May 25, 2011

I Knew a Woman

by Theodore Roethke

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in a chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant notes to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

"I Knew a Woman" by Theodore Roethke, from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. © Anchor, 1974. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of philosopher, poet, and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author). He was born in Boston in 1803, and his father's unmarried sister, Mary Moody Emerson, was a great influence on him. She wasn't formally educated, but she was sharp, and she was widely read. She introduced young Waldo, as he was called, to a wide variety of philosophies and spiritual beliefs, including the Hindu scriptures that he would return to in later years, and it was from her that he got many of the aphorisms he passed on to his children, like "Always do what you are afraid to do," and "Despise trifles," and "Oh, blessed, blessed poverty." He entered Harvard at 14, and he began keeping journals, which he called his "savings bank"; when he became friends with Thoreau in 1837, he suggested that Thoreau, too, might benefit from keeping a journal.

In his book Nature (1836), Emerson first introduced the concept of Transcendentalism — the idea that spiritual truth could be gained by intuition rather than by established doctrine or text — and he would become a leader of that movement. He was a popular public speaker, and gave more than 1,500 speeches in his lifetime.

From the essay "The Over-Soul" (1841):

"The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty. We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read, and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith."

It's the birthday of poet Theodore Roethke (books by this author), born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1908. He grew up working with his father and uncle in his family's greenhouses, and later said, "They were to me, I realize now, both heaven and hell, a kind of tropics created in the savage climate of Michigan, where austere German Americans turned their love of order and their terrifying efficiency into something beautiful." His uncle committed suicide in 1923, and his father died of cancer that same year.

Roethke kept notebooks, lots of notebooks, more than 200 of them over the course of his life, jotting down random thoughts, scraps of phrases, conversations, and criticisms (of himself as well as others). Some of these notes eventually found their way into his poetry, but not many of them did; his biographer Allen Seagar estimated that only 3 percent of the lines he jotted down were ever published.

He was a dedicated and exuberant teacher, but sometimes resented the intrusion teaching made into his own work. He wrote, "It's no way to live — to go from exhaustion to exhaustion." He suffered from bipolar disorder and in his manic phases would work himself so hard that he ended up hospitalized. He died of a heart attack in 1963.

The greenhouses and plants of Roethke's youth often served as a central image in his poems, like "The Geranium":

The Geranium

When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,
She looked so limp and bedraggled,
So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,
Or a wizened aster in late September,
I brought her back in again
For a new routine —
Vitamins, water, and whatever
Sustenance seemed sensible
At the time: she'd lived
So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer,
Her shriveled petals falling
On the faded carpet, the stale
Steak grease stuck to her fuzzy leaves.
(Dried-out, she creaked like a tulip.)

The things she endured! —
The dumb dames shrieking half the night
Or the two of us, alone, both seedy,
Me breathing booze at her,
She leaning out of her pot toward the window.

Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me —
And that was scary —
So when that snuffling cretin of a maid
Threw her, pot and all, into the trash-can,
I said nothing.

But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week,
I was that lonely.

It's the birthday of novelist Robert Ludlum (1927) (books by this author), born in New York City. He wrote paranoia thrillers, and he's best known for The Bourne Identity (1980) and its sequels. He started out as an actor and producer for the stage and TV, and didn't turn to writing until later in life; his first novel, The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971), was published when he was 44. Working in the theater gave him some strong opinions about plot: "I get annoyed when a self-indulgent writer just shows off what he knows but doesn't really tell a story. To me storytelling is first a craft. Then if you're lucky, it becomes an art form. But first, it's got to be a craft. You've got to have a beginning, middle and end."

Ludlum died in 2001, but his brand lives on. His estate has encouraged the publisher to continue the Bourne franchise and other series using other authors. "People expect something from a Robert Ludlum book, and if we can publish Ludlum books for the next 50 years and satisfy readers, we will," said Jeffrey Weiner, Ludlum's executor.

Today is the birthday of short-story writer, poet, and occasional essayist Raymond Carver (1938) (books by this author), born in Clatskanie, Oregon. He was the son of a sawmill worker, and he got married young — right out of high school — to his 16-year-old girlfriend, Maryann Burk. They had two kids in quick succession, and he went to work in a variety of blue-collar jobs to support his young family. He took a college creative writing course in California when he was 20, and that sparked his first interest in writing as a profession. He's best known for his short stories, but he was also an accomplished poet in the realist tradition of Robert Frost and W.S. Merwin.

He drank heavily throughout the '60s and '70s, like his father before him, even as he was emerging as America's most influential writer of short stories. He made his name writing about the hardships of the working poor, in spare prose made sparer by the influence of his editor, Gordon Lish. He's been called "minimalist," but he didn't care much for that label. "It suggests the idea of a narrow vision of life, low ambitions, and limited cultural horizons," he said. "And, frankly, I don't believe that's my case. Sure, my writing is lean and tends to avoid any excess. There's a saying of Hemingway's that I could take for my motto: 'Prose is architecture. And this isn't the Baroque age.'"

In 1977, he got sober, convinced that he would be dead at 40 otherwise. He left his wife the following summer to move in with the poet Tess Gallagher, who would be his companion, muse, and co-author for the rest of his life. His writing became more expansive, more hopeful, and he referred to this period as his "second life."

Carver, who once described himself as "a cigarette with a body attached to it," died of lung cancer at the age of 50. His epitaph, from his poem "Late Fragment," reads:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

It's the birthday of novelist and gardening columnist Jamaica Kincaid (1949) (books by this author), born Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John, Antigua. She was a very bright child, but also unhappy, and the teachers grew to see her as sullen and willful. She began to escape into the world of books. "I didn't know anyone else who liked to read except my mother," she said, "and it got me in a lot of trouble because it made me into a thief and a liar. I stole books, and I stole money to buy them."

She moved to New York at 17 to work as an au pair, and later began to write articles for teen magazines. She also changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid, a way for her, she says, "to do things without being the same person who couldn't do them." Eventually her work in the Village Voice led to a staff writer position at The New Yorker.

She told Mother Jones: "I will not give the happy ending. I think life is difficult and that's that. I am not at all — absolutely not at all — interested in the pursuit of happiness. I am not interested in the pursuit of positivity. I am interested in pursuing a truth, and the truth often seems to be not happiness but its opposite. Americans like to be funny, they like to laugh and they like a happy ending — which accounts I think for the sorry state of American writing life, but that's a whole other story."

She writes about colonialism, and also about gardening, and sees the two as bound up together in many ways. "Most of the nations that have serious gardening cultures also have, or had, empires," she said. "You can't have this luxury of pleasure without somebody paying for it. This is nice to know. It's nice to know that when you sit down to enjoy a plate of strawberries, somebody got paid very little so that you could have your strawberries. It doesn't mean the strawberries will taste different, but it's nice to enjoy things less than we do. We enjoy things far too much, and it leads to incredible pain and suffering."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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