Oct. 21, 2011


by Robert Morgan

A carburetor skips, and rocks
will skip along the surface of
a pond. A fugitive will skip
the country if he can, and crooks
will skip the payment of their debts.
And one can walk content or run
with joy across a summer field.
But why omitting steps is such
a sign of pleasure's hard to say,
as if the gap and shift, the quick
eliding interruption of
a stride, reflects the shiver jolt,
releasing dance; accentuates,
as heart is said to skip a beat,
the lift, arrhythmic, breathless gasp
and rush and reach of crossing first
one threshold then another in
the vivid hop from foot to foot,
the hurrying toward and with delight.

"Skipping" by Robert Morgan, from Terroir. © Penguin, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772) (books by this author), born in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England. He had a fever as a child that made him prone to vivid nightmares. He never forgot the horrific images of his dreams, and they often surfaced in his poetry. He was fascinated with comparative religion and spent a good portion of his life contemplating a theory of universal consciousness.

He and his friend William Wordsworth co-wrote Lyrical Ballads (1798), which is credited with kicking off the Romantic Era in English literature; Romanticism was a reaction against the Enlightenment and argued against a strictly scientific view of nature. Wordsworth contributed most of the poems in the book, and Coleridge only four, but one of those four was the Gothic ballad "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," about a seaman who kills an albatross and is doomed to remain becalmed in uncharted waters, haunted by the ghosts of his crew. Wordsworth had his doubts about the poem, writing to publisher Joseph Cottle in 1799: "From what I can gather it seems that the Ancient Mariner has upon the whole been an injury to the volume, I mean that the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on. If the volume should come to a second Edition I would put in its place some little things which would be more likely to suit the common taste." "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" became Coleridge's best-known work, and along with his "Kubla Khan," is one of the most important poems in English literature.

Today is the birthday of Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904) (books by this author), born near Inniskeen, in County Monaghan. He's best remembered for his long poem The Great Hunger (1942). He began writing at the tail end of the Irish Literary Renaissance, a movement that sought to free Ireland from dependence on English literature, and to establish a national cultural identity by celebrating what they saw as uniquely Irish qualities and subjects, especially the lives of the rural poor. Unlike many of the urban poets who glorified the Irish peasantry, Kavanagh was actually a member of that class; he was the son of a shoemaker, and grew up on a small farm. He left school at 12 and took his education into his own hands. His neighbors scoffed at him for his interest in poetry; he later said, "The real poverty was lack of enlightenment."

His first book, Ploughman and Other Poems (1935), received mixed reviews; it was his first prose work, The Green Fool (1938), an autobiographical novel, that first caught the public eye. He came to hate the book in later years because he felt it led to his being stereotyped as a "peasant poet." The Great Hunger (1942) was an attempt to counteract the novel; it's a long narrative poem that casts a bitter eye at the lives of the rural poor. It's also a bit of social criticism directed at the Irish Renaissance writers' tendency to romanticize the peasantry. In 1948, he published another novel, Tarry Flynn, which was eventually adapted for the stage and performed at Dublin's Abbey Theatre.

In 1954, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and had surgery to remove one of his lungs. He wasn't expected to survive, but he did, and during his extensive period of convalescence, he discovered a love of nature as he recovered his health. His work reflected the change; the New York Times Book Review called his collection Come Dance With Kitty Stobling (1960) "the most positive work he has done ... a lyrical celebration of love fulfilled in man by God."

Kavanagh wrote, "A sweeping statement is the only statement worth listening to. A critic without faith gives balanced opinions, usually about second-rate writers."

