Tuesday Aug. 25, 2015

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From a Country Overlooked

There are no creatures you cannot love.
A frog calling at God
From the moon-filled ditch
As you stand on the country road in the June night.
The sound is enough to make the stars weep
With happiness.
In the morning the landscape green
Is lifted off the ground by the scent of grass.
The day is carried across its hours
Without any effort by the shining insects
That are living their secret lives.
The space between the prairie horizons
Makes us ache with its beauty.
Cottonwood leaves click in an ancient tongue
To the farthest cold dark in the universe.
The cottonwood also talks to you
Of breeze and speckled sunlight.
You are at home in these
great empty places
along with red-wing blackbirds and sloughs.
You are comfortable in this spot
so full of grace and being
that it sparkles like jewels
spilled on water.

“From a Country Overlooked” by Tom Hennen from Darkness Sticks to Everything. © Copper Canyon Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1718, French immigrants founded the city of New Orleans. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville named the new settlement for Philippe II, the Duke of Orléans. The duke was the regent of France, ruling in place of King Louis XV, who was only a boy. The French had claimed the Louisiana Territory in 1682, and the location of New Orleans — at the mouth of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers — meant that it was prime real estate for anyone who wanted to control America’s large interior waterway. Though the city never lost its French character, it was blended with elements of Native American, African, and Spanish cultures.

To get things started, France sent a starter population of prisoners, slaves, and bonded servants. They arrived in New Orleans to find a mosquito-ridden swamp that was surrounded by hostile Native Americans, and prone to hurricanes. The new settlers threatened to revolt, so the French government sent 90 female convicts straight from the Paris jails. These ladies of questionable repute were chaperoned by a group of Ursuline nuns until they could be married off to the men who awaited them.

Two engineers laid out plans for a the original walled village, which later came to be known as the French Quarter or the Vieux Carré — the Old City. Though it’s called the French Quarter, the architecture of the area is mostly Spanish in influence, since fire destroyed most of the original buildings in the 18th century. By that time, the city was under the control of the Spanish, who rebuilt the quarter. New Orleans became an American city in 1803, when Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States government.

Tom Robbins wrote, in Jitterbug Perfume (1984): “Louisiana in September was like an obscene phone call from nature. The air — moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh — felt as if it were being exhaled into one’s face. Sometimes it even sounded like heavy breathing. Honeysuckle, swamp flowers, magnolia, and the mystery smell of the river scented the atmosphere, amplifying the intrusion of organic sleaze. It was aphrodisiac and repressive, soft and violent at the same time. In New Orleans, in the French Quarter, miles from the barking lungs of alligators, the air maintained this quality of breath, although here it acquired a tinge of metallic halitosis, due to fumes expelled by tourist buses, trucks delivering Dixie beer, and, on Decatur Street, a mass-transit motor coach named Desire.”

It’s the birthday of poet Charles Wright (books by this author), born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee (1935). His father was a civil engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Wrights moved to different dams around the South, living in government housing. He never thought seriously about writing — when he went to Davidson College, there was only one creative writing course every other year, and he said the college “turned out lawyers, doctors and Presbyterian ministers.” When he was 23, he joined the Army and was stationed in Italy, and there he read the poem “Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula” by Ezra Pound, which was set in the part of Italy where Wright was stationed. He said, “I loved the sound of it — it was in iambic pentameter, although I didn’t know it at the time, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have know what that was.” He was so inspired by Pound that he started writing poems, and he went on to publish more than 20 books of poetry.

His books include Country Music: Selected Early Poems (1982), Black Zodiac (1997), Scar Tissue (2006), Outtakes (2010), and, most recently, Caribou (2014).

He said: “Good sounds make good sense. At least we hope so. Pure style is pure meaning. [...] How you say it, in the end, becomes what you have to say.”

It’s the birthday of novelist Martin Amis (books by this author), born in Oxford, England (1949). Amis is the son of celebrated novelist Kingsley Amis, who rose to fame in the 1950s with his debut novel, Lucky Jim (1954), a scathing satire of academia. Amis has always been matter-of-fact about his father’s opinion of his work. Amis said: “He was brilliantly indolent. He never gave me any encouragement at all. I later realized how valuable and necessary that was. I know one or two writers who’ve encouraged their children to write and it’s a completely hollow promise because literary talent isn’t inherited.”

His father’s international popularity meant that Amis moved a lot during his youth; he attended 14 schools during his childhood and adolescence. His parents divorced when he was 12, and he spent most of his teen years in London, in bars, hanging out with the mods and hippies. At the time, school was an afterthought. One of his headmasters called him “unusually unpromising.” It wasn’t until his stepmother, writer Elizabeth James Howard, introduced him to the novels of Jane Austen that he began to devour literature, and to think he might be able to write, too.

He worked as a successful journalist at several London newspapers while writing his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973). The book displayed early versions of what would become his trademarks: biting wit, authorial intervention. Amis is unapologetic about his penchant for running his characters through sadistically humorous misfortunes. He says: “I’m the boss. I’m the boss but they’re on the team. They’re ‘my people,’ in the sense that a politician might have his people — his in-depth backup. I’m always willing to hear their ideas, although of course I retain the right of absolute veto; I slap them down but I want to hear what they’ve got to say.”

Amis’s novels Money (1984), London Fields (1989), and The Information (1995) are considered his best. After that, his novels began to receive mixed reviews, and he got caught up in a literary controversy after firing his longtime agent and alienating her husband, the novelist Julian Barnes, formerly his good friend. He fled to Uruguay with his family for several years, and began writing a complicated, 480-page novel about the seeds of feminism and the sexual revolution. The novel is set in 1970, a year, Amis says, in which “something was changing in the world of men and women.” The Pregnant Widow (2010) was composed in longhand, Amis’s usual practice, with a Biro, his favorite brand of ballpoint pen.

He says: “Nothing compares with the fluidity of longhand. You shift things around without shifting them around — in that you merely indicate a possibility while your original thought is still there. The trouble with a computer is that what you come out with has no memory, no provenance, no history — the little cursor, or whatever it’s called, that wobbles around the middle of the screen falsely gives you the impression that you’re thinking. Even when you’re not.”

And it’s the birthday of conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, born in Lawrence, Massachusetts (1918). When he was 40, he became the youngest musical director ever in charge of the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein wrote scores for many musicals, including On the Town and West Side Story, as well as symphonies and scores for ballets. He also wrote a book called The Joy of Music (1959), a collection of essays and conversations about music.

In it, he wrote: “Music, of all the arts, stands in a special region, unlit by any star but its own, and utterly without meaning ... except its own.” The Christmas before Bernstein died, at age 72, he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin to celebrate the crumbling of the wall. He died just five days after retiring. He conducted his final performance at Tanglewood, in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, on August 19, 1990. It was the Boston Symphony playing Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

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