Dec. 27, 2011

Nocturne of the Poet Who Loved the Moon

by Mark Strand

I have grown tired of the moon, tired of its look of astonish-
ment, the blue ice of its gaze, its arrivals and departures, of
the way it gathers lovers and loners under its invisible wings,
failing to distinguish between them. I have grown tired of
so much that used to entrance me, tired of watching cloud
shadows pass over sunlit grass, of seeing swans glide back and
forth across the lake, of peering into the dark, hoping to find
an image of a self as yet unborn. Let plainness enter the eye,
plainness like the table on which nothing is set, like a table that
is not yet even a table.

"Nocturne of the Poet Who Loved the Moon" by Mark Strand, from Almost Invisible. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of German astronomer Johannes Kepler, born in Weil der Stadt, Württemberg (1571), who intended to become a theologian but then read Copernicus's Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs, in which Copernicus posits that the planets revolve around the Sun, not the Earth. Kepler saw Copernicus's theory as evidence of a divine blueprint for the universe, and set out to prove the theories through scientific observation. He wrote a defense of Copernicus called The Cosmographic Mystery (1596) and over his lifetime, Kepler came up with three laws of planetary motion. He published two of them in New Astronomy (1609), stating first, that the planets travel in elliptical orbits around the Sun; and second, that an imaginary line joining the planet and the Sun would sweep out equal areas during equal periods of time — in other words, the planet moves faster during the portion of its orbit that is closest to the Sun. His final law, published in Harmonies of the World (1619), describes the mathematical relationship between the distance of a planet from the Sun and the length of the planet's orbital period.

Kepler was also the father of modern optics. He had poor vision himself, as a result of a childhood case of smallpox. He explained the mechanics of vision in the eye, and developed lenses to correct nearsightedness and farsightedness. He also explained how both eyes work together to produce depth perception.

It's the birthday of poet Charles Olson (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1910). He spent summers in Gloucester and later settled there; the fishing town would become central to his poetry.

In the late 1940s, Olson began work on an epic series on the origins of American civilization, set in Gloucester. He called the epic The Maximus Poems. The first volume was published in 1960, and Olson continued to add to the work until his death in 1970. His work was experimental, and rejected any traditional notion of rhyme or meter. He didn't even consider himself a poet, preferring to call himself an "archeologist of morning." In his essay, "Projective Verse," Olson defines a new, open poetic form that is controlled only by the sound and breathing pattern of the voice.

Today is the birthday of Chris Abani (books by this author), born in Afikpo, Nigeria (1966), the son of a white secretary from the English countryside and a black West African who went to graduate school at Oxford University. At 10 years old, he published his first short story, and at 16 he wrote his first novel, a political thriller called Master of the Board (1985). The novel brought him lots of national literary awards, but it also brought him a prison sentence when a real coup attempt followed the book's publication. Abani was released after serving six months, and then he wrote another political novel and went back behind bars for a year. When he was in college, he formed a theater troupe that performed subversive plays outside government buildings. This time, he was sentenced to treason, condemned to death, and tortured. He spent 18 months in prison, six of those months in solitary confinement, and he wrote about the experience in a poetry collection, Kalakuta Republic (2000). His most recent novel is Song for Night (2007). In 2010, he published three books of poetry: Sanctificum (2010), There Are No Names for Red (2010, co-author Percival Everett), and Feed Me The Sun: Collected Long Poems (2010).

Abani said: "Artists were essentially shamans or priests or seers in the old days and I think art is still the primary focus of looking for ways to deal with the questions of being human. I think you can do that while meditating in your room. OK, so I went to prison, I suffered, but I'm here drinking a three-dollar coffee checking my email on a fancy gadget. The problem is we're looking for something that doesn't exist. We're looking for authenticity. There is no such thing as authenticity. There is either good art or bad art. Art is never about its content. It's about its scaffolding."

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Wilfrid Sheed (books by this author), born in London, England (1930). He moved to Pennsylvania when he was a boy and grew up in a tiny village where there were almost no other children and he spent most of his free time playing baseball by himself. He said, "I became perhaps the outstanding solitary baseball player of my generation."

He has written several satirical novels about journalism, including The Hack (1963) and Max Jamison (1970). He's also written several memoirs including My Life as a Fan (1993) about his love of baseball, and In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery (1995).

Radio City Music Hall opened on this date in 1932. John D. Rockefeller Jr. owned a large parcel of real estate in midtown Manhattan. He'd planned to build a new Metropolitan Opera House on the property, but the stock market crash of 1929 put an end to that plan. Rockefeller decided to go ahead and build a block of buildings anyway, which he called "Rockefeller Center." He formed a partnership with Radio Corporation of America and S.L. "Roxy" Rothafel, who had a knack for reviving struggling theaters. Together with interior designers Edward Durrell Stone and David Deskey, they built the cornerstone of Rockefeller Center: an elegant Art Deco theater that offered lavish entertainment at a reasonable price. Radio City Music Hall, as it came to be known, boasted the largest indoor theater in the world; its marquee spanned an entire city block. The stage was equipped to produce water effects like fountains and rain showers, and fog could even be piped in from a ConEd utility plant nearby. It was all so impressive that one New York critic wrote, "It has been said of the new Music Hall that it needs no performers."

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  • “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
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