Apr. 25, 2014

A Rainy Morning

by Ted Kooser

A young woman in a wheelchair,
wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.

"A Rainy Morning" by Ted Kooser from Delights & Shadows. © Copper Canyon Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Ted Kooser (books by this author), born in Ames, Iowa (1939). He said, "I had a wonderfully happy childhood," and, "All this business about artists having to have terrible childhoods doesn't play with me."

He started writing poetry seriously as a teenager. He said: "I was desperately interested in being interesting. Poetry seemed a way of being different." His first poem was published because his friends sent one of his poems to a teen magazine behind his back.

He wanted to be a writer, but he flunked out of graduate school. So he took the first job he was offered, at a life insurance company, and he worked there for 35 years. He said: "I believe that writers write for perceived communities, and that if you are a lifelong professor of English, it's quite likely that you will write poems that your colleagues would like; that is, poems that will engage that community. I worked every day with people who didn't read poetry, who hadn't read it since they were in high school, and I wanted to write for them."

Every morning, he got up at 4:30, made a pot of coffee, and wrote until 7. Then he put on his suit and tie and went to work. By the time he retired in 1999, Kooser had published seven books of poetry, including Not Coming to Be Barked At (1976), One World at a Time (1985), and Weather Central (1994). He resigned himself to being a relatively unknown poet, but he continued to write every morning. Then, in 2004, he got a phone call informing him that he had been chosen as poet laureate of the United States. He said: "I was so staggered I could barely respond. The next day, I backed the car out of the garage and tore the rearview mirror off the driver's side." As the poet laureate, he started a free weekly column for newspapers called "American Life in Poetry."

It's the birthday of the poet and journalist James Fenton (books by this author), born in Lincoln, England (1949). His poetry collections include Put Thou Thy Tears Into My Bottle (1969); A German Requiem (1981); Dead Soldiers (1981); and Yellow Tulips (2012). Some of his journalism has been collected in All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of Asia (1989).

James Fenton said: "The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation."

It's the anniversary of the 1719 publication of Daniel Defoe's novel The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (books by this author). It is the story of a castaway who spends 28 years on a remote island before he is rescued, and it is considered one of the first English novels. When it was published, Defoe was 59 years old, and it was his first novel. He was born Daniel Foe, but added the "De" to sound more aristocratic. In truth, he was from a working-class family — his father was a butcher and candle-maker. Defoe became a merchant, but he was usually in debt. He wrote: "No man has tasted differing fortunes more, / And thirteen times I have been rich and poor." He turned to writing to supplement his income. He published several minor pamphlets, including one that satirized high-church Anglicans, and he was arrested for seditious libel. The warrant for his arrest was printed in the newspaper, and gave the only surviving physical description of Defoe: "He is a middle-sized, spare man, about 40 years old, of a brown complexion, and dark brown-colored hair, but wears a wig; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes, and a large mole near his mouth." He was sentenced to jail and to stand in the pillory. Before the date of his public punishment, Defoe wrote a satirical ode called "Hymn to the Pillory," and his friends handed out copies to the mob that formed around him. Instead of rocks or rotten vegetables, the sympathetic public threw flowers. While Defoe was in prison, he started a magazine called The Review, which published, among other things, "a weekly history of Nonsense, Impertinence, Vice, and Debauchery."

Defoe was released from prison thanks to the intervention of Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, who hired Defoe to work as a spy and to write pamphlets supporting the Earl's political views. For the next 15 years, Defoe shamelessly wrote convincing pamphlets advocating the views of whoever was in power and wanted to pay him. He never published under his own name. He wrote A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), whose title page said it was "Written By A Citizen," as if it were an actual historical memoir — although, in truth, Defoe was only five years old when the plague swept through London. He wrote the gripping story of a real-life criminal named Jack Sheppard, and Sheppard himself handed out the pamphlets right before he was hanged, pretending to have written them; the pamphlet sold incredibly well after that.

In 1712, a ship captain named Woodes Rogers published a book called A Cruising Voyage Round the World. It was his account of a sea voyage in which he rescued a man named Alexander Selkirk, who had been stranded alone for more than four years on an island called Más a Tierra, 400 miles off the west coast of Chile. Defoe read the book, as well as an article written about Selkirk. Some people think that Defoe met Selkirk in person, at an old pub near the docks in Bristol. Either way, seven years after Rogers' account of his voyage, Defoe published his masterpiece, now called Robinson Crusoe, but originally titled The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates (1719). As usual, Defoe did not claim authorship; the book claimed to be "written by Himself." At first, people believed that Crusoe had actually written it. It didn't take long for people to figure out the identity of the author, and not everyone was pleased. One of Defoe's contemporaries wrote a satirical pamphlet called The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel de Foe, Formerly of London, Hosier, Who has lived above fifty Years all alone by himself, in the Kingdoms of North and South Britain. Another called him "a false, shuffling, prevaricating rascal"; and still another said, "He is truly master of forging a Story and imposing it on the world for the truth." But Robinson Crusoe was a phenomenal best-seller, going through four editions in its first year alone. The book's success did not bring Defoe lasting financial security, and at the age of 70, he died poor in a run-down boardinghouse, probably trying to avoid a debt collector.

And on this day in 2003, the Human Genome Project announced that it had finished identifying and mapping the genes in human DNA. The project began in 1989; it's the largest single investigation in modern science, and it was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. A parallel project in the private sector, run by Craig Venter and his company Celera Genomics, was undertaken in 1998. The company intended to patent 100 to 300 genes, but President Clinton declared in 2000 that the genome sequences could not be patented, and that the research should be given freely to the scientific community. Celera's stock plummeted and the biotechnology sector was sent reeling.

The project yielded some surprising findings. Scientists expected to find that humans had more than 100,000 genes; it turns out we have only around 30,000 — about the same as mice. The genes themselves are mostly similar to mice and other mammals too, with only a few exceptions. The gene sequence is published on the Internet and available to the public. The next phase of the research, the International HapMap Project, aims to establish a list of common genetic variants, since everyone's DNA — with the exception of identical twins and clones — is unique to them.

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