Sep. 24, 2012

To Ninety

by Robyn Sarah

A city sparrow
touches down
on a bare branch

in the fork of a tree
through whose arms
the snow is sifting —

swipes his beak
against wood, this side
then that,

and flies away:
what sight
could be more common?

Yet I think
for such sights alone
I would live to ninety.

"To Ninety" by Robyn Sarah, from Questions About the Stars. © Brick Books, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of puppeteer Jim Henson, born James Maury Henson in Greenville, Mississippi (1936). As a freshman, Henson was asked to create a short puppet show, Sam and Friends, for a local TV station. He brought along fellow classmate Jane Nebel, to work with him, and the two were soon married. With a total payout of $5 per show, Henson had to improvise with design and materials. One of his earliest characters was Kermit, fashioned from his mother's pale green coat and a bisected ping-pong ball. The show was quite popular and had a six-year run. During this time, Henson began pioneering new methods and materials that would let puppets express more emotion, fully embracing the television medium. His working group coined the term "Muppets," a combination of marionette and puppet. Foam rubber replaced the traditional carved wood, and it gave faces more feeling. Rods replaced the traditional marionette strings. Unlike previous puppets, the Muppets spoke precisely and in sync.

In 1969, the Children's Television Workshop asked Henson to join a start-up show for public television called Sesame Street. Though intended to be just a minor part of the show, the Muppets' popularity led to timeless characters such as Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, and Big Bird. Jane Henson said of her husband: "What Jim saw was that the puppet was as powerful as a human being. And in fact is more powerful — less concerned about what it looks like, more direct, more able to go to the heart of things."

Jim Henson, who said, "The most sophisticated people I know; inside they are all children."

Today is the birthday of poet Eavan Boland (books by this author), born in Dublin (1944). When she was just six, her father was appointed the Irish Ambassador to the UK and moved the family to London, where she first witnessed anti-Irish hostility. She returned to Dublin as a young teen, with a deeper appreciation of her heritage and a desire to write. But when she looked more closely at the Irish literary tradition, she found almost no women poets in the ranks. There was "a magnetic distance between the word 'woman' and the word 'poet,'" she said. While she admired Keats and Joyce, she felt strongly that her own life should make it into her poetry, so she wrote about the trials and rewards of motherhood, or life in the suburbs. She published her first collection, 23 Poems, while still a freshman in college in 1962, and followed up with another 10 books of verse, including Night Feed (1982) and In a Time of Violence (1994), for which she received the Lannan Literary Award.

Boland is the co-founder of Arlen House Press. She divides her time between Dublin and California, where she directs the creative writing program at Stanford University.

Speaking on the importance of the oral tradition in Irish poetry, Boland said: "Poetry is one of the most fugitive arts: it can be assigned to memory, taken and hidden in the mind, smuggled into smoky cabin back rooms, recited there and then conveyed only by speech to another person. It is therefore the most likely to survive colonization."

It's the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author), born in St. Paul (1896), who was a student at Princeton University when he fell in love with a beautiful rich girl named Ginevra King. She got engaged to somebody else because Fitzgerald didn't have many prospects. He later said, "She was the first girl I ever loved ... [and] she ended up by throwing me over with the most supreme boredom and indifference.”

That experience gave Fitzgerald an idea for a novel about a young man named Amory Blaine, who falls in love with a beautiful blond debutante named Rosalind Connage and then loses her because she doesn't want to marry someone with so little money. Fitzgerald struggled to write the book in his parents' home in St. Paul, pinning revision notes to his curtains and eating all his meals in his bedroom. He called the novel This Side of Paradise, and its publication in 1920 made Fitzgerald famous almost overnight. It also won him the heart of a woman named Zelda Sayre, who married him that year.

Five years later, he published his great masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), about a wealthy bootlegger who wears pink suits and throws extravagant parties and is obsessed with winning back the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald was never entirely satisfied with the main character, Jay Gatsby. He said, "I never at any one time saw him clear myself — for he started as one man I knew and then changed into myself."

Today is the birthday of the blues singer and guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, born Lemon Henry Jefferson to sharecroppers in Couchman, Texas (1893). Little is known about his childhood except that he was born blind and took up the guitar in his early teens. He was soon playing parties and on rough street corners around East Texas, often playing until 3 or 4 in the morning. He began traveling to Dallas, where he met fellow musician Leadbelly. The two teamed up, playing the districts of Central Track and Deep Ellum, which one columnist of the day described as "the only spot on earth where business, religion, hoodooism, gambling, and stealing go on at the same time without friction."

It was in Dallas that Jefferson also met the blues musician T-Bone Walker, with whom he exchanged guitar lessons for occasional services as a guide. Word of the singer with two octaves of vocal range began to spread, and Jefferson was soon driven up to Chicago to record for Paramount Records. His first recordings were gospel tunes, released under the pseudonym Deacon L.J. Bates. They did well and led to further recording sessions and huge hits such as "Long Lonesome Blues," "Matchbox Blues," and "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean." Although Jefferson recorded more than a hundred full sides from 1926 to 1929, blues singers at the time were seen as dispensable by the record companies and rarely compensated well.

Jefferson died on December 19th, 1929, in Chicago at the age of 36. There are many legends about his exact cause of death, but it is generally believed that he froze to death after losing his way in a snowstorm. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Wortham Black Cemetery until 1967, when the Texas Historical Society placed a marker there. The cemetery has since been renamed in Jefferson's honor.

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