Jun. 6, 2011

At the Pitch

by Maxine Kumin

If I could only live at the pitch
that is near madness, Eberhart wrote

but there was his wife Betty hanging onto
his coattails for dear life to the end of her life.

No one intervened when my mother's brother's
wife ran off with the new young rabbi

every woman in the congregation had a crush on.
They rose unleashed, fleeing west

into the sooty sky over Philadelphia
in a pillar of fire, at the pitch that is near madness

touching down in the outskirts of Pittsburgh.
Cleveland. Chicago. O westward!

O fornication! I was sixteen.
Eberhart had written his poem before

he sailed off to World War II and a boy
had just put his tongue in my mouth

which meant he could make
me do anything. No one

holding onto his coattails, no one onto my skirt
until my father switched on the back porch light.

"At the Pitch" by Maxine Kumin, from Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Maxine Kumin (books by this author), born in Philadelphia (1925). Her family was Jewish, but she went to Catholic school. She said, "In kindergarten at the Covenant Sisters of Joseph, conveniently next door to the house I grew up in, I was told stories of martyrdom and saints. This reinforced what I already knew from observing my father's dedication to work: one must be prepared to endure every hardship to be saved. In suffering, seek salvation, was the message."

She went to Radcliffe, where she took a writing class from Wallace Stegner. She turned in a set of sonnets, and Stegner wrote across the top: "Say it with flowers but for God's sake don't write poems about it." Kumin was crushed. She said, "That just simply turned me off of poetry. I didn't write another poem for years and years and years. I was 17. I had led a comparatively sheltered life, at least intellectually, and I was not at all prepared for this. I had no comprehension of the fact that I was writing flowery, romantic sonnets. I thought the fact that they were metered and rhymed was pretty good. The one thing I learned from that was never, ever do that to a young student, because you simply cannot predict what somebody who is 17 or 18 years old is going to be like in five years. And then of course I forgive him because I think he was only four or five years older than I was."

So she stopped writing poetry for awhile. She got married, and had children. When she started writing again, it was at the Boston Center for Adult Education, and there she met another suburban housewife who was also a talented poet: Anne Sexton. The two became inseparable. They installed extra phone lines in their houses so that they would never have to hang up on each other, and when either of them wanted to talk about poetry, she would whistle into the phone and the other would hear it and come to listen.

Kumin said, "In the early years, 'you write like a man' was the supreme compliment." In her collection Up Country (1972), which won the Pulitzer Prize, she wrote from the point of view of a male hermit because she didn't think readers would respond to the idea of a female hermit. When she was chosen as the Poet Laureate in 1980, she promptly criticized one of her fellow members of the Council of Scholars—the violinist Yehudi Menuhin—who wrote a paper about how men and women approach life and art differently. Menuhin said, "The man is driven to strike out, to build roads—roads anywhere and nowhere in particular—sometimes leading to heaven, more often back to self—and general destruction. The woman is, on the other hand, compelled to plough and till over and over again the same plot of earth, from time to time attracting a male to ensure its fertility and, if she has captivated him, defending it together, or alone, against other male depredations." Maxine Kumin did not take kindly to this characterization, nor to the fact that of the 23 members of the Council of Scholars, only two were women. She said, "''I felt as though I had stumbled into a stag club and ought to leap out of a cake. Creativity is not the exclusive province of this very narrow slice of society.''

In 1963, Kumin and her husband bought a large farm in New Hampshire. The barn was falling apart, the roof on the house needed replacing, the land had been let go, and the previous owner—an artist—left behind a collection of really bad paintings. But they loved it, and at less than $12,000, it was within their price range. Kumin named it PoBiz farm, in honor of the Poetry Business. It started out as a summer home, but they moved there for good in 1976, and Kumin has lived there ever since. She said, "I can't even visualize being a poet without living here," and she writes many of her poems about the farm, and about the business of doing chores, riding horses, and taking care of the land. She said, "My poetry is pretty much centered in New England, but more poetry of people and animals than of landscape. I suppose it could be called pastoral, but not a romanticized pastoral. It has real manure in it and real rain, and real anguish and loss just as much as it has some of the sunny hours."

She had been athletic her entire life—a competitive swimmer as a girl, then an active gardener, farmer, and horse-back rider. As she got older, her arthritis made it difficult for her to ride horses for long distances, so she started driving horses instead. When she was 74 years old, she got in a terrible horse-driving accident and almost died. Instead, she was left with 11 broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken neck, bruised internal organs, and months of slow healing and physical therapy. From that experience she wrote a memoir, Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (2000), and a book of poems, The Long Marriage (2001).

She wrote: "Allegiance to the land is tenderness. / The luck of two good cuttings in this climate. / Now clear down to the alders in the swale, / the fields begin an autumn flush of growth, / the steady work of setting roots, and then / as in a long exhale, go dormant."

Maxine Kumin has published 16 books of poems and five novels. Her most recent books are Still to Mow (2007) and Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (2010).

