Oct. 24, 2013

Come into animal presence

by Denise Levertov

Come into animal presence
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn't
quicken his trotting
across the track and into the palm brush.
What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.

"Come into animal presence" by Denise Levertov, from Poems: 1960-1967. © New Directions, 1983. Reprinted by permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1897 that the first comic strip appeared in a newspaper. The strip, created by Richard Outcault, was published under different names but usually known by the name of its main character, the Yellow Kid. The Yellow Kid started appearing in single-panel cartoons in 1896, but on this day, it was first published as a multipaneled comic strip, titled "The Yellow Kid Takes a Hand at Golf." Six panels showed the Yellow Kid's mixed success at attempting to hit a golf ball. At the beginning he declares, "I am playing dis game an I don't want no fresh mug te gimme any tips see," and then he proceeds to knock out several bystanders with his golf club.

The Yellow Kid was a buck-toothed, big-eared Irish street urchin who always wore a bright yellow nightshirt. His head was bald, suggesting it had been recently shaved to get rid of lice. Outcault said: "The Yellow Kid was not an individual but a type. When I used to go about the slums on newspaper assignments, I would encounter him often, wandering out of doorways or sitting down on dirty doorsteps. I always loved the Kid. He had a sweet character and a sunny disposition."

The Yellow Kid spoke in slum dialect, and his thoughts were printed on his shirt to communicate with the audience. The comics told little stories about the Yellow Kid and his fellow immigrant street kids in the fictional Hogan's Alley, usually contrasting their lives with those of New York's high society. There were comics with names like "The Horse Show as Reproduced at Shantytown" or "Golf — The Great Society Sport as Played in Hogan's Alley."

The Yellow Kid was originally published as Hogan's Alley in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. The first few comics were printed in black and white, but when the newspaper wanted a place to test its new quick-drying, bright yellow ink, the kid's nightshirt was the perfect spot, and before long he was the Yellow Kid. The Yellow Kid was such a hit that he quickly became a merchandising jackpot — his image appeared on all sorts of products, including cigarettes, matchbooks, fans, cracker tins, toys, chewing gum cards, and whiskey. The ambitious young newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst knew that full-color comics would be key to the success of his paper, the New York Journal, since many of his readers were immigrants who first encountered English through comics. And when he realized how popular the Yellow Kid was, Hearst lured Outcault away from Pulitzer by offering him a huge salary. Pulitzer was furious, and his New York World continued to publish Yellow Kid comics drawn by someone else, but they weren't as popular. The comics section of Hearst's Journal quickly became the most popular and most profitable section of the newspaper.

The Yellow Kid was even indirectly responsible for the term "yellow journalism," which was used to describe the sensationalist reporting of the New York Journal and the New York World. Reporter Ervin Wardman was highly critical of Hearst and Pulitzer, and their willingness to print anything in their papers if they thought it would sell more copies. Wardman was the editor of a small paper, which he used to criticize what he called "the new journalism," and then "the nude journalism." Neither of these terms caught on with the general public. But in 1897, he hit on the phrase "yellow-kid journalism" to mock the importance of the Yellow Kid to these papers, and soon shortened it to "yellow journalism." Yellow journalism reached its peak during the Spanish-American War in Cuba; when one of Hearst's reporters contacted him to complain that not much was happening in Cuba, Hearst famously sent a cable back: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." By May of 1898, Hearst had happily embraced the term "yellow journalism," declaring, "The sun in heaven is yellow — the sun which is to this earth what the Journal is to American journalism."

It's the birthday of the writer Sarah Josepha Hale (books by this author), born in Newport, New Hampshire (1788). She had no formal education, but her family encouraged her to read, especially her brother who went to Dartmouth. Her father opened up an unsuccessful tavern, and she was married in that tavern and had five children. Her husband died when she was 34 years old, and his Freemason group provided for her, first setting her up in a millinery business and then paying for the publication of her first book of poems, The Genius of Oblivion (1823).

It may come as no surprise that Sarah Josepha Hale was a vocal supporter of Thanksgiving, and along with a litany of other social causes and campaigns, the campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday was her dearest cause. She wrote letters to one president after another — Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and finally Abraham Lincoln, who did, in fact, listen to her. On October 3, 1863, he issued a proclamation, saying, "The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible." He proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, celebrated that year on the last Thursday of November.

So we have Sarah Josepha Hale to thank for Thanksgiving, as well as for writing the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

It was on this date in 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect, which established the 40-hour work week and a minimum wage. It was the first effort by the federal government to regulate wages and hours for workers. The first minimum wage was 25 cents per hour, and was set to be increased to 40 cents within seven years.

