Aug. 17, 2012

Perfect Light

by Ted Hughes

Today's poem is available in audio form only.

"Perfect Light" by Ted Hughes, from Birthday Letters. © Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Jonathan Franzen (books by this author), born in Western Springs, Illinois (1959). He's the author of the acclaimed novels Freedom (2010) and The Corrections (2001), and has also written a memoir and two essay collections. His latest book is one of those essay collections; it's called Farther Away (2012).

Jonathan Franzen said: "I come from a kind of old-fashioned Midwest, and I live in a technocorporate, postironic, cool, late-late-late Eastern world. The two worlds hardly ever talk to each other, but they're completely, constantly talking to one another inside me. [...] I have my parents talking to me in my head and then other parts of myself talking back. I think this is potentially an interesting conversation."

Today is the birthday of poet Ted Hughes (books by this author), born in West Riding, Yorkshire (1930). He became noteworthy as a poet in 1957 with the publication of his first collection, The Hawk in the Rain. During a time when most poets were confining themselves to quiet, domestic verses, Hughes wrote about dramatic mythological themes, and often tried to write from the point of view of animals, especially Crow, who features in several of his books. He married poet Sylvia Plath in 1956; she committed suicide in 1963. He administered her literary estate, but didn't talk about her publicly until Birthday Letters (1998), his collection of poems about Plath and their relationship.

Hughes said: "The inmost spirit of poetry, in other words, is at bottom, in every recorded case, the voice of pain — and the physical body, so to speak, of poetry, is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world."

It's the birthday of actress and playwright Mae West (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1893). She became famous for her quippy innuendoes and double entendres. Some of her more notable quotes include: "A dame that knows the ropes isn't likely to get tied up." And, "Between two evils, I like to pick the one I haven't tried before." And, "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted."

Today is the birthday of American soldier, politician, and folk hero David — better known as "Davy" — Crockett, born in Greene County, Tennessee (1786). He was first elected to the state legislature of Tennessee in 1821, and the U.S. House of Representatives in 1827, where he served three nonconsecutive terms in all. He was defeated in 1835 by a peg-legged lawyer named Andrew Huntsman, and gave up politics, saying, "Since you have chosen to elect a man with a timber toe to succeed me, you may all go to hell and I will go to Texas." He left the next day, and he was killed at the Battle of the Alamo the following year.

Although he was a skilled hunter and marksman, and had a reputation for telling tall tales, much of his rustic frontier image was a product of political spin. On his way to Congress, he reportedly bragged to a crowd, "I'm that same David Crockett, fresh from the backwoods, half-horse, half-alligator, a little touched with the snapping turtle; can wade the Mississippi, leap the Ohio, ride upon a streak of lightning, and slip without a scratch down a honey locust [tree]." His legend was cemented by the Davy Crockett Almanack, a series of humorous books published from 1835 to 1856.

Today is the birthday of German-born economist, journalist, and author Sylvia Nasar (books by this author), born in Rosenheim, Bavaria (1947). She's best known for her 1998 biography of mathematician and Nobel Prize-winning economist John Forbes Nash Jr. A Beautiful Mind (1998) tells the story of Nash's struggle with severe mental illness, and it inspired a movie of the same name, which came out in 2001. Nasar had first become aware of Nash while working on an economics article for The New York Times. She heard about a schizophrenic mathematical genius who was on the short list for the Nobel Prize. "I thought, 'Oh my God, this sounds like a Greek tragedy, Shakespeare play and fairy tale rolled into one,'" she later said.

It's the birthday of journalist and author Eric Schlosser (books by this author), born in New York City (1959). He was an aspiring playwright and wrote two plays drawn from American history, and in 1994 he got his first journalism job, writing for The Atlantic Monthly. He made a name for himself with his first book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2002). The book, which reveals disturbing practices in the fast food, factory farming, and meatpacking industries, evolved out of a two-part article he wrote for Rolling Stone in 1998; the article prompted a flood of letters to the magazine. Salon calls Fast Food Nation a "gross-out exposé," but Schlosser has said: "I'm not trying to be a scaremonger, I don't want people to be afraid of their food. There are a lot of things in life that pose a greater immediate risk. For example, in New York City, taking a cab to La Guardia Airport."

It's been 10 years since Fast Food Nation was originally published, and Schlosser reports that, while some things have changed, much still remains the same. And he's been subject to a lot of criticism: "I've been called a communist and a socialist, a 'dunce,' a 'health fascist,' an 'economics ignoramus,' a 'banjo-strumming performer at Farm Aid,' a 'hectoring nanny of the nanny state,' and much stronger epithets." Supporters of the fast food and meatpacking industries have disrupted his readings. But he says the experience has been rewarding and he feels optimistic about the possibilities for change.

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




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