Thursday Mar. 3, 2016

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Here at the Super Duper, in a glass tank
Supplied by a rill of cold fresh water
Running down a glass washboard at one end
And siphoned off at the other, and so
Perpetually renewed, a herd of lobster
Is made available to the customer
Who may choose whichever one he wants
to carry home and drop into boiling water
And serve with a sauce of melted butter.

Meanwhile, the beauty of strangeness marks
These creatures, who move (when they do)
With a slow, vague wavering of claws,
The somnambulist’s effortless clambering
As he crawls over the shell of a dream
Resembling himself. Their velvet colors,
Mud red, bruise purple, cadaver green
Speckled with black, their camouflage at home,
Make them conspicuous here in the strong
Day-imitating light, the incommensurable
Philosophers and at the same time victims
Herded together in the marketplace, asleep
Except for certain tentative gestures
Of their antennae, or their imperial claws
Pegged shut with a whittled stick at the wrist.

We inlanders, buying our needful food,
Pause over these slow, gigantic spiders
That spin not. We pause and are bemused,
And sometimes it happens that a mind sinks down
to the blind abyss in a swirl of sand, goes cold
And archaic in a carapace of horn,
Thinking: There’s something underneath the world.

The flame beneath the pot that boils the water.

“Lobsters” by Howard Nemerov from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. © University of Chicago Press, 1981. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1875 that the opera Carmen appeared on stage for the first time at the Opéra-Comique in France. When it premiered, the audience was shocked by the characters of Carmen, a gypsy girl, and her lover, Don José. The opera ran for 37 performances even though it came out late in the season, and it came back the next season, too.

Nietzsche heard Carmen 20 different times, and thought of it as a musical masterpiece. Tchaikovsky first heard Carmen in 1880. Bizet died of a heart attack just three months after the opera’s debut.

Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata was published on this date in 1802. Its real name is the slightly less evocative “Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Opus 27, No. 2,” and its Italian subtitle is translated as “almost a fantasy.” In 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death, a German critic compared the sonata to the effect of moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne, and the interpretation became so popular that, by the end of the century, the piece was universally known as the “Moonlight Sonata.” Beethoven himself had attributed the emotion of the piece to sitting at the bedside of a friend who had suffered an untimely death.

It’s the birthday of Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell, born in Edinburgh in 1847. Most people know him as the inventor of the telephone, but that was really just an offshoot of his real life’s work, which was coming up with ways to make life easier for the hearing impaired. He came from a family of experts in elocution and speech correction, and most of his education came from his parents, who intended that he continue the family business. The Bells moved to Canada in 1860, after their two other sons died of tuberculosis; their only remaining son began helping his father demonstrate his method of “visible speech,” a way for the deaf to learn to form words in the same way that hearing people did.

It’s the birthday of American poet James Merrill (books by this author), born in New York City (1926). Merrill won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (1977) for Divine Comedies (1976). His father was a founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm and Merrill lived a life of great ease, with a governess that taught him French and German and a 30-acre estate in Southhampton. For his 16th birthday, his father collected all Merrill’s stories and poems and had them published as Jim’s Book (1942). Merrill was embarrassed by the gesture. The book is now considered a great literary treasure worth thousands of dollars.

His first collection of poetry, First Poems (1951), was published to mixed reviews and Merrill briefly turned to fiction and playwriting. His play, The Bait (1953) was performed at the Comedy Club in New York City and both Arthur Miller and Dylan Thomas thought it so awful they walked out before it was over. Unlike many writers of his generation, he didn’t drink for inspiration, calling it “like the wet sponge on the blackboard.”

Merrill’s early poetry, like the collection The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959) was polished and formal, but in the late sixties and early seventies he became interested in the occult and began using a Ouija board regularly to communicate with spirits, which culminated in the 560-page apocalyptic epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982).

Despite his great wealth, he preferred to live modestly. He created the Ingram Merrill Foundation to subsidize literature, arts, and public television. Merrill wrote a memoir, A Different Person (1993) that was a groundbreaking exploration of gay life in the 1950s. He said: “Freedom to be oneself is all very well. The greater freedom is not to be oneself.”

He didn’t care much for popularity or sales, either, claiming: “Think what one has to do to get a mass audience. I’d rather have one perfect reader. Why dynamite the pond in order to catch that single silver carp?”

The Territory of Minnesota was formed on this date in 1849. It was made up of all of what’s now the state of Minnesota, plus that part of the Dakotas that lies east of the Missouri River. The southern and eastern boundaries of the Territory of Minnesota had recently been determined by the establishment of Iowa and Wisconsin as states, in 1846 and 1848, respectively. The northern boundary was much older: that was drawn when it was determined that the 49th Parallel would form the boundary between the United States and Canada in 1818.

French and British fur traders had been doing business with Native American residents of the area since the 1600s, but the trade had really picked up after the turn of the 19th century. At the time the territory was formed, there were several large and thriving Ojibwe and Dakota Sioux settlements, and only three substantial white settlements: Saint Paul, Saint Anthony, and Stillwater. Each city received its own institution: Saint Paul was named the territorial (and later, state) capital; Saint Anthony — which would soon be absorbed by the new city of Minneapolis — was the proposed site for the University of Minnesota; and Stillwater became home to the territorial prison.

Once the territory was formed, large numbers of American settlers began moving into the area. Many of them came from the northeastern United States—so many that Minnesota was known as “the New England of the West” for a while. White settlements cropped up all over the territory, and the European American population grew from fewer than 10,000 settlers to more than 150,000 in the 1850s alone. Native Americans’ territory and influence waned as their land was taken over in a series of government treaties. The territorial era came to an end when Minnesota became the 32nd state in 1858.

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