Jan. 17, 2012

New Year's

by Dana Gioia

Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
Eternity has festivals enough.
This is the feast of our mortality,
The most mundane and human holiday.

On other days we misinterpret time,
Pretending that we live the present moment.
But can this blur, this smudgy in-between,
This tiny fissure where the future drips

Into the past, this flyspeck we call now
Be our true habitat? The present is
The leaky palm of water that we skim
From the swift, silent river slipping by.

The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along—to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.

"New Year's" by Dana Gioia, from Interrogations at Noon. © Graywolf Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1706. He only had a couple of years of formal schooling, but he read continuously, and early on, he thought he might become a poet. He didn't have the knack for it so, later, inspired by the essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, he turned to prose. He recalled in his Autobiography (1794) that writing well became "of great Use to me in the Course of my Life, and was a principal Means of my Advancement." He wrote under a variety of pseudonyms and, as "Richard Saunders," published Poor Richard's Almanack every year from 1732 to 1758. It contained weather predictions, household hints, poetry, essays, and adages such as "Marry'd in haste, we oft repent at Leisure"; and "Where there's Marriage without Love, there will be Love without Marriage."

Captain James Cook and his crew on HMS Resolution were the first Europeans to sail below the Antarctic Circle on this date in 1773. Cook made three exploratory voyages to uncharted areas of the Pacific, making maps as he went. In 1772, he was commissioned by the Royal Society to go in search of the rumored Terra Australis, a hypothetical continent that was first suggested by Aristotle. Cook had already circumnavigated New Zealand, and charted the eastern coast of Australia, but the Royal Society believed that Terra Australis lay farther south. Cook left Plymouth in July 1772 to sail around the bottom of the world. They had some trouble with pack ice, but once the weather warmed up in the southern hemisphere's midsummer, they were able to cross below the Antarctic Circle. They crossed it two more times on this voyage, and on the third crossing, Cook very nearly discovered Antarctica. They sailed within about 150 miles of the continent, and had hoped to go further, but couldn't make their way through the pack ice, so they turned back.

Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (books by this author) premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre on this date in 1904. His play The Seagull (1895) had been a big hit for the theater, whose founder Constantin Stanislavski wanted more "naturalistic" plays, rather than the melodramas that were currently popular. The Cherry Orchard (1902) was Chekhov's last play. It's the story of an aristocratic matriarch and her family, who return home from Paris to find that their family estate is about to be sold to pay their debts. Though they are all horrified at the idea of losing their beloved cherry orchard — the site of so many happy childhood memories — they essentially do nothing to save it and the estate is sold to the son of a former servant. The play ends with the sound of the orchard being cut down. The image was one from Chekhov's own life: He developed an interest in gardening later in life, and planted a cherry orchard of his own. When he was forced by his worsening tuberculosis to move to Yalta, he was upset to learn later that his home's new owner had cut down most of the orchard.

Chekhov wrote the play as a comedy, but Stanislavski insisted on presenting it as a tragedy. Chekhov accused him of ruining it. He had written scene directions indicating that characters were "speaking through tears"; Stanislavski had them all sobbing dramatically, especially in the last act. Chekhov wrote to Stanislavski: "[...] in the second act there are tears in their eyes, but the tone is happy, lively. Why did you put so many tears in my play? Where are they?" In spite of ill health, Chekhov got directly involved with the production, rewriting and editing to try and combat Stanislavski's tragic tendencies. The Cherry Orchard was an immediate success with audiences, who responded with thunderous applause, but critics were divided, and subsequent directors have been challenged by the play's delicate balance of tragedy and farce.

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