It's the birthday of poet Donald Finkel (1929) (books by this author). He was born in New York City and grew up in the Bronx. His mother named him Donald because she thought it was a name no one could make fun of, "and just at about that point, they invented Donald Duck," he recounted. He majored in philosophy at Columbia University, after being kicked out of the University of Chicago for smoking marijuana. He wanted to be a sculptor as a boy, and his mother gave him bars of soap to carve, hoping to keep him out of trouble. He returned to sculpture near the end of his life, making little figures out of found objects like ice cream sticks, bottle caps, and buttons. He called the sculptures "dreckolage," a play on the term "bricolage," which refers to art created from a variety of available objects. He was known for joining disparate images in his poetry as well; his work was unorthodox, but not abstract; colloquial, but not common.

In 1968, he went to Antarctica as part of the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, which gave scholars in the humanities the opportunity to study at various U.S. research outposts. He produced two book-length poems as a result of his trip: Adequate Earth (1972) and Endurance: An Antarctic Idyll (1978).

It's the birthday of actor and novelist Carrie Fisher (1956) (books by this author). She was born in Beverly Hills, California, a show-biz kid, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. For most people, she will always be Princess Leia, the heroine of the original Star Wars trilogy of the 1970s and '80s. But there is life after Leia, and Carrie — once she left her cinnamon-roll hairdo and gold metal bikini behind her — made a name for herself as a writer as well as a performer. "By the time I was 13, maybe even younger, I would write to calm myself down," Fisher recalled in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. "I had an overflowing of words. And I realized that if I put things down on paper I could get out from the emotions and organize myself. I kept diaries. The writing compulsion emerged at about the same time as the bipolar condition appeared."

Her literary breakthrough came in 1987, with Postcards from the Edge, a semi-autobiographical novel. She also wrote the screenplay for the 1990 film, which starred Meryl Streep as a drug-addicted actress, and Shirley MacLaine as her mother, a former musical comedy darling. She also worked for many years as a "script doctor," working uncredited to rewrite and polish existing screenplays. She wrote three more novels, including Surrender the Pink (1990) and The Best Awful There Is (2004), a sequel to Postcards from the Edge. For the last several years, she's been touring in a one-woman show based on her 2008 memoir, Wishful Drinking. Her latest book, Shockaholic, will be released later this year, and it's also inspired by her own life. "My daughter would like me to write about a 13-year-old slave girl from Jamaica, but that's not what I know," she says. "I understand myself. And I understand addiction, which is like being a truant, like getting away with something."

Today is the birthday of Ojibwe novelist David Treuer (1970) (books by this author). He was born in Washington, D.C., to an Austrian Holocaust survivor and a tribal court judge; he grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, where his mother's family lives. He studied anthropology and creative writing at Princeton, and published his first novel, Little, in 1995. Two more novels followed: The Hiawatha (1999) and The Translation of Dr. Apelles (2006). He's also written a collection of critical essays, Native American Fiction: A User's Manual (2006). His next book, Rez Life — part history, part memoir, part reportage — is forthcoming.

He and his brother Anton have been working for the past several years to record and preserve the Ojibwe language, one of only three Native American languages expected to survive into the middle of the 21st century. "If these words are lost," he wrote in a 2008 essay for the Los Angeles Times, "much will happen, but also very little will happen. We will be able to go to Starbucks and GameStop and Wal-Mart and the Home Depot as before. We will tie our shoes the same way and brush our teeth and use Crest Whitestrips. Some of us will still do our taxes. Some of us still won't. The mechanics of life as it is lived by modern Ojibwes will remain, for the most part, unchanged. The language we lose, when we lose it, is replaced by other languages. And yet, I think, more will be lost than simply a bouquet of discrete understandings ... I think what I am trying to say is that we will lose beauty — the beauty of the particular, the beauty of the past and the intricacies of a language tailored for our space in the world."

Today is the birthday of science fiction writer Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, born in Berkeley, California, in 1929. She's best known for her Earthsea series of books about a world populated by wizards and dragons. It's been translated into 16 languages. She also worked for 40 years on a translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching.

She said, "If you want your writing to be taken seriously, don't marry and have kids, and above all, don't die. But if you have to die, commit suicide. They approve of that."

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




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