Jul. 22, 2011

We Who Are Your Closest Friends

by Phillip Lopate

we who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting
as a group
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
discontent and
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift

your analyst is
in on it
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us

in announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves
but since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your
disastrous personality

then for the good of the collective

"We Who Are Your Closest Friends" by Phillip Lopate, from At the End of the Day. © Marsh Hawk Press, 2010 (buy now)

Today is the birthday of American poet Stephen Vincent Benét (1898) (books by this author), born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He was born into a military family, but his father also read poetry aloud to his children: Stephen, his brother, William Rose, and his sister, Laura. All of them grew up to become writers; William became a journalist, founded the Saturday Review of Literature, and produced Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia (1948).

Stephen published his first book at age 17, went to Yale, and served in World War I as a civilian, because his poor vision kept him out of the Army; after the war, he submitted his third volume of poetry — Heavens and Earth (1920) — in lieu of a master's thesis. He also wrote three novels and some short stories, but it's a long poem that he wrote while in Paris — John Brown's Body (1928) — that is perhaps his most famous work. It's an epic in eight sections, and tells the story of the Civil War, beginning with John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and ending just after Lincoln's assassination. It was dramatized by Charles Laughton in 1953. Benét represents both sides, and many social classes, evenhandedly, and he was both popular and critically acclaimed. Here's an excerpt:

                                                Good Stallion,
Ridden and ridden against a hurdle of thorns
By uncertain rider after uncertain rider.
The rider fails and you shiver and catch your breath,
They plaster your wounds and patch up your broken knees,
And then, just as you know the grip of your rider's hands
And begin to feel at home with his horseman's tricks,
Another rider comes with a different seat,
And lunges you at the bitter hurdle again,
And it beats you again — and it all begins from the first [...]

He's also known for his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster (1937), which was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post. It'sa tall tale about a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the Devil and then hires orator Daniel Webster to argue his case in front of a midnight jury of American villains. Webster rises from his grave to take the case, saying, "If two New Hampshiremen aren't a match for the devil, we might as well give the country back to the Indians." The judge is John Hathorne, infamously unforgiving Salem witch trials magistrate and great-grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Archibald MacLeish turned the story into a play, and it's also been made into an opera and two movies.

It's the birthday of Tom Robbins (1936) (books by this author), born in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. He decided he wanted to be a writer when he was a boy of five. His family was, he says, "kind of a Southern Baptist version of The Simpsons — except that my father never would have eaten pie off of the floor and I played the part of both Bart and Lisa." They moved to Virginia when he was 11. He studied journalism at Washington and Lee University for a couple of years, but he left when he got in trouble for bad behavior and for failing to earn a letter in basketball. He hitchhiked around the country, instead, and wound up in Greenwich Village.

He was drafted near the end of the Korean War, and joined the Air Force. He really didn't want to serve, but it never occurred to him to dodge the draft in Canada. He figured the best he could do was to find a noncombat post, so he studied meteorology at the University of Illinois, and then taught it to the South Korean air force. After the war, he returned to Virginia and studied art, then worked for the Richmond Times-Dispatch as a copyeditor. After living in the Village and overseas, he no longer felt at home in the South; he got fed up and moved to Seattle in 1962, explaining, "I only knew two things about Seattle: one, it was a long way from racist, sexist, homophobic, hide-bound, purse-lipped, gun-toting, church-crazed, flag-saluting, bourbon-swilling, buzz-cut, save your Confederate money, boys! Richmond, Virginia; and two, there was reputed to be something not quite right about its weather."

His books are full of whimsy and sly humor, a little mysticism, and a dose of the bizarre. His first book, Another Roadside Attraction, was published in 1971, and is about a married couple — proprietors of a hot dog stand — who steal the mummy of Jesus. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976) features a hitchhiker with abnormally large thumbs. Jitterbug Perfume (1984) is about a king who lives for a thousand years and ends up as Einstein's janitor. He's written nine novels and one collection of essays, reviews, and short stories.

He's also something of a punning philosopher. "'Joy in spite of everything,'" he says," is yanking the bell rope despite physical affliction — it has become my Quasi Motto. One of my books is a hallucinogen, an aphrodisiac, a mood elevator, an intellectual garage door opener, and a metaphysical trash compactor."

Today is the birthday of S.E. Hinton (books by this author), born Susan Eloise Hinton in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1948. She grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the north side of town. She went to Will Rogers High School, and the student body tended to divide up into two gangs, the blue-collar Greasers and the Socs (SO-shes), who were the kids whose families got rich from oil. Her novel The Outsiders (1967) was based on that world, and she wrote it when she was only 17. It was the third book she'd written, but the first that was published, and her editors suggested she use the name S.E. Hinton, because people would never believe a girl could write about such a gritty subject. She used the money to buy a horse, because she'd wanted one ever since she was a child. She followed The Outsiders with That Was Then, This Is Now (1971), Rumble Fish (1975), and Tex (1979).

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




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