May 3, 2011


by William Matthews

Summer school, and jumbo shrimp, of course.
Friendly fire, famous poet, common sense,
and, until very recently, safe sex.
Blind date, sure thing, amicable divorce.

Also there's loyal opposition,
social security, deliberate speed.
How about dysfunctional family?
Eyes blackened, hearts crushed, the damn thing functions.

Some things we say should coat our tongues with ash.
Drug-Free School Zone? No way: it's our money
our children toke, snort and shoot up while we
vote against higher property taxes.

Want a one-word oxymoron? Prepay.
Money's—forgive me—rich in such mischief:
trust officer, debt service, common thief
these phrases all want to have it both ways

and sag at the middle like decrepit beds.
Religious freedom—doesn't that sound good?
And some assisted living when we're old
and in our cryptic dreams the many dead

swirl like a fitful snow. We'll wake and not
think of our living wills or property.
We'll want some breakfast. Our memories
will be our real estate, all that we've got.

"Oxymorons" by William Matthews, from Search Party: Collected Poems. © Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (books by this author), born in Florence in 1469. Machiavelli loved politics, and once wrote to a friend that he could talk of nothing else. He’s best known for his political how-to manual, The Prince (written in 1513; published in 1532), and the term “Machiavellian” has come to stand in for the book’s central theme, namely “the ends justify the means.” He observed that princes can and do use unsavory, brutish, or deceptive tactics to gain and maintain power. Humanists called The Prince immoral, and the Catholic Church added it to their list of banned books.

In all of Machiavelli’s other political works, he supported a republican form of government, writing in Discourses on Livy (about 1517) that “it is the well-being not of the individuals but of the community which makes the state great, and without question this universal well-being is nowhere secured save in a republic. ... Popular rule is always better than the rule of princes.”

Enlightenment philosophers in the 18th century read The Prince as a satire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract, “Machiavelli was a proper man and a good citizen; but, being attached to the court of the Medici, he could not help veiling his love of liberty in the midst of his country’s oppression. The choice of his detestable hero, Caesar Borgia, clearly enough shows his hidden aim; and the contradiction between the teaching of The Prince and that of the Discourses on Livy and The History of Florence shows that this profound political thinker has so far been studied only by superficial or corrupt readers.”

Machiavelli was also a poet, a novelist, and a dramatist. While he was in exile between 1504 and 1518, he wrote a comic play called La Mandragola, about the corruption of the Italian government. The play enjoyed renewed popularity in the latter half of the 20th century and inspired two musicals, two operas, and a film.

It’s the birthday of Danish-American journalist, photographer, and social reformer Jacob Riis (books by this author), born in Ribe, Denmark, in 1849. He moved to New York in 1870, looking for carpentry work. He soon spent the money he’d brought with him, and, destitute, slept in filthy police-run poorhouses, in public areas, and, once, on top of a tombstone. He relates in his autobiography, The Making of an American (1904), that at one point all he had was a gold locket containing a strand of hair from his sweetheart back in Denmark, and a stray dog who had befriended him. He woke up in police lodgings one day to find the locket had been stolen, and when he complained to the sergeant, the man threw him out and beat his dog to death.

He eventually found work for a series of small, unsuccessful newspapers, one of which — The News — he was able to buy when it was about to fold. He worked hard, and paid off his debts, sold the paper for five times what he paid for it, and married his sweetheart. He also took a job as a police reporter, working the night shift among the tenements of poor immigrants, and vowed to find a way to improve their conditions. When flash photography was invented in 1887, he knew he had found his way. His slum photographs and commentary became a book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890), and caught the eye of Theodore Roosevelt, then the New York City Police Commissioner. The two remained friends for the rest of their lives, and Roosevelt once wrote of Riis, “The countless evils which lurk in the dark corners of our civic institutions, which stalk abroad in the slums, and have their permanent abode in the crowded tenement houses, have met in Mr. Riis the most formidable opponent ever encountered by them in New York City.”

Muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens said of Riis: “He hated passionately all tyrannies, abuses, miseries, and he fought them. He was a terror to the officials and landlords responsible, as he saw it, for the desperate condition of the tenements where the poor lived. He had exposed them in articles, books, and public speeches, and with results.” Those results included the passage of the Tenement House Act (1901), which mandated improved conditions for the poor.

