Saturday Sep. 19, 2015

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You are driving to the airport
Along the glittering highway
Through the warm night,
Humming to yourself.
The yellow rose buds that stood
On the commode faded and fell
Two days ago. Last night the
Petals dropped from the tulips
On the dresser. The signs of
Your presence are leaving the
House one by one. Being without
You was almost more than I
Could bear. Now the work is squared
Away. All the arrangements
Have been made. All the delays
Are past and I am thirty
Thousand feet in the air over
A dark lustrous sea, under
A low half moon that makes the wings
Gleam like fish under water —
Rushing south four hundred miles
Down the California coast
To your curving lips and your
Ivory thighs.

“Coming” by Kenneth Rexroth from Sacramental Acts. © Copper Canyon Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1819 that 24-year-old John Keats wrote the ode “To Autumn" (books by this author). It is one of the most anthologized poems in the English language. He wrote to his friend: “Somehow a stubble plain looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm — this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”

Keats was despairing about that year of his poetic life. In November, he wrote to his brother, “Nothing could have in all its circumstances fallen out worse for me than the last year has done, or could be more damping to my poetical talent.”

But these days, Keats scholars call 1819 the “Living Year,” the “Great Year,” or the “Fertile Year.” Keats had written almost all his great poetry during that year, including a series of odes during that spring and summer, among them “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “Ode to Psyche.” “To Autumn” was the last of these odes. Keats died from tuberculosis less than two years later, at age 25.

“To Autumn,” which the critic Harold Bloom called “as close to perfect as any shorter poem in the English Language,” begins:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core”

It’s the birthday of writer and editor Roger Angell (books by this author), born in New York (1920). His mother and stepfather were well known in the literary world — Katharine Sergeant Angell, the longtime New Yorker fiction editor, and E.B. White, the essayist and children’s author — but Angell attributes his earliest cultural education to his father, a lawyer who hired a grad student to tutor the 11-year-old Angell by reading progressive magazines and watching silent film. It was what inspired him, perhaps, to sneak out of gym class to go to the movies two or three times a week in his early teens, which he claims taught him storytelling.

Of course, he learned a thing or two about the writer’s life from watching his stepfather working on deadline for The New Yorker each week, when — as Angell told New York Magazine — White would send his column off at the end of a long day with the proclamation, “It isn’t good enough.” The New Yorker’s constant presence in Angell’s childhood had another side effect: He memorized the caption for every cartoon the magazine had published in its existence, at that point about seven or eight years.

But it wasn’t until his mother had retired from the magazine, after Angell had been the editor of the Air Force’s weekly brief while stationed in the Pacific, and after he’d been an editor for Holiday magazine, that The New Yorker finally called him home in 1956. He’s worked there ever since. Although today he’s best known for writing about baseball, a career trajectory he attributes not to intention but to a fan’s enthusiasm for the game, Angell has also served as a fiction editor since his first day on the job. He’s also written the magazine’s annual Christmas poem, a longstanding and humorous tradition, since 1976. Angell has published a number of collections of his articles; he was 79 when he published his first full-length book, A Pitcher’s Story. His most recent, Let Me Finish (2006), collects personal essays on his childhood, service in WWII, and his long career.

Today is the birthday of author William Golding (books by this author), born in St. Columb Minor, Cornwall, England (1911). He was the child of a science teacher and a suffragette, and grew up in a house that was built in the 14th century. He was afraid of the dark, but his father gave him no sympathy because his fear was not rational. Golding started writing poetry when he was seven, and tried — and failed — to write his first novel when he was 12 years old. He was often angry and embarrassed about being from a lower social class, and was fond of taking his frustrations out on the other schoolboys. He attended Oxford and studied science at first, because his father wanted him to. In his third year, he switched to the study of literature, and published a book of poems the year before he graduated. For four years, he worked in a London theater as a writer, actor, and producer; he also took a job as a social worker to make ends meet. In 1939, he took a job as a teacher of English and philosophy in Salisbury; it turned out that he loved teaching, even though he was often dealing with unmanageable boys.

In 1940, Golding joined the Royal Navy, and grew to love the sea. But what he saw during his six years of service during World War II troubled him. He was faced with a huge ethical decision when he learned that he would have to take the ship across a minefield in order to be on time for the D-Day operations. He couldn’t decide whether to risk the lives of his men or the lives of all those participating in D-Day who needed their help. He made the decision to risk the journey, but later, he learned that the minefield wasn’t real — it was put on a map to fool the Germans, and his whole moral dilemma had been based on something that wasn’t even real. “I began to see what people were capable of doing,” he later said. “Anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.”

When the war ended, he came home and returned to the classroom. He also wrote four novels, but none of them were published. It was his fifth attempt, and the first to be published, that people know best. That book was inspired by his years as a teacher, and colored by his war experience. He came up with the book’s title by translating the Hebrew name of a powerful demon into English: “Beelzebub” means “Lord of the Flies.” Golding’s novel is the story of a group of English schoolboys whose plane crashes on a pristine desert island during a nuclear war. Without the restraining, civilizing presence of adults, the boys begin to act according to their worst natures.

The manuscript was rejected 21 times before he sent it to Faber and Faber in London. It very nearly failed there too — an in-house reader called it an “absurd and uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb on the Colonies. A group of children who land in jungle country near New Guinea. Rubbish & dull. Pointless.” But a new editor, Charles Monteith, saw potential in the book and fought for it. It wasn’t a smashing success right away; it only sold 3,000 copies in the United States, and it went out of print the next year. But it was rediscovered in the 1960s and has become a classic of 20th-century English literature.

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