Jul. 21, 2011

Runways Cafe II

by Marilyn Hacker

For once, I hardly noticed what I ate
(salmon and broccoli and Saint-Véran).
My elbow twitched like jumping beans; sweat ran
into my shirtsleeves. Could I concentrate
on anything but your leg against mine
under the table? It was difficult,
but I impersonated an adult
looking at you, and knocking back the wine.
Now that we both want to know what we want,
now that we both want to know what we know,
it still behooves us to know what to do:
be circumspect, be generous, be brave,
be honest, be together, and behave.
At least I didn't get white sauce down my front.

"Runways Café II" by Marilyn Hacker, from Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. © W.W. Norton and Company, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1796, Scots poet Robert Burns (books by this author) died at the age of 37. He made a name for himself when he published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in 1786, and he was hailed by literary critics and rural folk alike. He left his role as tenant farmer and moved to Edinburgh to be a celebrity. He wasn't at ease there, though, and eventually moved back out of the city, to a farm in Dumfriesshire. He found it exhausting to try to balance the social and intellectual demands of life as a literary celebrity with the physically exhausting labor of farming, and he aged prematurely.

When he died at just 37, rumors flew. Some who knew his reputation as a tippler and a ladies' man speculated that he died of drunkenness, or venereal disease, or both. He likely had a chronic heart condition following a case of rheumatic fever when he was a child. His health went downhill after a tooth extraction the winter before his death, so he may have developed endocarditis — an inflammation in the lining of the heart — as a result. He was buried with full military honors four days later; his wife was at home giving birth to their son, Maxwell, and wasn't at the funeral.

Since his death, he's been memorialized all over the world, but he's perhaps more beloved in Russia than in any place outside Scotland, and he has long been viewed there as "the people's poet." His background as a farmer made him popular with the peasantry in Imperialist Russia, who felt misunderstood by the aristocracy; later, his support of the French Revolution and socialism made him popular with the Soviet government. His poems are taught to Russian schoolchildren along with the works of their native poets, and a 1924 translation of his poetry by Samuil Marshak sold more than 600,000 copies, making him nearly as popular as Pushkin. The Soviet Union was the first country to put him on a postage stamp, which they did in 1956.

It's the birthday of poet Hart Crane (1899) (books by this author), born Harold Hart Crane in Garrettsville, Ohio. He grew up in Cleveland, to parents who were unhappily married and eventually divorced when he was 17. Always quite high strung, he never took the family discord well, and his mentally unstable mother turned him against his father; for the rest of his life he carried a reputation for being emotionally volatile. He also drank a lot, which didn't help.

He moved to New York in 1923, where he sold advertising and published some poems in literary magazines; unlike his personal viewpoint, his poetry was optimistic. His first book, White Buildings, was published in 1926. He liked the city, and often in his work he tried to create a bridge between his contemporary world and ages gone by; in fact, his best-known work is an epic poem called The Bridge (1930). It was inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge and celebrates the creative power of the human race, especially throughout the history of America. He structured its 15 parts like a symphony.

In spite of his success as a poet, Crane never really escaped his own inner torments. On a ship home from Mexico, he jumped overboard and was lost to the Caribbean Ocean in 1932.

Today is the birthday of Ernest Hemingway (books by this author), born in 1899 in Cicero — now Oak Park — Illinois. He started his writing life as a journalist, but when he was in Paris after World War I, working as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, he was encouraged to take a more literary turn by other American writers like Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. His first collection of short stories, In Our Time, was published in 1925.

Hemingway's memoir A Moveable Feast (published posthumously in 1964) is about those years in Paris, and those writers. The title was chosen by his widow, Mary, from something Hemingway wrote to a friend: "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." It is sentimental and cruel by turns, and not entirely honest, since he probably overstated the level of poverty he experienced there, but as he concludes the brief preface: "If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact."

The memoir begins in medias res: "Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside." And it ends, "There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. [...] But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy."

It's the birthday of Canadian media theorist and educator Marshall McLuhan (1911) (books by this author), born Herbert Marshall McLuhan in Edmonton, Alberta. He coined the phrases "the global village" and "the medium is the message." He studied at Cambridge University, and while there, he encountered the writings of G.K. Chesterton, which influenced his conversion to Catholicism; he'd previously been agnostic. He spent most of his professional life working in academia, although he did work in advertising from time to time to support his wife and six children. In the early 1960s, he predicted the eventual decline of the print culture and the rise of "electronic interdependence," which would bring the world toward a more collective, less fragmented identity. He was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in the late 1960s; it was treated successfully. Ten years later, he suffered a stroke, from which he never fully recovered, and he died in 1980.

He wrote: "The printing press, the computer, and television are not therefore simply machines which convey information. They are metaphors through which we conceptualize reality in one way or another. They will classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, argue a case for what it is like. Through these media metaphors, we do not see the world as it is. We see it as our coding systems are. Such is the power of the form of information."

Today is the birthday of Canadian detective novelist Michael Connelly (1956) (books by this author), born in London, Ontario. His father was a frustrated artist-turned-property developer, and his mother was a fan of crime fiction; she's the one who introduced Michael to detective novels. The family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when Connelly was 11. When he was 16, he saw a man ditch a gun in some bushes, so he followed him to a bar, and then went to get the police. By the time they returned, the suspect was gone, but the incident whetted his interested in police procedure. He never had any thought of writing, though, until he was in college. He discovered Raymond Chandler's books after he saw the film version of The Long Goodbye (novel, 1953; film, 1973). He went home and read all of Chandler's books, and he switched his major from the building trade to journalism, with a minor in creative writing. He was a reporter on the crime beat for a series of newspapers and then started writing detective fiction. He's since written a couple of dozen crime books, many of them featuring cop Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch. Connelly occasionally makes a cameo on the ABC detective series Castle as one of the lead character's poker pals.

British novelist Sarah Waters (books by this author) was born in Pembrokeshire, Wales, on this date in 1966. She did a little writing as a kid, some poems and stories, mostly just imitations of Dr. Who and ghost stories she'd seen on TV. She became interested in studying literature rather than writing her own. She was the first in her family to go to university, and she eventually got a Ph.D. in Literature; her thesis was on lesbian and gay historical fiction. By the time she was finished with the thesis, she thought she might as well try to write her own lesbian historical fiction, so she did: Tipping the Velvet (1998), set in Victorian England. It took her a few months to find an agent, and by then she'd already started on her second novel, Affinity (1999). Her latest book, The Little Stranger (2009), is a ghost story.

On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first people to walk on the moon. It was actually July 20 in the United States, nearly 11 o'clock p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, but according to Greenwich Mean Time, it was already almost 3 a.m. on the 21st.

Apollo 11 left Earth on July 16, took about three days to reach the moon's orbit, and then the lunar module, the Eagle, touched down safely on July 20, on the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility. Neil Armstrong had prepared a few words, and he nearly got them right; he had meant to say, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. followed him about 20 minutes later. They spent two hours on the moon's surface; they took lots of photographs, collected about 50 pounds of moon rock, and set up several devices to take measurements of solar wind and moonquakes. Though they may have wanted to spend more time exploring, there were too many unknowns to allow for wandering. The temperature on the bright side of the moon was about 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and they weren't sure how long their water-cooled suits could keep out the heat. NASA wanted them to stay within range of the fixed camera. And ultimately, they were there on an important — and dangerous — scientific mission, not a sightseeing trip, however tempting this new world must have been. Armstrong later wrote: "It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small."

Before they left, they planted an American flag, and also a plaque, which read, "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon — July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."

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
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show