Oct. 29, 2011

Sometimes, I Am Startled Out of Myself,

by Barbara Crooker

like this morning, when the wild geese came squawking,
flapping their rusty hinges, and something about their trek
across the sky made me think about my life, the places
of brokenness, the places of sorrow, the places where grief
has strung me out to dry. And then the geese come calling,
the leader falling back when tired, another taking her place.
Hope is borne on wings. Look at the trees. They turn to gold
for a brief while, then lose it all each November.
Through the cold months, they stand, take the worst
weather has to offer. And still, they put out shy green leaves
come April, come May. The geese glide over the cornfields,
land on the pond with its sedges and reeds.
You do not have to be wise. Even a goose knows how to find
shelter, where the corn still lies in the stubble and dried stalks.
All we do is pass through here, the best way we can.
They stitch up the sky, and it is whole again.

"Sometimes, I Am Startled Out of Myself," by Barbara Crooker, from Radiance. © Word Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the biographer James Boswell (books by this author), born in 1740 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His family was descended from minor royalty, and they had occupied the same more than two hundred years. Boswell's father was a judge who insisted that his son study law. So James Boswell passed his bar exams in Scotland, but he didn't really like law and he didn't really like Scotland. Boswell loved gossip, drinking, and traveling, and he wanted to be in London, to be in the company of the rich and famous. He also wanted to be known as a great lover, so he bragged constantly about his love life.

James Boswell was a good writer with an incredible memory, and he started keeping a journal as a teenager, and he kept it for the rest of his life, filled with reflections and anecdotes about the famous people he befriended—Voltaire, Rousseau, Oliver Goldsmith, John Wilkes. Most of all he wrote about his friend Samuel Johnson. When Boswell was just 22 years old, he met Johnson, who was his idol, in the back of a bookshop. Johnson was 53, and he gave the young Boswell a hard time when he met him, but Boswell went back to visit him anyway and they soon became good friends. Over the next 20 years, Boswell followed Johnson around, and he always had paper and took notes constantly. Johnson was often frustrated with Boswell, and Boswell could be critical of Johnson, but they still liked to spend time together, and they traveled together through Scotland and the Hebrides.

After Johnson's death, Boswell spent years writing a biography of his friend. He used letters, interviews, as well as his own diary, of which he said, "A page of my Journal is like a cake of portable soup. A little may be diffused into a considerable portion." Finally, in 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson was published, and people loved it. There had never been a biography like it before. Instead of a dry recitation of facts, Boswell filled his book with personal anecdotes and vivid descriptions, and overall it was fun to read, and he made Johnson sound like a real person who wasn't totally perfect. It's still considered one of the greatest biographies ever written, and it's a big part of the reason why Samuel Johnson is still so famous today.

It's the birthday of The New Yorker editor David Remnick (books by this author), born in Hackensack, New Jersey (1958). This is his first editing job. He worked as a sports reporter for The Washington Post and then as their Moscow correspondent, where his duties once included tracking down a hairdresser for his boss, Washington Post owner Katherine Graham, for her interview with Mikhail Gorbachev.
Soon he was researching and writing big stories from Moscow for the Post, and earning a reputation as rising star. One day, three of his stories from Moscow appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. Then his first book, Lenin's Tomb: The Last days of the Soviet Empire (1993), won the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1992, he started as a staff writer at The New Yorker, and six years later was asked to be the editor. When a room full of staff writers at The New Yorker heard that he'd accepted the post, they burst into applause — a five-minute-long standing ovation.

He continues to report and write for The New Yorker as well as edit it, and he's also the author of a 672-page biography of President Obama, called The Bridge (2010).

It's the birthday of the children's poet and novelist Valerie Worth (books by this author), born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1933. She's most famous for her "small poems," poems for children about everyday objects, and she said "As a child, I preferred reading and writing to everything else, and I still feel much the same way. I was also greatly attracted to 'smallness,' perhaps because throughout grade school I myself was the smallest in my class. My favorite fairy tale was 'Catskin,' about the princess given three ball gowns--one like the sun, one like the moon, and one like the stars--packed up in a walnut shell; and the idea of such magnificence hidden inside so plain and tiny a thing not only fascinates me still, but also has served as a model for many of my poems." Her books include Small Poems (1972), Small Poems Again (1986), and Curlicues: The Fortunes of Two Pug Dogs (1980).
Here is the poem "Safety Pin":
     Closed, it sleeps
     On its side
     The silver
     Of some
     Small fish;

     Opened, it snaps
     Its tail out
     Like a thin
     Shrimp, and looks
     At the sharp
     Point with a
     Surprised eye.

From More Small Poems. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright 1976.

It's the birthday of the British novelist Henry Green (books by this author), born Henry Yorke in Tewkesbury, England (1905). He wrote most of his first novel while he was a teenager, going to school at Eton, a novel called Blindness (1926). Then he went to Oxford, but he mostly drank, played billiards, and went to movies. So he dropped out and went to work as a laborer in an iron foundry, a factory which made beer-bottling machines and plumbing equipment, and he used that experience to write his second novel, Living (1929). He wrote many more novels, and he's best remembered for Loving (1945), which TIME magazine named one of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Loving is what's called an upstairs-downstairs story; it's about a fancy country home in Ireland, parallel stories of the people who live there and the servants who work there.

Green wrote, "Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone."

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




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