Jun. 23, 2012

When I Am Among the Trees

by Mary Oliver

The text of this poem is no longer available.

"When I Am Among the Trees" by Mary Oliver, from Thirst. © Beacon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The typewriter was patented on this date in 1868, by Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sholes was a newspaperman, and he was driven to invention out of necessity: His printers went on strike. He and two colleagues set out to invent a machine to print letters on paper. There had been attempts to make typewriters before, but they weren't very practical — it took longer to type a letter than to write it by hand, and the devices were viewed as novelties for rich and bored people. Sholes and his collaborators didn't bother to look at what the other inventors had tried before them, so they repeated a lot of the same mistakes.

The QWERTY keyboard evolved hand in hand with the typewriter. At first glance, it looks like the arrangement of the letters is arbitrary, and it would seem logical to just put them in alphabetical order. That's what Sholes did originally, but the way his typebars were set up, some letters that were often used together in words ended up with their bars close together as well. The trouble was that an experienced typist would get going so fast that the typebars of those letters would get jammed up and have to be unstuck. Sholes rearranged the keys so that there was more space between the frequently paired letters.

Ernest Hemingway loved his Royal typewriter. He kept it in his bedroom so it would never be too far away, and he put it on top of a bookshelf and wrote standing up.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote on a red IBM Selectric. One of his first jobs was as a copy boy for Time, and while he was supposed to be working, he used a typewriter and typed out, word for word, all of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, in order to learn something about writing style.

Jack Kerouac was a fast typist, and it frustrated him to have to change the paper so often. So he took long sheets of drawing paper, trimmed them to fit in the machine, and wrote all of On the Road that way. When he taped them together at the end, the manuscript was 120 feet long.

Today is the birthday of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (books by this author), born in a suburb of Odessa in 1889. In 1912, when she 22 years old, she took a pen name and published her first book of poetry. It was a volume of love poems, and it made her a celebrity. But life in Russia was changing. Before a decade had passed, the country had lived through World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, and Akhmatova's poetry changed as well. She lost her husband in 1921 when he was executed for allegedly taking part in an anti-Bolshevik plot, and the next year, she was told she would no longer be allowed to publish her poetry. She set it aside and worked mainly on criticism and translations.

But when her son was repeatedly imprisoned in Leningrad, she found she couldn't remain silent any longer. She stood among the women outside the prison, all of them trying to send in packages of food and hoping for word of their loved ones inside. One woman recognized her. "A woman with bluish lips standing behind me ... woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear, 'Can you describe this?'" Akhmatova later wrote. In 1935, she began what would become a 10-poem cycle for Stalin's victims, called Requiem (1935-40). She couldn't publish it, and didn't even dare keep a written copy, so she and her friends memorized the poems and then burned them. She finally published it in 1963, 10 years after Stalin's death. She died in 1966, and a complete collection of her poetry wasn't published in the Soviet Union until the late 1980s.

It's the birthday of C.E. Morgan (books by this author), born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1976). She knew she wanted to be a writer from the time she was seven years old, when she felt what she calls a "clear and direct sense of vocation." She studied voice at Berea College, a work college south of Lexington, a place where poor and working-class kids from Appalachia can go to get a good liberal arts education. After Morgan graduated, she decided to go to Harvard Divinity School because, she said, she had a "preoccupation with what moral beauty looks like ... post-20th century."

Her first novel was published in 2009. She wrote the first draft in two weeks, while she was on a break from Harvard. She said: "The book came. It seized me. I wrote the draft in 14 days. It was like the universe opened my head and poured it in. I stepped out once to put a bill in the mail." The day after she finished her novel, she went back to grad school and spent the next two semesters editing her manuscript. It was published in 2009 as All the Living.

All the Living is the story of a young woman named Aloma, an orphan, who moves to the rural South to live with her boyfriend, Orren, on his tobacco farm. Morgan never mentions where the story takes place, but anyone who really knows Kentucky can tell exactly where it's set because of signposts in the text, references that people outside the Bluegrass State would never pick up on. "I think it's clear but the only other place it could possibly be confused with is Virginia," Morgan says. "But there are certain places in the book where you can tell you're facing east with the sun facing into the mountains so you know you're on this side of the mountains. You can determine from the text where it is." Her next novel, which she's working on now, is also set in Kentucky.

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