Jun. 21, 2012

Laughing Song

by William Blake

When the green woods laugh, with the voice of joy
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by,
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.

When the meadows laugh with lively green
And the grasshopper laughs in the merry scene,
When Mary and Susan and Emily,
With their sweet round mouths sing Ha, Ha, He.

When the painted birds laugh in the shade
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread
Come live & be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of Ha, Ha, He.

"Laughing Song" by William Blake. Public domain. (buy now)

Today is the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, and the winter solstice in the Southern. For those of us in the north, today will be the longest day of the year and tonight will be the shortest night. Although you would think that the Earth would be closest to the Sun during the summer, actually we're about 3 million miles farther away than we are in winter. But our planet is tilted on its axis, and at this time of year, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun, receiving more direct radiation for longer periods of time each day. It is that slight tilt, only 23.5 degrees, that makes the difference between winter and summer.

We consider the summer solstice to be the first official day of summer, but in the ancient world, it was celebrated as Midsummer, and it was thought to be a time when plants had particularly magical properties. Fairies, ghosts, and spirits were thought to be especially active too, and Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream reflects a lot of those traditional beliefs. In modern times, Midsummer's Eve is celebrated sometime between June 21 and June 24; it's still a major holiday in Scandinavia, Latvia, and other locations in Northern Europe, second only to Christmas. It dates back to pre-Christian times, and people take a three-day weekend to dance around maypoles, clean and fill their houses with fresh flowers, and burn straw witches in bonfires to remember the witch burnings of the 16th and 17th centuries.

One of the biggest destinations for the summer solstice is Stonehenge, on England's Salisbury Plain; it's the only day of the year the park service offers free parking, free admission, and the opportunity to stay at the monument overnight.

Today is the birthday of poet, novelist, and essayist Adam Zagajewski (books by this author), born in Lvov, Poland (1945). He was involved in the Polish New Wave movement of the 1970s and the Solidarity movement of the 1980s, and his early poems were political, although his outlook has changed since then. In 2009, he said, "[Poets] must have firm opinions about life and death, but not political opinions: I don't think that tax reform legislation is any business of poets."

It's the birthday of the Canadian poet Anne Carson (books by this author), born in Toronto, Ontario (1950). When she was five years old, she reportedly became so enchanted by a copy of The Lives of the Saints that she tried to eat it. She studied Latin in high school and her teacher helped her to study ancient Greek over the lunch period as well. She developed a love of classical literature; she eventually became a professor of Classics as well as a poet, and she has said she feels that the study of Greek culture is her true life's work. She's also a passionate painter, and the prose poems in her chapbook Short Talks (1992) actually began as captions for her illustrations.

Her books include Eros the Bittersweet (1986), The Autobiography of Red (1998), and Nox (2010). Her newest, Antigonick (2012), is an illustrated translation of the Greek tragedy Antigone, and it just came out last month.

It's the 100th anniversary of the birth of critic and novelist Mary McCarthy (books by this author), born in Seattle, Washington, on this date in 1912. Her parents both died during the influenza pandemic of 1918, when she was only six years old. She was working as a book reviewer and theater critic when she met and married literary critic Edmund Wilson. He's the one who encouraged her to write some books of her own. She published several novels — including The Group (1963) about a group of Vassar students — but she had a hard time making things up, so most of her novels are autobiographical. Most critics believe that her best book is the memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). She is also remembered for her literary criticism. The writer Gore Vidal said, "She was our most brilliant literary critic, [because she was] uncorrupted by compassion."

McCarthy had a fierce feud with the playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman, whose birthday happened to be the day before hers. They traded catty remarks in the press; Hellman said in The Paris Review: "Miss McCarthy is often brilliant ... but she is a lady writer, a lady magazine writer." And on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980, McCarthy called Hellman "overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer ..." and "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Hellman sued her, but died before the suit was settled.

It's the birthday of Ian McEwan (books by this author), born in Aldershot, England (1948). Some of his early works include the short-story collection First Love, Last Rites (1975) and the novels The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981). He wasn't too far into his career before the British press dubbed him "Ian Macabre" because he usually wrote about things that made people squeamish — sometimes about gory and grisly things, and sometimes about social taboos like bestiality and incest. He's moderated that impulse somewhat, but not entirely. He said: "I want something to happen in my stories, and I want to sort of push them to the edge. ... Most threats in life come from the unpredictable, random, cruel behavior of other people."

His breakout novel was Atonement (2001), and he brainstormed the story for more than a year before he began writing. His most recent novel is Solar (2010), and it's a black comedy about climate change. His newest book, Sweet Tooth, will be published at the end of the summer (2012). It's about a Cold War spy operation, and McEwan filled out an online application to the British domestic security agency MI5 as part of his research. "You had to answer a number of questions on a given passage — it was like being in school doing reading comprehension," he told The New Yorker. "The passages were quite complex and technical — ornithological pieces on the flight patterns of Canada geese, for instance — and then there was a set of questions, which were slightly to one side of what you would expect. It was very difficult to get what they were after. And, after an hour, I pressed the button on my submission, and within a tenth of a second I got my answer back. I had been refused."

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
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