Apr. 25, 2012

How to Foretell a Change in the Weather

by Ted Kooser

Rain always follows the cattle
sniffing the air and huddling
in fields with their heads to the lee.
You will know that the weather is changing
when your sheep leave the pasture
too slowly, and your dogs lie about
and look tired; when the cat
turns her back to the fire,
washing her face, and the pigs
wallow in litter; cocks will be crowing
at unusual hours, flapping their wings;
hens will chant; when your ducks
and your geese are too noisy,
and the pigeons are washing themselves;
when the peacocks squall loudly
from the tops of the trees,
when the guinea fowl grates;
when sparrows chip loudly
and fuss in the roadway, and when swallows
fly low, skimming the earth;
when the carrion crow
croaks to himself, and wild fowl
dip and wash, and when moles
throw up hills with great fervor;
when toads creep out in numbers;
when frogs croak; when bats
enter the houses; when birds
begin to seek shelter,
and the robin approaches your house;
when the swan flies at the wind,
and your bees leave the hive;
when ants carry their eggs to and fro,
and flies bite, and the earthworm
is seen on the surface of things.

"How to Foretell a Change in the Weather" by Ted Kooser, from Flying at Night. © Universtity of Pittsburgh Press, 1985. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Ted Kooser (books by this author), born in Ames, Iowa (1939). He said, "I had a wonderfully happy childhood," and, "All this business about artists having to have terrible childhoods doesn't play with me."

He started writing poetry seriously as a teenager. He said: "I was desperately interested in being interesting. Poetry seemed a way of being different." His first poem was published because his friends sent one of his poems to a teen magazine behind his back.

He wanted to be a writer, but he flunked out of graduate school. So he took the first job he was offered, at a life insurance company, and he worked there for 35 years. He said: "I believe that writers write for perceived communities, and that if you are a lifelong professor of English, it's quite likely that you will write poems that your colleagues would like; that is, poems that will engage that community. I worked every day with people who didn't read poetry, who hadn't read it since they were in high school, and I wanted to write for them."

Every morning, he got up at 4:30, made a pot of coffee, and wrote until 7. Then he put on his suit and tie and went to work. By the time he retired in 1999, Kooser had published seven books of poetry, including Not Coming to Be Barked At (1976), One World at a Time (1985), and Weather Central (1994). He resigned himself to being a relatively unknown poet, but he continued to write every morning. Then, in 2004, he got a phone call informing him that he had been chosen as poet laureate of the United States. He said: "I was so staggered I could barely respond. The next day, I backed the car out of the garage and tore the rearview mirror off the driver's side." As the poet laureate, he started a free weekly column for newspapers called "American Life in Poetry."

It's the birthday of writer Howard R. Garis (books by this author), born in Binghamton, New York (1873). His most famous character is Uncle Wiggily, a gentlemanly old rabbit who always wears a suit and a silk top hat. Garis was a reporter for the Newark Evening News and he wrote hundreds of children's books, many of them as a ghostwriter. He published his first Uncle Wiggily story in a newspaper in 1910, and it was so popular that he ended up publishing an Uncle Wiggily story six days a week for more than 30 years. By the time he retired, he had written more than 10,000 stories about the rabbit.

He wrote, "Half the fun of nearly everything, you know, is thinking about it beforehand, or afterward."

It's the birthday of the "First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald, born in Newport News, Virginia in 1917. She loved to sing and dance as a child and when she was 16 she entered a contest at the Apollo Theater. had a dance routine worked out and walked on stage wearing ragged clothes and men's boots, but she froze up. Later she said, "I got out there and I saw all the people and I just lost my nerve. And the man said, 'well, you're out here, do something!' So I tried to sing." She won the contest and soon became a celebrity across all of New York. She joined Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington as the only performers who could draw audiences at the Apollo from south of 125th Street.

Ella Fitzgerald said, "The only thing better than singing is more singing."

It's the birthday of Padgett Powell (books by this author), born in Gainesville, Florida (1952). He went to college in Charleston, South Carolina, studied chemistry, and headed off to graduate school. He dropped out after the first semester and spent eight years as a roofer in Texas, working on a novel on the side.

After those eight years of manual labor, he went back to graduate school at the University of Houston, this time in creative writing. The writer Donald Barthelme took the young writer under his wing. Powell said, "I met Donald Barthelme and subsequently lost part of my mind — my original literary mind." He revised and finished his novel, and in 1984, he published Edisto, and it was a big success. It got rave reviews and he won several important prizes. After Edisto, his books got bad reviews, and he went through a long period where he couldn't even find a publisher. But in 2009, he published The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, a book composed entirely of questions, and it was a best-seller. His latest book will be published this summer, the novel You and Me (2012).

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




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