May 12, 2011

Rule One

by Philip Booth

Rule One of all
rules one:
                 No one ever knows
how much another hurts.
Kate. Ray. Randall. Me.
                                                  The nurses
who were kind to you, the gaspump kid
across the bridge, the waitress here
this noon.
                    No one ever knows.
Or maybe in a thousand, one
has the toughness to,
                                           to care,
to give beyond a selfish pity. Even
any given day,
                              given weathers, detours,
chances of what look like luck,
if we feel bad
                               we refuse the givens.
What blighted lives we lead.
                                               Or follow:
showering, feeding, changing shirts or
pants, working, as one used to say,
to make ourselves presentable.
strangers to our painful selves,
we're still stranger to
diminished friends
when they appear
to hurt.
                 How much we fail them,
failing to come close:
                                           a parent,
newly single, in Seattle;
an upstate poet in intensive care.
You. Blanche. Alvin. Sue.
                                             Who hurts
and why.
                     Why we guess we know.
How much we never.

"Rule One" by Philip Booth, from Selves: New Poems. © Viking, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the poet who wrote about himself: "How pleasant to know Mr. Lear, / Who has written such volumes of stuff. / Some think him ill-tempered and queer, / But a few find him pleasant enough." That’s the nonsense poet Edward Lear (books by this author), born in London (1812). He was the youngest of 21 children, and he was brought up by one of his older sisters. When Edward was a teenager, his family lost all of their money, so he set out to earn a living. He taught drawing, and he was hired by the London Zoological Society to do botanical paintings of birds. The wealthy Earl of Derby saw a book on parrots that Lear had illustrated, so he invited the young man to come live on his estate, Knowsley Hall, and illustrate the exotic birds and mammals in his private menagerie. Lear stayed there for four years and worked on the paintings, which were collected in a book called Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall.

While living at Knowsley Hall, Lear befriended Lord Derby’s grandchildren, great-nephews, and great-nieces. He started making up poetry for those children, and he collected those poems in A Book of Nonsense (1846). He went on to write Nonsense Songs (1871) and Laughable Lyrics (1877). He wrote "The Owl and the Pussycat," and he wrote hundreds of limericks, including:

"There was an Old Derry down Derry,
Who loved to see little folks merry;
So he made them a book,
And with laughter they shook,
At the fun of that Derry down Derry."

"There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin."

"There was an Old Person of Ischia,
Whose conduct grew friskier and friskier;
He danced hornpipes and jigs,
And ate thousands of figs,
That lively Old Person of Ischia."

"There was an Old Person whose habits,
Induced him to feed upon rabbits;
When he’d eaten eighteen,
He turned perfectly green,
Upon which he relinquished those habits."

"There was an Old Person of Hurst,
Who drank when he was not athirst;
When they said, ‘You’ll grow fatter,’
He answered, ‘What matter?’
That globular Person of Hurst."

"There was an Old Lady of Chertsey,
Who made a remarkable curtsey;
She twirled round and round,
Till she sunk underground,
Which distressed all the people of Chertsey."

On this day in 1860, Lear wrote in his diary: "Uprose at sunrise. Beautiful entrance to Gulf of Spezia. Landlord of Villa d’Odessa — on board. Got good room at his Hotel and washed and dressed. Gulf very beautiful and very like Corfu prospects. At 8, set off with G. through the town and up the hills to S.M. of Marinasco. Incredible amiability and good manners of peasantry — one and all! — ‘I never saw such people!’ — Prolonged walk round all the hills, till we lost our way, and came down by bad paths about 3, toward the town. Slept till nearly 6. There was a sort of small table d’hôte — two French, and two Anglians: the lady of which latter was a fierce Protestant, and although acknowledging the excellence of people of these parts, could not allow they were different from those of Rome in reality — ‘Both are in darkness, and the glorious message of gospel truth has not yet reached the poor creatures.’ She waxed very eloquent, and I wished her anywhere. In the evening G. and I walked along the Spiaggia — very pleasantly — from 8 to 9. The day is lovely — but there are signs of change. 48 years old!"

It’s the birthday of comedian Tony Hancock, born in Birmingham, England (1924). His parents ran a hotel, and his father would entertain the guests at night with comedy acts.

Hancock started performing as a comedian when he was 16, and after serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he got a job as "resident comedian" at a London comedy club called The Windmill. He started performing on the radio, and in 1954 he launched his own radio show, Hancock’s Half Hour. On the show, he played a version of himself — a Tony Hancock whose full name was Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock, a down-and-out comedian who was a winning combination of self-deprecation and egotism. Hancock’s Half Hour also starred Sidney James, who played Sid, a con man. The show transitioned from BBC radio to television, where it was even more popular.

