Oct. 16, 2012


by Stanley Plumly

Not long before she died my mother told me
that her one regret was never to have traveled
and that since she had just read about it
or somewhere that reminded her from sometime
Venice was the place she would have gone to
and might still in her haunting of the afterlife.
She had already questioned God in heaven
and the heavy Bible verses she was taught
and now saw death as her last chance to live,
her last chance to spend the green-gold leaf
pressed into books each October on her birthday.
She wept, she understood the innocence of dying.
And here she was propped up against her pillow
the way she finally would be in her coffin
with her eyeglasses held between the light
and open page. She wanted me to hear the article
that said that Venice would be filled like all
Italy that season and that Venice in particular
was vulnerable and small, weighted with the souls
of travelers, and that in the Grand Canal
rivers of dark waters moved.—Would
there be space?—It said, salotto citta,
that Venice was a city the size of drawing rooms,
lit with the flowers of funerals and weddings.

"Autumnal" by Stanley Plumly, from Old Heart: Poems. © W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the American playwright Eugene O'Neill (books by this author), born in a Broadway hotel room in New York City (1888). His father was a famous actor, and O'Neill spent much of his childhood in hotels and on trains, following his father on tours. He went to Princeton, but he was expelled after a year. He got a series of odd jobs, then went off on a gold-prospecting expedition in Honduras, where he contracted malaria. After he recovered, he tried out sailing, vaudeville acting, and writing for a small-town newspaper. In 1912, he fell sick again with tuberculosis and spent six months in a sanatorium. While he was there, he began to read classic playwrights and modern innovators like Ibsen and Strindberg.

When he was released, he began writing furiously, coming out with 11 one-act plays in just a few years. In 1916, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he fell in with a group that would become known as the Provincetown Players, which included writers like Susan Glaspell and Robert Edmond Jones. The group began producing O'Neill's plays on a regular basis, and they helped to revolutionize American theater.

In 1920, his play Beyond the Horizon became a popular and critical success on Broadway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. He would go on to win two more Pulitzers in the next eight years, for Anna Christie (1922) and Strange Interlude (1928). He won the Nobel Prize in 1936. After Shakespeare and Shaw, O'Neill is the most widely presented and translated dramatist in the English-speaking world.

He said: "One should either be sad or joyful. Contentment is a warm sty for eaters and sleepers."

It's the birthday of Noah Webster (books by this author), born in Hartford, Connecticut (1758). When he was 43 years old, he began writing the first American dictionary, which was published in 1806. Spelling and pronunciation were different in different parts of the country, and Webster wanted to standardize American English. He also wanted the American language to have its own rules rather than relying on British dictionaries like Samuel Johnson's 1755 edition. It's thanks to Webster that the American and English spellings are different for words like catalog, honor, theater, and center.

It's the birthday of the man who said: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." That's Oscar Wilde (books by this author), born in Dublin (1854). When he was 27, he taught in London and then left for a lecture tour of North America. He'd been invited by the producer of Gilbert and Sullivan's new comic opera, Patience, a work that made fun of the Aesthetic Movement. The show had done well in New York City and was due to go on tour, but the producer wasn't sure if people around America would be familiar with the thing about which the opera was satirizing. The producer hoped Wilde's lectures would familiarize the nation with the Aesthetic Movement so that they'd all get the jokes in Patience.

He arrived in New York in January 1882, then he went to Pennsylvania, where he drank elderberry wine with Walt Whitman. He lectured to coal miners in Leadville, Colorado, where he saw a sign on a saloon that said, "Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best," and called it "the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across." He made stops in Boston, Topeka, Des Moines, Houston, St. Paul, San Francisco, and dozens of other cities.

He eventually went back to Europe and settled in London, and concentrated on his literary endeavors. He had two children with his wife, Constance Lloyd Wilde. In 1891, he met 22-year-old Lord Alfred Douglas, a poet from Oxford 16 years his junior.

In those few years after meeting Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde had the most productive period of his literary life. His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), was published the year they met. He wrote his best and most popular plays: A Woman of No Importance (1893) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), the first draft of which only took him 21 days to compose.

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




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