She wrote the poem "Jack," from Jack and Other Poems (2005).
How pleasant the yellow butter
melting on white kernels, the meniscus
of red wine that coats the insides of our goblets

where we sit with sturdy friends as old as we are
after shucking the garden's last Silver Queen
and setting husks and stalks aside for the horses

the last two of our lives, still noble to look upon:
our first foal, now a bossy mare of 28
which calibrates to 84 in people years

and my chestnut gelding, not exactly a youngster
at 22. Every year, the end of summer
lazy and golden, invites grief and regret:

suddenly it's 1980, winter buffets us,
winds strike like cruelty out of Dickens. Somehow
we have seven horses for six stalls. One of them,

a big-nosed roan gelding, calm as a president's portrait
lives in the rectangle that leads to the stalls. We call it
the motel lobby. Wise old campaigner, he dunks his

hay in the water bucket to soften it, then visits the others
who hang their heads over their dutch doors. Sometimes
he sprawls out flat to nap in his commodious quarters.

That spring, in the bustle of grooming
and riding and shoeing, I remember I let him go
to a neighbor I thought was a friend, and the following

fall she sold him down the river. I meant to
but never did go looking for him, to buy him back
and now my old guilt is flooding this twilit table

my guilt is ghosting the candles that pale us to skeletons
the ones we must all become in an as yet unspecified order.
Oh Jack, tethered in what rough stall alone

did you remember that one good winter?

It was on this day in 1933 that the first drive-in movie theater opened, in Camden, New Jersey. The theater was the brainchild of a young man named Richard Hollingshead Jr., a manager at his father's Camden auto shop, Whiz Auto Products. He dreamed of creating something that would bring a little fun to the tough daily life of the Depression era. He was also thinking about his mother, who was a little bit overweight and wasn't comfortable in movie theater seats.

Once he had the idea for a drive-in theater, he got all the materials to try it out in his own backyard. He mounted a film projector on the hood of his car, and attached a screen to a couple of trees. Then he worked out a complicated system of parking spaces with various ramps and blocks to make sure that every car would have an equal view of the screen. Hollingshead even tried to test how well his system worked in adverse weather by turning on his sprinkler in place of rain. The sound was tougher to manage—in the early days of drive-ins, all the sound came through a speaker mounted by the screen, so it was hard to hear for cars parked in the back, and tinny-sounding for everyone. Eventually technology improved, and viewers were able to get the film's sound through the FM radio in their cars.

One of the big draws of the drive-in theater was that it gave families an activity to do together. There was a kids' play area and a stand that sold snacks. Hollingshead was quick to point out all the people who could suddenly enjoy going to a film: "Inveterate smokers rarely enjoy a movie because of the smoking prohibition. In the Drive-In theater one may smoke without offending others. People may chat or even partake of refreshments brought in their cars without disturbing those who prefer silence. The Drive-In theater idea virtually transforms an ordinary motor car into a private theater box. The younger children are not permitted in movie theaters and are frequently discouraged even when accompanied by parents or guardians. Here the whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are apt to be and parents are furthermore assured of the children's safety because youngsters remain in the car. The aged and infirm will find the Drive-In a boon because they will not be subjected to inconvenience such as getting up to let others pass in narrow aisles or the uncertainty of a seat."

Hollingsburg applied for a patent in May of 1933 and opened his first theater just three weeks later, on Crescent Boulevard in Camden. The film that played on this day was a comedy called Wife Beware, starring Adolph Menjou, which had come out in 1932. The cost was 25 cents per car, and 25 cents per person after that, with a cap at one dollar.

It's the birthday of novelist Thomas Mann (books by this author), born in Lübeck, Germany (1875). On this day in 1934, he was treated to a Testimonial Dinner in New York for his 59th birthday. It was his first time in this country, and he was brought over by his publisher, Alfred Knopf, to coincide with the American publishing date of the first volume of his novel cycle Joseph and His Brothers. Mann was stunned at the amount of publicity he received in America—journalists and photographers followed him, literary celebrities and ordinary fans turned out to greet him. His trip lasted 10 days, and he gave lectures and interviews, went to lunches and conferences. Hundreds of guests attended the birthday dinner, including Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher. He gave a speech, even though his English wasn't very good. He wrote to his German publisher later that month: "To my surprise I find myself back in my Küsnacht study—the adventure has been lived through and now seems only a dream. A rather confused but very pleasant one. I had many agreeable experiences and harvested what had been sowed over the years. The testimonial dinner on June 6th was a great success: 300 persons headed by the mayor of New York. And the whole thing was dreamlike to other people as well: I shook hands with many who said that it was 'like a dream' to have me actually there before them."

He had won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years before, in 1929. After Hitler's rise to power, Mann gave speeches denouncing the new government. He went into self-imposed exile, and then his citizenship was revoked. He lived for years in Southern California; after being accused as a Communist, he left in 1952 for Switzerland. Through it all, Mann wrote continuously. He was a slow writer but he never stopped, so he was also prolific. His books include Buddenbrooks (1901), Death in Venice (1912), The Magic Mountain (1924), and Joseph and His Brothers (1933-43)

Mann said, "A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."

And, "War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace."

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




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