It's the birthday of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, born in Delft, the Netherlands (1632). He perfected the microscope, and was the first person to observe bacteria. Leeuwenhoek was not a trained scientist; he studied to be a draper's assistant in Amsterdam. He became a draper and haberdasher, and eventually took an administrative job in the government. He devoted all of his spare time to his hobby, grinding glass lenses and making microscopes. Over his lifetime, he ground over 400 lenses, and he built many microscopes, using techniques that he kept secret. He used his own microscopes to become the first person to observe bacteria and protozoa, which he called "animalcules." He was also the first to see red blood cells. One of his most important contributions was his research on fleas. He was able to explain how insects breed, because he could, for the first time, see their tiny eggs. He argued against the popular theory of spontaneous generation, which said that the tiniest insects could be generated from thin air.

It's the birthday of playwright Moss Hart (books by this author), born in New York City (1904). In his lifetime, he was known as the prince of Broadway. He co-wrote plays such as You Can't Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner, and he directed the musicals My Fair Lady and Camelot. Over the course of his career he collaborated with George S. Kaufman, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Judy Garland, and Julie Andrews.

His father was a cigar maker who lost his business when the mechanical cigar roller was invented, but his eccentric Aunt Kate began taking him to the theater when he was seven years old. It later turned out that she suffered from mental illness and had a habit of setting fires in the theaters she visited. But all Hart knew was that his aunt was taking him to Broadway on a regular basis, even when he should have been in school. He always credited her for getting him hooked on the theater.

By the time he was a teenager, Broadway was at its height. There were 90 major theaters in New York City, putting on an average of 225 new plays or musicals every year. Plays and musicals were still more popular forms of entertainment than movies. Broadway was the most glamorous place in America, and Moss Hart wanted nothing more than to be a part of it. Unfortunately, he had to drop out of high school and take a job as a clothing folder at a garment factory to support his family. But he was so enterprising that he got his boss to let him write and produce a musical review to show off the factory's latest clothing line.

A few years later, Hart got a job as the entertainment director for a series of summer resorts along the Borscht Belt in the Catskills. He later said that keeping city folks sufficiently entertained when they are confronted with a few weeks of nature was the toughest job he ever had, but he learned a lot about drama from the experience.

He wanted more than anything to write a big important play, like his idol Eugene O'Neill, but producers kept turning him down, telling him that they wanted comedies. So Hart decided to give them what they wanted, and the result was his play Once in a Lifetime. The legendary playwright George S. Kaufman agreed to help rewrite the script. The two of them worked on it for months, showing rough versions to audiences and noting what made people laugh and what didn't. When it came out in 1930, the play was a big hit and Moss Hart became rich and famous almost overnight. He was just 25 years old.

Hart is best known for co-writing You Can't Take It With You (1936) with Kaufman. It's a play about the strange Sycamore family — whose home is full of snakes, playwriting, ballet dancing, Russian royalty, candy, and fireworks. It is still one of the most popular plays for amateur productions.

It's the birthday of the poet Denise Levertov (books by this author), born in Ilford, England (1923). She knew from the time she was a kid that she wanted to be a writer. And she said: "When I was 12, I had the temerity to send some poems to T.S. Eliot, even though I had not shown most of them even to my sister, and certainly to no one else. Months later, when I had forgotten all about this impulsive act, a two- or even three-page typewritten letter from him arrived, full of excellent advice. (Alas, the letter, treasured for many years, vanished in some move from one apartment to another in the 1950s; I've never ceased to hope it may one day resurface)."

When she was 17, she had her first poem published in Poetry Quarterly. She worked as a civilian nurse during World War II in London, and in 1946 published her first book, The Double Image. Then she moved to America and became very involved in American political causes as well as American schools of poetry. By the 1960s, she was helping to found the Writers' and Artists' Protest Against the War in Vietnam, and publishing regularly, books like With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959), O Taste and See (1964), and The Sorrow Dance (1967), and she was considered a thoroughly American poet, and an important one at that. She published more than 30 books, mostly poetry, but also essays and translations. And she remained prolific until the end of her life — in 1997, the year she died, she published two books of poetry: The Life Around Us, a collection of nature poems written over the course of her career; and The Stream and The Sapphire, a selection of poems with religious themes.

She wrote: "I'm not very good at praying, but what I experience when I'm writing a poem is close to prayer. I feel it in different degrees and not with every poem. But in certain ways writing is a form of prayer."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
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  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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