Sep. 12, 2011

I Ran Out Naked In The Sun

by Jane Hirshfield

I ran out naked
in the sun
and who could blame me
who could blame

the day was warm

I ran out naked
in the rain
and who could blame me
who could blame

the storm

I leaned toward sixty
that day almost done
it thundered

I wanted more I
shouted More
and who could blame me
who could blame

had been before

could blame me
that I wanted more

"I Ran Out Naked In The Sun" by Jane Hirshfield, from Come, Thief. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of H.L. Mencken (books by this author), born Henry Louis Mencken in Baltimore in 1880. He was a literary critic who used his platform to criticize society as well: in particular, pretension, provincialism, and prudery. He was not a friend of organized religion, and he referred to the American middle class as the "booboisie." He was at his peak in the 1920s, editing the magazines The Smart Set and The American Mercury. America outgrew him, though; there wasn't much to laugh about during the Great Depression, and during World War II, patriotism, not cynicism, was the mode of the day.

In 1919, he published the first edition of The American Language, an attempt to catalog uniquely American phrases and idioms. He continued to update and expand it throughout his life.

He wrote, "Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

And, "The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line. The objection to it is not that it is predominantly painful, but that it is lacking in sense."

And, "To the man with an ear for verbal delicacies — the man who searches painfully for the perfect word, and puts the way of saying a thing above the thing said — there is in writing the constant joy of sudden discovery, of happy accident."

It's the birthday of publisher Alfred A. Knopf (1892), born in New York City. He started his own publishing house when he was 23, and it soon gained a reputation for publishing works of literary merit. He was a hands-on boss, overseeing every aspect of production, down to the typeface. He wanted to publish quality books and didn't really care how well they sold. In 1923, he published Khalil Gibran's The Prophet and was nonplussed when it became a huge best-seller.

He co-founded the literary magazine The American Mercury with H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in 1924, and remained its publisher for 10 years. He also published the work of several notable authors of the 20th century, including Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, D.H. Lawrence, James Baldwin, Theodore Dreiser, and Langston Hughes; his favorite of all his authors was Willa Cather.

Today is the birthday of poet and playwright Frederick Louis MacNeice (1907) (books by this author), born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was a contemporary of W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis; they met at Oxford and together they were known as "the Auden group" or sometimes just "the Thirties poets." Poet Roy Campbell gave them the composite name "MacSpaunday." MacNeice published his first collection of poetry, Blind Fireworks, in 1929. It was Auden who convinced him to take poetry seriously as an occupation, and encouraged him to stick with it, and the two remained friends for the rest of their lives.

He began writing for the BBC in 1941, at first just programs to build support for the United States, but later he wrote some radio plays, like The Dark Tower (1946, with music by Benjamin Britten), and a six-part adaptation of Goethe's Faust (1949).

He wrote, in the introduction to his collection Autumn Journal (1939): "Poetry in my opinion must be honest before anything else and I refuse to be 'objective' or clear-cut at the cost of honesty."

On this date in 1940, four teenage boys and a dog named Robot stumbled upon Paleolithic drawings in a cave in Lascaux, France. The main cave is approximately 66 feet wide and 16 feet high, and is connected to a number of smaller chambers. There are about 2,000 drawings and engravings, mostly of animals: horses, bison, red deer, stags, cats, and aurochs — large, black cattle-like animals that are now extinct. Horses and stags are the most common subjects; there are also human figures, various geometric shapes, and the outlines of human hands — possibly the signatures of the artists. The chambers have been given evocative names: the Great Hall of the Bulls; the Chamber of Felines; and the Shaft of the Dead Man. In addition to the figures, there also appears to be an Ice Age star chart: clusters of stars that resemble known constellations like Taurus the Bull, the Summer Triangle, and the Pleiades.

Assigning a precise date to the art has been difficult. Scientists used carbon dating to estimate the age of some charcoal found in the caves, and according to that method, the drawings are about 17,000 years old. What's less certain is whether they were produced over a relatively brief period of a hundred years or whether they span a much longer period.

Although the drawings were in remarkably good condition when the cave was first discovered, the changes made to the cave to enable it to be opened to the public resulted in permanent damage and loss of archeological information. The floor was dug out to permit a walkway, and electric lights were brought in. Once the area was opened, 100,000 people traipsed through every year to take a look. The problem was they were exhaling carbon dioxide, and sweating, and coughing, and touching things. As a result, the colors began to fade, and crystals, algae, mold, and bacteria began to blossom in the cave. It was closed to the public in 1963; some of the damage was halted, even reversed, but much of the archeological data has been lost forever. A partial replica, called Lascaux II, was built in 1983, and you may also take a virtual tour on the Internet.

Today is the birthday of poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje (1943) (books by this author). He was born in Colombo, Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, to parents who were both members of the colonial high society. He moved to England when he was 11, and Toronto when he was 19, and published his first collection of poetry, The Dainty Monsters (1967), when he was 24. He's more widely known for his fiction than his poetry, particularly his 1992 novel, The English Patient, which won the Booker Prize. He also wrote Running in the Family (1982), which is part memoir and part family history, with a few poems thrown in. In it, he wrote: "Asia. The name was a gasp from a dying mouth. An ancient word that had to be whispered, would never be used as a battle cry. The word sprawled. It had none of the clipped sound of Europe, America, Canada. The vowels took over, slept on the map with the S."

On this day in 2008, novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace committed suicide at the age of 46 (books by this author). He had suffered from depression since his early 20s, and though he tried a variety of medications to treat it, nothing worked very well. In his obituary, The New York Times called him "a titanically gifted writer with an equally troubled soul." Earlier this year, his unfinished novel The Pale King (2011) was published. It's set in an Internal Revenue Office in Peoria, Illinois, and its central theme is boredom.

He wrote: "Both destiny's kisses and its dope-slaps illustrate an individual person's basic personal powerlessness over the really meaningful events in his life: i.e. almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can't even hear because you're in such a rush to or from something important you've tried to engineer."

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




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