He said, "I hate to think of this sort of book getting in the wrong hands. As soon as I’ve finished this, I shall recommend they ban it."

It’s the birthday of composer Gabriel Fauré, born in Pamiers, France (1845). He was his parents’ sixth child, and they sent him to live with a wet nurse for the first few years of his life. His father got a job as a teacher, and Gabriel spent all his time playing on a harmonium in the school’s chapel. A government official happened to overhear young Gabriel’s playing, and suggested to his father that he send his son to study under the composer Louis Niedermeyer.

Fauré was a good student, and after he graduated he got a job as the organist at a church in Brittany, but that didn’t work out very well — he would sneak out of mass to smoke cigarettes, and he finally got fired when he showed up one Sunday morning in his previous night’s clothes, having been out all night. He went from post to post at various churches, and taught private lessons. He worked on composing when he could, which wasn’t often — usually only in the summers — and when he did finish a piece, he made almost no money on it. He wrote an opera, Pénélope, the song cycles La Bonne Chanson (1891 – 92), and L’Horizon chimérique (1922), and his Messe de requiem (1887), which includes the soprano aria "Pie Jesu."

He wrote in a letter to his son Philippe in 1908: "For me, art, and especially music, exist to elevate us as far as possible above everyday existence."

It’s the birthday of Canadian novelist Farley Mowat (books by this author), born in Belleville, Ontario (1921). His favorite childhood activities were writing, dissecting owl pellets, and taking care of his numerous pets — these included a squirrel, an owl, an alligator, cats, and insects. When he was 13, he started his own nature magazine and wrote a weekly column for the local Saskatoon newspaper. His novels include People of the Deer (1952), Never Cry Wolf (1963), and most recently, Eastern Passage (2010).

Never Cry Wolf begins:
"It is a long way in time and space from the bathroom of my Grandmother Mowat’s house in Oakville, Ontario, to the bottom of a wolf den in the Barren Lands of central Keewatin, and I have no intention of retracing the entire road which lies between. Nevertheless, there must be a beginning to any tale; and the story of my sojourn amongst the wolves begins properly in Granny’s bathroom.

"When I was five years old I had still not given any indication — as most gifted children do well before that age — of where my future lay. Perhaps because they were disappointed by my failure to declare myself, my parents took me to Oakville and abandoned me to the care of my grandparents while they went off on a holiday.

"The Oakville house — ‘Greenhedges’ it was called — was a singularly genteel establishment, and I did not feel at home there. My cousin, who was resident in Greenhedges and was some years older than myself, had already found his métier, which lay in the military field, and had amassed a formidable army of lead soldiers with which he was single-mindedly preparing himself to become a second Wellington. My loutish inability to play Napoleon exasperated him so much that he refused to have anything to do with me except under the most formal circumstances.

"Grandmother, an aristocratic lady of Welsh descent who had never forgiven her husband for having been a retail hardware merchant, tolerated me but terrified me too. She terrified most people, including Grandfather, who had long since sought surcease in assumed deafness. He used to while away the days as calm and unruffled as Buddha, ensconced in a great leather chair and apparently oblivious to the storms which swirled through the corridors of Greenhedges. And yet I know for a fact that he could hear the word ‘whiskey’ if it was whispered in a room three stories removed from where he sat."

From the archives:

It’s the birthday of actress Katharine Hepburn, born in Hartford, Connecticut (1907). She didn’t wear make-up or dresses, she didn’t cooperate with the media, and she had a habit of insulting other people in the business. She had red hair and freckles and a sharp cheekbone. But she was one of the best and most popular actresses of the twentieth century. She won four Academy Awards and was nominated for eight more. Her films included Bringing Up Baby (1938), The African Queen (1951), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and On Golden Pond (1981).

She made a name for herself on Broadway in the role of an Amazon in The Warrior’s Husband. The role required her to come on stage by leaping down a flight of steep steps while carrying a stag on her shoulders, and a talent scout was so impressed by the feat that he offered her a movie deal. She starred with John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), and suddenly she went from making $80 a week to $1,500 a week. It took her just a year to win her first Oscar, for her role in Morning Glory (1933). After that, she handpicked each of her movies, and she often had a say in who the other actors in the movie would be. Sometimes she rewrote her own lines.

She said, "If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun."

And, "Marriage is a series of desperate arguments people feel passionately about."

And, "If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased."

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




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