It’s also the birthday of English physicist George Paget Thomson, born in Cambridge in 1892. Physics was, one might say, the family business; his father, Joseph John Thomson, had discovered the electron. George did a year’s worth of research under his father before World War I broke out, and he continued his investigation of electrons after the war, discovering in 1927 that, although they were particles as his father had determined, they also behaved like waves.

He became interested in atomic fission and controlled thermonuclear reactions. He was named chairman of the British Committee on Atomic Energy during World War II, and was also a consultant to the British Atomic Energy Authority. He was knighted in 1943.

It’s the birthday of poet, novelist, and memoirist May Sarton (books by this author), born Eleanor Marie Sarton in Wondelgem, Belgium, in 1912. Her father was a science historian, and her mother was an artist, and the family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, when May was three years old. She received a scholarship to Vassar, but by this time she had fallen in love with the theater and her dream was to act and direct, so she declined the offer. While studying acting and voice, she wrote poetry, and a series of her sonnets was published in Poetry magazine in 1930, when she was 18 years old. By 1935, she had decided that writing, not acting, was her life’s work. She wrote more than 50 books: poetry, novels, memoirs, and journals. Her memoir Journal of a Solitude (1973) has been called “the watershed in women’s autobiography.”

In World of Light, a 1979 documentary about Sarton, she said, “I don’t write poems very often and when I do, they come in batches and they always seem to be connected to a woman, in my case, a muse who focuses the world for me and sometimes it’s a love affair and sometimes it’s not.” She wrote a novel, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, in 1965, which is often referred to as her “coming out” novel. She worried, with good reason, that writing about homosexuality would pigeonhole or even dismiss her as a “lesbian writer,” and for many years to come, that’s exactly what happened.

By 1990, she was unable to write anymore as a result of a stroke, but she produced three journals and a volume of verse over the last five years of her life, by dictating them into a tape recorder.

“You choose to be a novelist,” she once said, “but you’re chosen to be a poet. This is a gift and it’s a tremendous responsibility. You have to be willing to give something terribly intimate and secret of yourself to the world and not care, because you have to believe that what you have to say is important enough.”

It’s also the birthday of William Inge (books by this author), born in 1913 in Independence, Kansas. He came to be known as the “Playwright of the Midwest,” and credits his keen understanding of human nature to growing up in a small town: “I’ve often wondered how people raised in our great cities ever develop any knowledge of humankind. People who grow up in small towns get to know each other so much more closely than they do in cities.”

While working as a drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times, Inge met Tennessee Williams, who invited him to a production of The Glass Menagerie. Inge was inspired to write a play of his own, Farther Off from Heaven (1947), which Williams recommended for production. He wrote a string of hits — Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1952), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957) — all of which would later be turned into movies. He enjoyed less success and acclaim in the 1960s, however, with the sole exception being his screenplay for Splendor in the Grass (1961). He won an Oscar for it, but his five final plays were box office flops, and he killed himself in 1973, convinced he could no longer write.

And it’s the birthday of Israeli poet and novelist Yehuda Amichai (books by this author), born Ludwig Pfeuffer in Würzburg, Germany, in 1924. He moved to Palestine in 1936 and later became an Israeli citizen. He had a childhood friend in Germany, Ruth Hanover, who died in a concentration camp in 1944. She sometimes appears in his poems as “Little Ruth,” and he calls her his “Anne Frank.”

He was one of the first poets to write in colloquial Hebrew, and he sometimes used an archaic word rather than its modern equivalent, and this gave another, biblical layer of meaning to his poems that is unfortunately lost in translation. He told the Paris Review in 1989: “I’d been raised in a very Orthodox home and the language of the prayers and the Bible were part of my natural language. I juxtaposed this language against the modern Hebrew language, which suddenly had to become an everyday language after having been a language of prayers and synagogue for two thousand years.”

He said: “I think when you’re a poet you have to forget you’re a poet — a real poet doesn’t draw attention to the fact he’s a poet. The reason a poet is a poet is to write poems, not to advertise himself as a poet.”

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