Dec. 13, 2012

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness

by Mary Oliver

The text of this poem is no longer available.

"Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness" by Mary Oliver, from A Thousand Mornings. © The Penguin Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of poet Kenneth Patchen (books by this author), born in Niles, Ohio (1911). His father worked in a steel mill, and so did Patchen, for a while. He also went to college, and worked as a migrant laborer, and traveled. He wrote more than 40 books, books of poetry like Before the Brave (1936) and Hurrah for Anything (1957), and also novels, including The Journal of Albion Moonlight (1941).

Patchen said, "Think enough and you won't know anything."

Today is the birthday of the poet James Wright (books by this author), born in Martins Ferry, Ohio (1927). His father worked for 50 years at a glass factory and his mother worked in a laundry. Wright went to Kenyon College on the GI Bill after World War II. That's where he studied writing formally, though he'd been writing since high school. His first book of poetry, The Green Wall, was published in 1956 and was awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Saint Judas (1959) followed three years later, and Wright thought that that was it for him. "After I finished that book I had finished with poetry forever," he told The Paris Review. "I truly believed that I had said what I had to say as clearly and directly as I could, and that I had no more to do with this art."

But then he met the poet Robert Bly and Bly's wife, Carol, and they invited Wright to spend some time with them on their Minnesota farm. "They loved me and they saved my life," he later said. "I don't mean just the life of my poetry, either." Wright went on to write seven more books, and in 1972, his Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize.

He said: "Poetry can keep life itself alive. You can endure almost anything as long as you can sing about it."

It's the birthday of music critic Lester Bangs (books by this author), born in Escondido, California (1948). He wrote for Rolling Stone for many years, and was known for his harsh, sarcastic, and mocking reviews. The editor finally had enough, and fired him, so he went to work for Creem, who let him do whatever he wanted. Sometimes he wrote long articles praising albums that didn't exist. Eventually, he left Creem and moved to New York, where he wrote for the Village Voice. He died of a drug overdose in 1982.

Lester Bangs wrote, "The ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience."

Today is the birthday of Mary Todd, born in Lexington, Kentucky (1818). Her father was a lawyer, and her family was well off, but her mother died before Mary was seven years old, and Mary remembered her childhood as "desolate," in spite of a having a full social calendar. She was petite, with sparkling blue eyes and reddish brown hair, and her wit could sometimes turn to biting sarcasm. She was highly educated for a woman of her time, and she was keenly interested in politics.

Just before she turned 21, she moved from Lexington to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her sister Elizabeth. It was there that she met a tall, gangly young lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was — in his words — a "poor nobody." They were opposites in nearly everything: appearance, temperament, and background. She was raised in a mansion, and he grew up in a log cabin. She received the finest education, and he was self-taught. She was 5'2", and he was 6'4". And he had a serious rival for her affections in New England transplant Stephen Douglas, who would also be his political rival. Douglas was serious enough about Todd to propose to her, but she turned him down, saying, "I can't consent to be your wife. I shall become Mrs. President, or I am the victim of false prophets, but it will not be as Mrs. Douglas." As for Todd and Lincoln, they had a stormy, on-again, off-again courtship, breaking up and getting back together, even dating secretly. Three years later, in 1842, they married and moved into a boarding house, where their first child was born.

People didn't always take kindly to Mary Todd Lincoln's outspoken political commentary and sharp tongue. During Lincoln's presidency, she often gave her husband her informed and unvarnished opinion. Regarding Ulysses S. Grant, the First Lady told the President: "He is a butcher and is not fit to be at the head of an army." The White House staff took to calling her a "hellcat."

"I seem to be the scapegoat for both North and South," she once told a friend. As a native Southerner, Northerners didn't trust her. And because she was an abolitionist — not to mention married to the president who wanted to emancipate the slaves — she was vilified as a traitor in the South. People said she was too plump and plain, so she dressed in expensive clothes, and then they criticized her for spending too much money. She told her dressmaker and close friend, the freed slave Elizabeth Keckley, "I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity."

She suffered from depression, anxiety, paranoia, and migraines, and, after the Lincolns' son Willie died of typhoid fever, she was crippled by grief. She hired spiritualists and mediums to try to contact her dead son, paying outrageous sums of money and receiving no comfort. After her husband was assassinated in 1865, her health continued to decline, and although she was nearly destitute, she continued to spend money on expensive clothes. The sudden death of her son Tad nearly broke her. In 1875, her son Robert finally had her committed to an insane asylum. She attempted suicide twice, but was released four months later. She spent her last years at her sister Elizabeth's home in Springfield, rarely coming out of her room.

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




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