during the summer of 1948 and again in the mid-1950s. When Jack Kerouac, as a freshman at Columbia, failed chemistry and lost his scholarship, he joined the Merchant Marine to make money to re-enroll. Allen Ginsberg was suspended from Columbia for fighting with his dormitory housekeeper, and he followed Kerouac into the Merchant Marine. (Ginsberg tried marijuana for the first time on his maiden voyage.) When he was 22, Lawrence Ferlinghetti fell in love with the sea when he lived on the Maine coast for a summer and worked scraping moss off rocks. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enrolled in Midshipmen's School and was deployed at different lighthouses and naval watch posts throughout World War II.

When Kaufman was back on land, he studied briefly at the New School in New York City, where he met William S. Burroughs and Ginsberg. The three eventually moved to San Francisco and joined Gregory Corso, Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti to form the heart of the Beat movement.

Improvisational jazz influenced Kaufman's street performances and earned him the nickname "The Original Bebop Man," but it also earned him the attention of local police. In 1959, he was tossed into jail 39 times for disorderly conduct. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen said he had Kaufman's spontaneous oral poetry in mind when he created the word "beatnik."

Later, Kaufman cofounded Beatitude magazine, which helped launch the careers of many other poets, but he continued to live a mostly itinerant life, filled with drugs, a stint at Bellevue Hospital, where he underwent electroshock treatments, and continued police harassment. By the mid '60s, he had published two volumes of poetry — Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965) and Golden Sardine (1967)and in the early '80s, his friends gathered old recordings and notes and had them published as The Ancient Rain: Poems 1958 - 1978 (1981).

When President Kennedy was shot in 1963, Kaufman took a vow of silence and didn't speak again until he walked into a coffee shop in 1975 and recited his poem, "All Those Ships that Never Sailed." He said:

All those ships that never sailed
The ones with their seacocks open
That were scuttled in their stalls ...
Today I bring them back
Huge and transitory
And let them sail

His wife encouraged Kaufman to write down his many poems, but he wished to stay hidden from history. 

He said, "I want to be anonymous. My ambition is to be completely forgotten."

On this day in 1929, President Herbert Hoover nominated John Munro Woolsey to the United States District Court in New York. Woolsey made several major decisions on freedom of expression. In United States v. One Obscene Book Entitled "Married Love" (1931), he ruled that a doctor's book on how to improve sexual relations in a marriage was not obscene. Later that year, in United States v. One Book Entitled "Contraception," he found that a book with information about birth control was not obscene or immoral.

His most famous ruling involved James Joyce's novel Ulysses. In the early 1920s, Ulysses was serialized in the literary magazine The Little Review. When a young girl read a chapter with "unparlorlike" content, she was aghast and soon a group called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice filed a lawsuit. The court ruled that Ulysses was "the work of a disordered mind" and banned publication in the United States.

A decade later, the case resurfaced in Judge Woolsey's court. He overturned the earlier ruling, saying that the book was not pornographic and could be published in the United States. He praised the "astonishing success" of Joyce's use of stream of consciousness and he wrote:

"[i]n respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of [the] characters, it must be always remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring."

For decades afterward, every copy of Ulysses printed by Random House in the United States contained Judge Woolsey's opinion. Most modern editions still do.

It is the birthday of Lucrezia Borgia, born in Subiaco, Italy (1480). She was the illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, who later became Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Vannozza Cattanei.

The Borgia family is known as one of the most corrupt political families in history. They ruled Renaissance Italy with deceit, murder, bribery, theft, adultery, and incest, and have come to personify Machiavellian excess. Lucrezia was part of this scheming, though how much of it was her choice — and how much of it was forced on her by her father and brother Cesare — is unknown. What is clear is that her family married her off three times for strategic reasons. When it seemed like she might actually love her second husband, Alfonso d'Aragon, her brother Cesare, with whom she was rumored to be having an incestuous affair, had him killed. Lucrezia is said to have regularly murdered dinner guests by putting poison in their food.

