Tuesday Oct. 20, 2015

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The wasps outside
the kitchen window
are making that
thick, unraveling sound
again, floating in
and out of the bald head
of their nest,
seeming not to move
while moving,
and it has just occurred
to me, standing,
washing the coffeepot,
watching them hang
loosely in the air—thin
wings; thick, elongated
abdomens; sad, down—
pointing antennae—
that this
is the heart’s constant
project: this simple
learning; learning
how to hold
and hope together;
to see on the unharmed
surface of one
the great scar
of the other; to recognize
both and to make
something of both;
to desire everything
and nothing
at once and to desire it
all the time;
and to contain that desire
fleshly, in a body;
to wash it and rest it
and feed it; to learn
its name and from whence
it came; and to speak
to it—oh, most of all
to speak to it—
every day, every day,
saying to one part,
“Well, maybe this is all
you get,” while saying
to the other, “Go on,
break it open, let it go.”

“Want” by Carrie Fountain from Burn Lake. © Penguin, 2010. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet Arthur Rimbaud (books by this author), born in Charleville, France (1854). He began writing letters to the poet Paul Verlaine, whose work he admired, and Verlaine invited him to stay at his house. When he arrived, Rimbaud had his first masterpiece in his pocket, a poem called "The Drunken Boat" (1871), describing the journey of an empty boat as it wanders the ocean and eventually breaks apart.

Rimbaud didn't get along with Verlaine's family or his friends. He had a habit of taking off his clothes and shouting obscenities in public, and that tended to put people off. But everyone agreed that his poetry was the work of a genius and Verlaine fell in love with him. The two had a scandalously open affair that shocked the rest of the Paris literary scene. But they had a bitter break-up, and the relationship ended when Verlaine tried to murder Rimbaud with a pistol, shooting him in the arm.

Verlaine went to prison and Rimbaud went back to his mother, and he wrote one of his last books, A Season in Hell (1873). Rimbaud had been 16 when he started publishing his poetry, and he was 19 when he gave up on poetry and took off to wander around the world, winding up in Africa, where he became an arms dealer. He kept writing letters to his family, but he never wrote another poem, and never gave any hint that he missed writing them.

Rimbaud, who said: "I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still."

It's the birthday of political humorist Art Buchwald (books by this author), born in Mount Vernon, New York (1925). In 1982, Buchwald won the Pulitzer Prize for his syndicated column "Art Buchwald," which appeared twice a week in over 550 newspapers. His columns have been published as collections such as I Think I Don't Remember (1987) and Whose Rose Garden Is It Anyway? (1989). Buchwald began writing columns when he lived in Paris in the 1950s. In order to afford to live there, he took a job writing a column for the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune called "Paris After Dark" (1949). At first, he wrote about Parisian nightclubs, but then he began to write a humorous column called "Europe's Lighter Side" (1952). One of his best-known satires from his French columns is about a fictional American tourist who tried to win the "six-minute-Louvre race." Buchwald wrote about him racing from the Mona Lisa to the other famous artworks in the museum, making excellent time "under perfect conditions, with a smooth floor, excellent lighting, and no wind."

Buchwald began writing political satire when President Eisenhower made a trip to France. His humorous articles caught the attention of Eisenhower's press secretary, who called the pieces "unadulterated rot." Buchwald answered back, "I have been known to write adulterated rot, but never unadulterated rot." After this, he moved back to the United States and began writing political satire full-time. Buchwald said, "If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it."

It's the birthday of poet Robert Pinsky (books by this author), born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940). He played the saxophone in high school, and he said: "My first experience of art, or the joy in making art, was playing the horn at some high-school dance or bar mitzvah or wedding, looking at a roomful of people moving their bodies around in time to what I was doing [...] The fact that it was my breath making a party out of things was miraculous to me, a physical pleasure." His parents wanted him to be an optician like his father, but he chose to go to college, the first person in his family to do so. At Rutgers, he took a class on poetry his freshman year, and he was amazed by "Sailing to Byzantium" by W.B. Yeats. He said: "It was the speed with which he covered the ground. Wow: 'artifice of eternity'!'' Pinsky typed up "Sailing to Byzantium" and hung it on his dorm room wall, and decided to become a poet himself.

He went on to graduate school at Stanford. When he arrived at Stanford, he thought he was quite talented, so he took a bunch of his poems to the poet and critic Yvor Winters and announced that he hoped he would receive credit just for having written them. Instead, Winters read his poems for three minutes and then said, "Well, there may be some gift here, but it's impossible to tell, because you simply don't know how to write." Pinsky begged to be let into one of the professor's courses, but the prerequisite for all the other classes wasn't being offered that term. Winters took pity on Pinsky and offered to take him on as an independent study, and he became Pinsky's mentor at Stanford. Ten years later, Pinsky published his first book of poems, Sadness and Happiness (1975).

In 1993, a group of 19 poets, including Pinsky, were each asked to translate a section of Dante's Inferno for a reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Pinsky was so excited by the work that he just kept going, and he ended up publishing The Inferno of Dante: A New Translation in 1995 to great acclaim.He said: "I got hooked on the technical challenge [...] It was more like having an absorbing new video game or sewing pattern or boat-building pattern than a large undertaking. It was like trying to master a song, or working on your jump shot or something. It was not consciously a scholarly or even a literary process: more athletic or musical or puzzle solving: working on a wonderful jigsaw puzzle or sudoku."

His books of poetry include The Want Bone (1990), Jersey Rain (2000), and Selected Poems (2011).

He said: "I think that if an audience for any art is having a good time, they are willing to suspend the need for comprehension for a while — that's part of the pleasure. [...] And if it doesn't sound good, it is boring even if we understand it. That's the trouble with a lot of boring art: you understand the stupid cop show, or the tedious sitcom gag, too soon and too completely. Same for the stupid middlebrow poem."

It's the birthday of the man who designed St. Paul's Cathedral in London, architect Christopher Wren, born in East Knoyle, England (1632). In addition to his accomplishments as an architect, he knew Latin, he could draw, he did work in medicine and mechanics, he was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer, and a philosopher, too.

And he had impeccable manners. He particularly disliked swearing. When he was overseeing the construction of St. Paul's, he issued this official order: "Whereas, among laborers, etc., that ungodly custom of swearing is too frequently heard, to the dishonor of God, and contempt of authority; and to the end, therefore, that such impiety may be utterly banished from these works, intended for the service of God, and the honor of religion. It is ordered, that customary swearing shall be a sufficient crime to dismiss any laborer that comes to the call; and the clerk of the works, upon sufficient proof, shall dismiss them accordingly. And if any master, working by task, shall not, upon admonition, reform this profanation among his apprentices, servants, and laborers, it shall be construed his fault; and he shall be liable to be censured by the commissioners."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®