Dec. 20, 2011

Human Beauty

by Albert Goldbarth

If you write a poem about love...
the love is a bird,

the poem is an origami bird.
If you write a poem about death...

the death is a terrible fire,
the poem is an offering of paper cutout flames

you feed to the fire.
We can see, in these, the space between

our gestures and the power they address
—an insufficiency. And yet a kind of beauty,

a distinctly human beauty. When a winter storm
from out of nowhere hit New York one night

in 1892, the crew at a theater was caught
unloading props: a box

of paper snow for the Christmas scene got dropped
and broken open, and that flash of white

confetti was lost
inside what it was a praise of.

"Human Beauty" by Albert Goldbarth, from The Kitchen Sink. © Graywolf Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of American physicist Robert Van de Graaff (1901), born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and known for the literally hair-raising generator that carries his name. A Van de Graaff generator primarily consists of a hollow metal globe standing on a thick, hollow pole; inside the pole, a pair of pulleys drive a belt of silk over a pointed metal comb that is hooked to an external power supply. The comb and one pulley sit at the base of the pole, the second pulley sits inside the metal globe, and as the belt runs it builds up impressively large static electric charges — Van de Graaff's original hand-built generator, which is now housed at the Boston Museum of Science, can generate more than 2 million volts on a dry day.

Van de Graaff generators are popular in science classrooms and science fiction; when students touch one while it's running, the static charge will lift their hair into ball-shaped halos around their heads. Recently, Van de Graaff generators have become popular with home hobbyists, who have used them to turn out extreme Christmas light displays, or who run music through the electrical discharges so that the sound is transmitted to the audience on bolts of manmade lightning.

It's the birthday of the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, the lifelong muse of poet W.B. Yeats, born in Aldershot, England, in 1865. She and Yeats were the same age, born only a few months apart, and they first met when they were 25 years old. He was introduced to her by a friend, the Irish nationalist John O'Leary, and later referred to the day when he met her as "when the troubling of my life began."

She was tall and exquisitely beautiful. In his Memoirs, Yeats wrote: "I had never thought to see in a living woman so great beauty. It belonged to famous pictures, to poetry, to some legendary past. A complexion like the blossom of apples, and yet face and body had the beauty of lineaments which Blake calls the highest beauty because it changes least from youth to age, and a stature so great that she seemed of a divine race."

Yeats immediately fell in love with Maud Gonne, and he asked her to marry him in 1891, but she refused. It was the first of many proposals of marriage that he made and that she rejected. They remained close to each other throughout their lives, though, and agreed at one point that they had a "spiritual union" to each other.

In response to one of Yeats' many marriage proposals, Maud Gonne told him: "You would not be happy with me. ... You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry."

Today is the birthday of the award-winning fiction writer Hortense Calisher (books by this author), born in New York City (1911). Although she did not begin publishing until she was almost 40, she had wanted to be a writer from the time she was a girl. Calisher is best known for short stories such as "In Greenwich There Are Many Gravelled Walks" and "The Night Club in the Woods," and also for the novel False Entry and her 2004 memoir, Tattoo for a Slave.

Twenty-six years ago today, President Ronald Regan signed a bill establishing an official poet laureate for the United States. As the Library of Congress explains, the poet laureate is to serve as "the nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans" and is charged with the task of seeking to raise a greater national appreciation for the reading and writing of poetry.

Each poet laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress and the position has been held by such notable writers as Billy Collins, Louise Glück, and Charles Simic. This past autumn, the Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine, whose most recent collections include Breath (2004) and News of the World (2009), became the most recent poet to hold this distinguished post.

Today is the birthday of Sandra Cisneros (books by this author), born in Chicago (1954) and best known for the highly acclaimed coming-of-age novel The House on Mango Street (1984). Although the book was largely ignored when it was first published, it has since been translated into a dozen languages and has become required reading for middle schools and high schools throughout the United States.

Cisneros was both "the only daughter and only a daughter" in a family of seven children, and because her father felt that daughters were meant for husbands and not necessarily careers, she was free to study anything she wanted in college, including something as "silly" as English. Once there, Cisneros felt foreign and out of place, as if "everyone seemed to have some communal knowledge which I did not have . ... My classmates were from the best schools in the country. They had been bred as fine hothouse flowers. I was a yellow weed among the city's cracks." She said, "It was not until this moment when I separated myself, when I considered myself truly distinct, that my writing acquired a voice," and Cisneros realized that she had the opportunity to write about something none of her classmates could — the vignettes based on her adolescence in a rundown Chicago neighborhood that would become The House on Mango Street and that would tell the story of a Latina girl who longs to live in a real house.

Since then, Cisneros has published numerous other works, including Woman Hollering Creek: and Other Stories (1991), the poetry collection Loose Woman (1994), and the novel Caramelo (2002), and has been honored with fellowships from both the MacArthur Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The novelist Elizabeth Benedict (books by this author) was born on this day in Hartford, Connecticut (1954). Benedict's family was not a literary one — her mother was a gifted artist who worked as a secretary and her father was an insurance salesman — and Benedict had never considered a career in writing until she was in college. But it was there, on the day before her 19th birthday, that a prescient professor returned a term paper with a note saying it was obvious that Benedict wanted to write a novel — a fact that had not been obvious to Benedict herself. Still, that night she decided that she would in fact become a writer, and that to do so she must write every day, no matter what the subject, and that one day what she had written would become a book.

After college, Benedict worked for the Mexican American Legal Defense and wrote her first novel, Slow Dancing (1985), about an immigration lawyer. She followed that with The Beginner's Book of Dreams (1988), Safe Conduct (1993), and numerous other novels as well as the writing craft book The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers (1996).

Benedict has said that "If it were denied me to write, I imagine I would die," for through writing she makes sense of her own deepest experiences as she reshapes them into "a fictional universe much larger, more varied, and ... more compelling than the extremely personal" with which she begins. And from those deeply personal experiences, she also offers four important lessons for herself and other writers: First, work like a maniac because no one else will do it for you. Second, know that art matters. Next, understand that fiction is about transformation and that change is possible. And finally, make the surface of writing lively, fun-filled, and funny, even if the characters are in excruciating pain."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
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  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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