Mar. 18, 2012


by Wendell Berry

It's the immemorial feelings
I like the best: hunger, thirst,
their satisfaction; work-weariness,
earned rest; the falling again
from loneliness to love;
the green growth the mind takes
from the pastures in March;
the gayety in the stride
of a good team of Belgian mares
that seems to shudder from me
through all my ancestry.

"Goods" by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems. © North Point Press, 1985. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (books by this author), born in Paris (1842). He supported himself — and, once he married, his wife and family — by working as a schoolteacher, though he didn't enjoy the work. He began publishing his poems in magazines in 1862, when he was 20 years old. He regularly hosted salons at his home, where writers met to discuss literature and philosophy. Regular attendees included W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Verlaine, and Paul Valéry.

He said, "There is nothing but beauty — and beauty has only one perfect expression, Poetry. All the rest is a lie."

It's the birthday of Wilfred Owen (books by this author), born in Shropshire, England (1893). Owen was interested in the arts, especially poetry, as a schoolboy, but he didn't do well enough on his exams to get into university, so he went to work instead — first as a lay assistant to a vicar, and then as a tutor of English and French at a Berlitz language school in France.

In 1915, he enlisted to fight in World War I. He was wounded in 1917 and sent to Edinburgh to recover from his wounds and shell shock; it was there during his convalescence that he wrote his most famous poems about the war, including "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "Dulce et Decorum Est." He returned to combat in the summer of 1918 and was killed on November 4, just a week before the end of the war.

John Updike (books by this author) was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on this day in 1932. He wrote more than 20 novels, and more than 20 short-story collections, but he's best known for his series of four "Rabbit" novels: books about an average middle-class guy, Rabbit Angstrom, who has a boring job and marital troubles. The "Rabbit" books won many awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes.

Updike had started sending his stories, poems, and cartoons to The New Yorker when he was in high school. When he was a senior at Harvard, they finally accepted some of his work and even offered him a job; he moved to New York City after he graduated, but soon realized he didn't like living there, so he and his wife moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, a little town outside Boston. He took a little one-room office on East Main Street, above a restaurant and between a lawyer and a beautician. He looked out over the parking lot of the Ipswich Cooperative Bank and hammered away on a manual typewriter. After his death of lung cancer in 2009, many of his neighbors remembered him as a down-to-earth fellow, a participant in several civic organizations, a guy in corduroy trousers who played regular poker with the boys. Others were less forgiving, recalling how he mined the town and its people for material for his explicit 1968 novel Couples.

John Updike said in the New York Times Book Review: "I'm willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else's living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another's brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves."

Today is the anniversary of the "Gardner Heist": the largest art theft in United States history (1990). A pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers, complete with fake mustaches, broke into the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum shortly after one o'clock in the morning. They took advantage of Boston's preoccupation with St. Patrick's Day festivities, and told the young guards that they were responding to a disturbance. They spent 81 minutes inside the museum and they made off with 13 works of art: paintings and drawings by Vermeer, Manet, Degas, and Rembrandt — including the only known Rembrandt seascape in existence. The thieves manhandled the paintings, sometimes even carelessly ripping them out of their frames. The paintings have never been recovered, and the loss to the museum is estimated at more than $300 million USD. The statute of limitations for prosecution has now passed, though, and the museum hopes that the thieves will step forward and return the art.

Today is the birthday of George Plimpton (books by this author), born in New York City (1927). He was the original editor-in-chief of the literary journal The Paris Review and remained there for 50 years. He was also a writer of what he called "participatory journalism," immersing himself in whatever his subject may be — usually sports — and recounting his experiences from his viewpoint as an amateur insider. Hemingway read Plimpton's 1961 baseball adventure Out of My League, and declared it "beautifully observed and incredibly conceived, his account of a self-imposed ordeal that has the chilling quality of a true nightmare."

Plimpton died in 2003. In 2008, his ex-wife and his widow approved the publication of George, Being George, an oral biography whose lengthy subtitle reads George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, and Rivals — and a Few Unappreciative Observers. His son, Taylor, reviewed the biography and called it "an invasive, gossipy, judgmental book" that, in spite of itself, portrays Plimpton in a favorable light.

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