Mar. 12, 2014

A Plain Ordinary Steel Needle Can Float on Pure Water

by Kay Ryan

—Ripley's Believe It or Not

Who hasn't seen
a plain ordinary
steel needle float serene
on water as if lying on a pillow?
The water cuddles up like Jell-O.
It's a treat to see water
so rubbery, a needle
so peaceful, the point encased
in the tenderest dimple.
It seems so simple
when things or people
have modified each other's qualities
we almost forget the oddity
of that.

"A Plain Ordinary Steel Needle Can Float on Pure Water" by Kay Ryan from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. © Grove Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Jack Kerouac (books by this author), born Jean-Louis Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts (1922). He was from a working-class French-Canadian family; he grew up speaking French, and he wasn't fluent in English until he was a teenager. Kerouac was a star football player, and after an impressive performance in the Thanksgiving Day game his senior year, he was offered a scholarship to Columbia University. In New York City, he met a group of friends who would eventually be known as the Beat Generation — Allen Ginsberg, William S. Boroughs, Neal Cassady, and others. Kerouac wrote his novel On the Road (1957) about Cassady.

Kerouac famously wrote On the Road in just 20 days, during a coffee-fueled writing spree in the spring of April 1951. He typed it on translucent draft paper that he found in a closet at a friend's apartment — he cut the paper to size and taped it together so it would work in his typewriter. It's true that Kerouac produced that version of On the Road in just a few weeks, but the novel itself was a long time in the making. In 1947, Kerouac began collecting material for a new novel. In 1948, he described it in his journal: "Two guys hitch-hiking to California in search of something they don't really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else." Notes and ideas for the novel filled hundreds of pages of journals, letters, and notebooks. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: "These ideas and plans obsess me so much that I can't conceal them [...] they overflow out of me, even in bars with perfect strangers." Throughout those years of writing Kerouac continued to take cross-country trips with Neal Cassady, and recorded their adventures and conversations.

In late March of 1951, his friend John Clellon Holmes had just finished a novel about the Beats, and he showed Kerouac the manuscript. Kerouac was angry, convinced that Holmes had stolen his subject matter. Kerouac's wife convinced her husband that instead of stewing about it, he should go ahead and get his own novel written. He began writing on April 2nd and finished on the 22nd. He wrote to Cassady: "Story deals with you and me and the road [...] Plot, if any, is devoted to your development from young jailkid of early days to later (present) W.C. Fields saintliness ... step by step in all I saw. [...] I've telled all the road now. Went fast because the road is fast ... wrote whole thing on strip of paper 120 foot long (tracing paper that belonged to Cannastra) — just rolled it through typewriter and in fact no paragraphs ... rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road."

Once Kerouac finished that draft, he rewrote it, typing it up on normal paper. Then he tried to get it published, but it was rejected again and again. In 1957, On the Road was finally published by Viking, who had previously turned it down. They offered Kerouac a $900 advance, which his agent managed to negotiate to $1,000, but the publishers paid it out in $100 increments because they didn't trust that Kerouac would use the money well. Viking editors insisted that Kerouac change the names of real people so they couldn't be sued for libel, so Neal Cassady became Dean Moriarty.

When it was published, On the Road got mixed reviews, but its success made Kerouac famous — and uncomfortable. He wrote to a friend: "I really wanta dig into my art like a maniac and pay no attention to promotion (which everybody wants me to do ... what a waste of sweet life!)" But now that he was famous; he was able to publish the previously rejected novels that he had written before On the Road. Kerouac considered all of his novels as parts of a whole cycle, which he called The Duluoz Legend. He told his editor: "When I'm done, in about 10, 15 years, it will cover all the years of my life, like Proust, but done on the run, a Running Proust."

His books include The Dharma Bums (1958), Doctor Sax (1959), Visions of Cody (1960), and Big Sur (1962).

It's the birthday of playwright Edward Albee (books by this author), born in 1928. He wrote many plays, including The Zoo Story (1958), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and Me, Myself & I (2007), and he's won three Pulitzer Prizes. He said: "I take pretty good care of myself, and I have no enthusiasm whatever about dying. I think it's a terrible waste of time, and I don't want to participate in it."

It's the birthday of poet and fiction author Naomi Shihab Nye (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri (1952). Her father was Palestinian, and her mother was American. Nye grew up in St. Louis, Ramallah, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas. She began writing poetry almost as soon as she learned to write, and she's always been interested in the intersections of different cultures. Her work is often inspired by her Mexican-American neighbors in San Antonio, where she still lives. Since the 9/11 attacks, she has become an outspoken advocate for Arab Americans. Her latest book is a collection of very short stories: There is No Long Distance Now (2011).

She said: "Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer, on its own."

It was on this date in 2009 that financier Bernard Madoff pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts — including securities fraud, investment adviser fraud, money laundering, perjury, and theft — in a New York court. Madoff admitted to fronting and operating a Ponzi scheme that is believed to be the largest financial embezzlement and fraud in Wall Street history. Madoff, a former stockbroker and onetime president of the board of directors for the NASDAQ stock exchange, admitted to conning thousands of investors out of nearly $50 billion, while moving as much as $170 billion through his own personal accounts since the early '90s.

In 2009, at 71 years old, he was sentenced to a 150-year prison sentence, the maximum possible sentence he could have received.

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