Sep. 26, 2012

In Trackless Woods

by Richard Wilbur

In trackless woods, it puzzled me to find
Four great rock maples seemingly aligned,
As if they had been set out in a row
Before some house a century ago,
To edge the property and lend some shade.
I looked to see if ancient wheels had made
Old ruts to which the trees ran parallel,
But there were none, so far as I could tell—
There'd been no roadway. Nor could I find the square
Depression of a cellar anywhere,
And so I tramped on further, to survey
Amazing patterns in a hornbeam spray
Or spirals in a pine cone, under trees
Not subject to our stiff geometries.

"In Trackless Woods" by Richard Wilbur, from Collected Poems, 1943-2004. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Thomas Stearns Eliot (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri (1888). At the age of 27, he wrote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915) and at the age of 34, wrote "The Waste Land" (1922). At the height of his career, when he was writing poetry, plays, and literary criticism, and serving as director of the British publisher Faber & Faber, he was the 20th century's single most influential writer. He was dry and enigmatic, and he spoke very, very slowly. Yet, he loved the Marx Brothers and was said to harbor a weakness for squirting buttonholes and exploding cigars. Somebody once said to Eliot that most editors are failed writers. Eliot said: "Yes. So are most writers."

Today is the birthday of the novelist and essayist Jane Smiley (books by this author), born in Los Angeles, California (1949). Her parents divorced at a young age, and she went to live with her journalist mother on the outskirts of St. Louis, where she soaked up the stories of her extended Midwestern family. She eventually attended Vassar and began writing while teaching English at Iowa State University. In the last 30 years, she has written about everything from horse training and the Iraq War to motherhood and a distant relative obsessed with discrediting Einstein.

In 1992, Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres, a creative retelling of King Lear from the perspective of two sisters living with the fallout of their abusive father. Her most recent novel is Private Life (2010). The book follows the lives of Margaret Mayfield and her husband, Andrew Early, a brilliant scientist who gradually becomes unhinged as he descends into delusional competition with fellow scientists.

Smiley now lives in Northern California, where the locals know her as much for the classes she offers in horse training as for her publishing. She sees plenty of benefits for the writer from her work with the animals. "As soon as you're riding horses seriously you're being disciplined on a daily basis on how ignorant you are and how much there is left for you to learn [...] The great thing is that the fun gets greater as you get better. And there's no glass ceiling."

Today is the birthday of the composer George Gershwin, born Jacob Gershvin in Brooklyn, New York (1898). He was the middle child in a tight-knit family of recent Russian Jewish immigrants. When his father bought a piano for his brother Ira, George sat right down on the bench and started to play. At 15, he left school to work on Tin Pan Alley as a song plugger, a sort of house musician for the music companies. Gershwin had an ear for arrangement, and before long, he was writing his own songs. His first one earned him just $5, but soon he was turning out hits such as "Swanee," which sold in the millions.

Encouraged by this early success, Gershwin partnered with his brother Ira and began composing full Broadway operas. The two produced popular musicals, including Funny Face (1927) and Strike Up the Band! (1930). At the age of 25, Gershwin premiered his "Rhapsody in Blue," and later "An American in Paris," which featured accompaniment written for taxi horns. These compositions became orchestral standards. In 1935, he composed his folk-opera Porgy and Bess,which features such classic songs as "Summertime" and "It Ain't Necessarily So." In 1936, at the end of its original run in Washington, D.C., the cast successfully protested segregation at the National Theater, leading to the venue's first-ever integrated performance.

Gershwin said, "True music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans and my time is today."

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




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