Sep. 10, 2011

The Word

by Tony Hoagland

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between "green thread"
and "broccoli," you find
that you have penciled "sunlight."

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,

and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing

that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder

or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,

but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom

still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.

"The Word" by Tony Hoagland, from Sweet Ruin. © University of Wisconsin Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Mary Oliver (books by this author), born in Maple Heights, Ohio (1935). She had an unhappy childhood and was sexually abused as a very young girl. She spent most of her time outside, wandering around the woods, reading and writing poems. She once said to a reporter: "I don't talk about my childhood because it's time we all get a new subject." She wrote a poem about skipping school to spent time outside, called "Violets." It begins: "Down by the rumbling creek and the tall trees — / Where I went truant from school three days a week / And therefore broke the record — / There were violets as easy in their lives / As anything you have ever seen / Or leaned down to intake the sweet breath of."

From the time she was young, she knew that writers didn't make very much money, so she sat down and made a list of all the things in life she would never be able to have — a nice car, fancy clothes, and eating out at expensive restaurants were all on the list. But young Mary decided she wanted to be a poet anyway.

Oliver went to college, but dropped out. She made a pilgrimage to visit Edna St. Vincent Millay's 800-acre estate in Austerlitz, New York. The poet had been dead for several years, but Millay's sister Norma lived there along with her husband. Mary Oliver and Norma hit it off, and Oliver lived there for years, helping out on the estate, keeping Norma company, and working on her own writing. In 1958, a woman named Molly Malone Cook came to visit Norma while Oliver was there, and the two fell in love. A few years later, they moved together to Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Oliver said: "I was very careful never to take an interesting job. Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it. I also began in those years to keep early hours. [...] If anybody has a job and starts at 9, there's no reason why they can't get up at 4:30 or five and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day — which is what I did."

She published five books of poetry, and still almost no one had heard of her. She doesn't remember ever having given a reading before 1984, which is the year that she was doing dishes one evening when the phone rang and it was someone calling to tell her that her most recent book, American Primitive (1983), had won the Pulitzer Prize. Suddenly, she was famous. She didn't really like the fame — she didn't give many interviews, didn't want to be in the news. When editors called their house for Oliver, Cook would answer, announce that she was going to get Oliver, fake footsteps, and then get back on the phone and pretend to be the poet — all so that Oliver didn't have to talk on the phone to strangers, something she did not enjoy. Cook was a photographer, and she was also Oliver's literary agent. They stayed together for more than 40 years, until Cook's death in 2005.

Last year, Mary Oliver published her 20th collection of poems, Swan (2010). It includes the poem "Beans Green and Yellow":
In fall it is mushrooms
gathered from dampness
under the pines:
in spring I have known
the taste of the lamb
full of milk and spring grass;
today it is beans green and yellow
and lettuce and basil from my friends' garden —
how calmly, as though it were an ordinary thing,
we eat the blessed earth.

She said: "I've always wanted to write poems and nothing else. There were times over the years when life was not easy, but if you're working a few hours a day and you've got a good book to read, and you can go outside to the beach and dig for clams, you're okay."

It's the birthday of the poet H.D., born Hilda Doolittle (books by this author) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1886). She wrote:
You are as gold
as the half-ripe grain
that merges to gold again,
as white as the white rain
that beats through
the half-opened flowers
of the great flower tufts
thick on the black limbs
of an Illyrian apple bough.

Can honey distill such fragrance
As your bright hair —
For your face is as fair as rain,
yet as rain that lies clear
on white honey-comb,
lends radiance to the white wax,
so your hair on your brow
casts light for a shadow.

It's the birthday of best-selling novelist Hannah Webster Foster, born in Salisbury, Massachusetts (1758). She went to a women's academy, married a minister, had six children, and settled into life as a minister's wife. She was almost 40 years old when she wrote an epistolary novel called The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797). Foster did not put her name on the novel — it was attributed to "A Lady of Massachusetts."

The Coquette was a huge success. It was one of the best-selling novels of 18th-century America, and its popularity continued well into the 19th century — it was reprinted eight times between the years 1824 and 1828. Hannah Foster died in 1840, and it wasn't until 1866 that her name was printed on the book.

The story of Eliza Wharton was based heavily on the true story of Elizabeth Whitman. Whitman was a beautiful, spirited, and accomplished minister's daughter from a well-known family. She became pregnant out of wedlock and died after giving birth to a stillborn child at a roadside tavern, lonely and abandoned. Elizabeth Whitman was a distant relative of Hannah Foster's husband. The man who supposedly impregnated her was Pierpont Edwards, son of the famous preacher and theologian John Edwards, who started the Great Awakening movement and delivered the sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Naturally, all of New England was fascinated by the story, and Foster capitalized on the gossip by turning it into a novel. Elizabeth Whitman became Eliza Wharton, and Pierpont Evans became Major Peter Sanford, the dashing man who steals Eliza away from the boring but safe Reverend Boyer.

The Coquette opens with a letter from Eliza to her friend Miss Lucy Freeman: "An unusual sensation possesses my breast; a sensation, which I once thought could never pervade it on any occasion whatever. It is pleasure; pleasure, my dear Lucy, on leaving my paternal roof! Could you have believed that the darling child of an indulgent and dearly beloved mother would feel a gleam of joy at leaving her? But so it is."

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




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