May 10, 2014

Couple at Coney Island

by Charles Simic

It was early one Sunday morning,
So we put on our best rags
And went for a stroll along the boardwalk
Till we came to a kind of palace
With turrets and pennants flying.
It made me think of a wedding cake
In the window of a fancy bakery shop.

I was warm, so I took my jacket off
And put my arm round your waist
And drew you closer to me
While you leaned your head on my shoulder.
Anyone could see we'd made love
The night before and were still giddy on our feet.
We looked naked in our clothes

Staring at the red and white pennants
Whipped by the sea wind.
The rides and shooting galleries
With their ducks marching in line
Still boarded up and padlocked.
No one around yet to take our first dime.

"Couple at Coney Island" by Charles Simic from Night Picnic. © Harcourt, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1940 that Winston Churchill took power as the prime minister of Great Britain, a position he would hold for the rest of World War II. He came to power at a very dark moment for Europe. In less than two years, almost all of Western Europe's mainland was either controlled by or allied with Nazi Germany. And then, on this day in 1940, Churchill became the prime minister. In his acceptance speech, he famously said, "All I have to offer is blood, toil, tears, and sweat."

It's the birthday of Fred Astaire, born Frederick Austerlitz, in Omaha, Nebraska (1899). He started dancing when he was four, and when he was six he formed an act with his sister, Adele, which became a popular vaudeville attraction on Broadway. When Adele retired in 1932, Astaire made a screen test. The movie executive wrote, "Can't act, can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little." Still, Astaire got a part in Dancing Lady (1933). It starred Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and the Three Stooges. He's famous for the movies he made with his dancing partner Ginger Rogers: classics like The Gay Divorcée (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Swing Time (1936).

Fred Astaire said: "The higher up you go, the more mistakes you are allowed. Right at the top, if you make enough of them, it's considered to be your style."

It's the birthday of theologian Karl Barth (books by this author), born in Basel, Switzerland (1886). He spent most of his childhood in Bern, in a strict Christian family; his father was a minister and scholar. Barth disliked school and was more interested in joining in on street fights — sometimes it was the rich kids versus the poor immigrant kids, and other times it was the students of one school versus another. For a while, Barth was the leader of a street gang. The rival gang was led by another neighborhood kid, Martin Werner; Werner went on to become a famous professor of Dogmatics, and the two men continued to disagree once they were both academics.

Eventually, Barth became more interested in studying, and at the same time as his confirmation into the church at the age of 15, he decided he would become a theologian, "in the hope that through such a course of study I might reach a proper understanding of the creed in place of the rather hazy ideas that I had at that time." He studied in Switzerland and Germany, training in Protestant liberal theology, and spent 10 years as a pastor in the village of Safenwil. His parishioners were mostly blue-collar workers in textile mills and factories. He encouraged them in their demands for fairer wages, and preached sermons like "Jesus and the Social Movement," in which he said: "The church can help you with your relationship to Jesus, serve you, but nothing more [...] Do what you think is right. The church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church. The same holds true for the so-called Christian worldview."

He became disillusioned with the liberal theology he had learned at the university, and this came to a crisis point in 1914. Liberal theology was optimistic about modernity and felt that humanity's progress was part of God's plan and therefore had divine blessing. Barth believed that there was a fundamental divide between humanity and God, and that the line was too often blurry. He believed that the truth about Christianity came only from the revelation of Jesus Christ — he called Christ "the one word of God." He was particularly upset when governments used Christianity as a way to justify actions that he considered very un-Christian. In 1914, 93 German intellectuals signed a manifesto declaring their support of the German cause in World War I, and among the signers were several of Barth's former teachers. Barth was disgusted, and he began to doubt "everything which flowed at that time from the pens of the German theologians." He began reading through the Bible again, trying to understand it without the lens of all that he had been taught. In the summer of 1916, Barth sat down under an apple tree and began to read through St. Paul's "Epistle to the Romans." He spent the next two years working on a commentary of it, and it was hard going. At various times, he was overwhelmed, bored, frustrated, and awe-inspired. He was stretched thin as a pastor, throwing himself behind the workers' struggles for fair wages on top of all the regular obligations of his church. He had a wife and three young children. His health was suffering. Almost two years after he had begun his commentary, in February of 1918, he wrote to a friend: "Perhaps it would be better to ceremoniously burn it in the end rather than let it be printed. Does the dear God really want this scribble. It is merely another new theology." His friend talked him out of burning it, and he met with an enthusiastic publisher, who wanted it done in time for the Christmas season. Barth finished that summer, writing: "If I were a chicken, I would allow myself now to cluck pompously around the house. Rejoice with me!" The Epistle to the Romans was a sensation. One scholar proclaimed that it "fell like a bombshell on the playground of theologians." Although Barth had no doctorate degree, he was appointed a professor at a German university.

When the Third Reich came to power in Germany, Barth was strongly opposed to Hitler and the "German Christians" who merged the Gospel with Nazi nationalism. He wrote most of the famous "Barmen Declaration," which rejected the idea that the state could have power over the Church, or that the Church could have power over the true essence of Christianity. When he refused to begin his classes with "Heil Hitler!" or to swear allegiance to him, Barth was kicked out of his teaching post and Germany. He moved back to Switzerland, where he spent the rest of his life writing his monumental work Church Dogmatics, which at the time of his death was 13 volumes and more than 9,300 pages.

It's is the birthday of Bel Kaufman (1911) (books by this author). She was born in Berlin and grew up in Odessa and Kiev. She's the granddaughter of the writer Sholem Aleichem, who wrote the stories that became Fiddler on the Roof.

Kaufman taught in the New York public school system for 20 years. She had a terrible time passing the oral exam to get her teaching certificate because of her Russian accent, but she finally did and eventually turned the frustrations of her teaching career into a novel. It was called Up the Down Staircase (1965), and the story was told through a collection of letters, notes, and school memos. In 2010, when she was 99, Hunter College hired her to teach a course on Jewish humor.

She gave an interview to Vogue magazine in 2012, and she said: "I've lived a long time, a very long time, 101 years, and I'm still here. I'm done with the doubts and struggles and insecurities of youth. I'm finished with loss and guilt and regret. I'm very old, and nothing is expected of me. Now, provided good health continues, I can do what I want. I can write my memoirs. I can edit my works for future e-books. I can even do nothing — what a luxury that is! I have new priorities and a new appreciation of time. I enjoy my family more than ever, and also a sunny day and a comfortable bed. I keep up my interest in books and theater and people, and when I'm tired, I rest. ... I had many problems and disasters in my life; fortunately at my age, I don't remember what they were."

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
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “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
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show