Aug. 1, 2012

A Boat

by Margaret Atwood

Evening comes on and the hills thicken;
red and yellow bleaching out of the leaves.
The chill pines grow their shadows.

Below them the water stills itself,
a sunset shivering in it.
One more going down to join the others.

Now the lake expands
and closes in, both.

The blackness that keeps itself
under the surface in daytime
emerges from it like mist
or as mist.

Distance vanishes, the absence
of distance pushes against the eyes.

There is no seeing the lake,
only the outlines of the hills
which are almost identical,

familiar to me as sleep,
shores unfolding upon shores
in their contours of slowed breathing.

It is touch I go by,
the boat like a hand feeling
through shoals and among
dead trees, over the boulders
lifting unseen, layer
on layer of drowned time falling away.

This is how I learned to steer
through darkness by no stars.

To be lost is only a failure of memory.

"A Boat" by Margaret Atwood, from Selected Poems II: 1976-1986. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1987. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the man who said, "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation." That's the novelist and poet Herman Melville (books by this author), born in New York City (1819). His father died when Melville was 12, leaving the family almost penniless. As a young man, he tried working first as a banker, then a teacher. When he was 26, he went to sea and ended up deserting his post on a ship in the South Pacific, living for several months with the Typee natives. He wrote a popular account of this experience called Typees: A Peep Into Polynesian Life (1846).

After his years at sea, Melville married and settled down in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, where he befriended his neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and began to experiment writing allegorical novels that were not well received. Moby-Dick came out in 1851, and was soon followed by Pierre and The Confidence Man. None were critical successes. He eventually accepted a job as a customs inspector in New York, where he quietly worked for the next 20 years, gaining a reputation for his honesty amid the expected bribery.

When he died of a heart attack at the age of 72, his obituary in the local New York Times was just four lines. It wasn't until the 1920s, when British university students became interested in his nautical tales, that Melville was rediscovered and his works were put back into print.

Today is the birthday of the man who composed the American national anthem, Francis Scott Key, born on the family plantation in what is now Carroll County, Maryland (1779). During the War of 1812, he was aboard a British ship off the coast of Baltimore negotiating a prisoner exchange and became aware of an impending British attack on the nearby Fort McHenry. He was held captive and for two days forced to watch the bombardment of the unsuspecting American troops. And after being released, he wrote a poem called "Defense of Fort McHenry," in which he recounted the sight of the flag still waving through the debris of battle. The poem was fitted to a popular English tune of the day and soon became widely known as "The Star-Spangled Banner." President Woodrow Wilson declared it the national anthem in 1916, and Congress followed with a resolution in 1931, signed by President Hoover. Key later authored a book on religion and literature and had a career as a lawyer.

He said: "Then, in that hour of deliverance, my heart spoke. Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?"

It's the birthday of the poet who said, "Conscience is no more than the dead speaking to us." James Dennis "Jim" Carroll (books by this author), born in Manhattan, New York (1949.) He grew up on the Lower East Side, a talented student and basketball player. At 13, he won a scholarship to the prestigious private school Trinity on the Upper West Side. There he led a double life, leading the team to a victorious season while developing a serious heroin addiction. He also began to write and attend workshops at the St. Mark's Poetry Project, where he was inspired by the readings of Ted Berrigan and Allen Ginsberg.

At 16, he published his first collection of poems, Organic Trains (1967), and excerpts from the journal he'd been keeping were picked up by The Paris Review. He had several offers to publish his diaries in their entirety, but he was more interested in becoming a poet. He accepted a job offer from Andy Warhol, writing film dialogue and managing his theater, and in 1973, he published a second book of poems, Living at the Movies, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination at the age of 22.

He finally published the full journals as The Basketball Diaries (1978). Editors had asked him to rewrite sections from an adult perspective, but he refused, saying that the book was written by a teenager and was intended for other young people. The book began: "Today was my first Biddy League game and my first day in any organized basketball league. I'm enthused about life due to this exciting event. The Biddy League is a league for anyone 12 yrs. old or under. I'm actually 13 but my coach Lefty gave me a fake birth certificate."

At the prodding of his friend Patti Smith, he launched The Jim Carroll Band in the '80s. His albums include Catholic Boy (1980), Dry Dreams (1982), and I Write Your Name (1983).

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




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