Whether she was a pawn or an active participant in her family's ruthless pursuit of power, it hasn't stopped writers and composers from casting her as a villain ever since. She has appeared in works by Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and an opera by Donizetti. Lord Byron was so compelled by her reputation that he stole a lock of her golden blond hair that was on display with one of her love letters in a library in Milan. When Gregory Maguire re-envisioned the story of Snow White in his 2003 novel Mirror, Mirror, he cast her as the evil stepmother.

And her murderous ways continue to haunt contemporary culture. In the 2009 music video "Paparazzi," pop superstar Lady Gaga wears a hollow, poison-filled ring modeled after one Lucrezia was rumored to wear.

It is the birthday of comedy writer and late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien, born in Brookline, Mass (1963). His mother, Ruth, is a lawyer and his father, Tom, an epidemiologist. He got his start writing editorials and humor pieces for his high school newspaper, The Sagamore, and by his senior year, he was the managing editor. That same year, he won a national writing contest with a short story called "To Bury the Living." He remarked that after high school he would like to do "something responsible — go to a good college, then law school, and then maybe get into politics."

His political aspirations took a detour when O'Brien attended Harvard and his freshman roommate suggested they try writing for the Harvard Lampoon. The editors loved his work and their praise motivated him to pursue comedy writing.

He moved to Los Angeles after graduation to write for TV, and he won an Emmy in 1988 for his work on Saturday Night Live. Later he joined The Simpsons as a writer and penned some of their most memorable episodes, including "Marge vs. the Monorail," in which the residents of Springfield buy a monorail from a slick-talking salesman and later regret it.

O'Brien began hosting Late Night with Conan O'Brien in 1993, and he has been nominated for an Emmy for writing every year since. Today, he hosts Conan on TBS. A documentary about his jobless days in 2010, called Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, was picked up for distribution this year.

Of his first day writing for The Simpsons, he said: "They showed me into this office and told me to start writing down some ideas. They left me alone in that office, and I remember leaving after five minutes to go get a cup of coffee. And I heard a crash, and I walked back to the office, and there was a hole in the window and a dead bird on the floor — literally in my first 10 minutes at The Simpsons, a bird had flown through the glass of my window, hit the far wall, broken its neck, and fallen dead on the floor. And I remember George Meyer came in and looked at it, and he was like, 'Man, this is some kind of weird omen.' It all ended up working out really well, but nowhere in literature has a dead bird ever been a good omen."

It's the birthday of American writer and journalist Richard Harding Davis (books by this author), born in Philadelphia (1864). Davis began his literary career as an investigative newspaper reporter, infiltrating gangs of thieves and reporting on harrowing natural disasters. He also wrote fiction, and the "Gallegher" stories he penned in 1890 about a Philadelphia copy boy flew off the shelves. His successful fiction writing helped him become managing editor at Harper's Weekly from 1890 to 1895.

During the Spanish American War (1898), Davis traveled on an armored naval vessel off the coast of Cuba and reported on the American attack on Matanzas. The story captivated readers but upset the Navy, and Davis was banned from naval vessels for the rest of the war. So he began traveling with the Rough Riders, the volunteer cavalry lead by then-Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, an irrepressible personality who gave Davis ample fodder for his stories. In turn, Davis' stories made the future president a household name. Once, in the heat of battle, Davis grabbed a gun and fired rounds at the Spanish to help the troops. Roosevelt made Davis one of only three honorary members of the Rough Riders for his bravery.

Davis' fame as a war correspondent was helped by his dashing good looks. He had broad shoulders, a chiseled jaw, and determined eyes. He personified the image of the handsome adventurer who would not let danger stop the pursuit of truth. The illustrator Charles Dana Gibson used Davis as the model for the Gibson Man, his pen-and-paper rendering of ideal masculinity.

On this day, in 1924, the first crossword puzzle book was published. Simon and Schuster commissioned the book to meet growing demand for these engaging puzzles, originally dubbed "word-crosses," which first appeared in U.S. newspapers a little over a decade earlier. Both the first and second printings of The Cross Word Puzzle Book sold out in weeks, so the publishers commissioned two more collections and rushed them to print. By the end of 1924, the books ranked No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 on the national nonfiction best-seller list.

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