The older I get, the more I like hugging. When I was little the
people hugging me were much larger. In their grasp I was a rag
doll. In adolescence, my body was too tense to relax for a hug.
Later, after the loss of virginity—which was anything but a
loss—the extreme proximity of the other person, the smell of
hair, the warmth of the skin, the sound of breathing in the
dark—these were mysterious and delectable. This hug had
two primary components: the anticipation of sex and the plea-
sure of intimacy, which itself is a combination of trust and
affection. It was this latter combination that came to character-
ize the hugging I have experienced only in recent years, a hug-
ging that knows no distinctions of gender or age. When this
kind of hug is mutual, for a moment the world is perfect the
way it is, and the tears we shed for it are perfect too. I guess it
is an embrace.
“Hug” by Ron Padgett from Collected Poems. © Coffee House Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
On this date in 1885, the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor. Formally known as “Liberty Enlightening the World,” she was a gift from France, and was funded by the French people. Sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi first had the idea for a monument to commemorate the friendship between the United States and France in 1865, but he didn’t begin actual construction until the early 1870s; he chose Bedloe’s Island — now called Liberty Island — because the statue could welcome the boats full of immigrants, who would pass by the statue on the way to Ellis Island. He was delighted to learn that the island was the property of the United States government, which meant all the states — not just New York — could claim equal ownership in the statue.
Lady Liberty is made of sheets of copper over a framework of steel supports; Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, designed the framework. She was constructed in France and then was disassembled to make her journey to New York, where she was reassembled to her full height of 151 feet, 1 inch. Mounted on her pedestal, she stands 305 feet tall. Her torch was wired for electrical power in 1916. The seven rays of her crown represent the seven seas and the seven continents; the broken shackles at her feet evoke freedom from slavery and oppression; and the tablet in her left hand represents the law. Liberty’s face was modeled after Bartholdi’s mother.
It’s the birthday of the avant-garde composer Igor Stravinsky, born in Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg, Russia (1882). His first major success as a composer was a ballet based on a Russian folk tale, called The Firebird (1909). It was wildly popular, and he traveled all over Europe to conduct it. He then got an idea for a ballet about a pagan ritual in which a virgin would be sacrificed to the gods of spring by dancing herself to death. Stravinsky composed the piece on a piano in a rented cottage, and a boy working outside his window kept shouting up at him that the chords were all wrong. When Stravinsky played part of the piece for director of the theater where it would be performed, the director asked, “How much longer will it go on like that?” Stravinsky replied, “To the end, my dear.” He titled the piece The Rite of Spring. At its premiere in 1913 in Paris, the audience broke out into a riot when the music and dancing turned harsh and dissonant. The police came to calm the chaos, and Stravinsky left his seat in disgust, but the performance continued for 33 minutes and he became one of the most famous composers in the world
It’s the birthday of preacher and religious leader John Wesley, born in Epworth, England (1703), who is considered to be the founder of Methodism. Wesley attended Oxford where he was one of the founders of the “Holy Club,” a religious study group that was derisively called the “Methodists” because of their emphasis on methodical study.
By 1850, the United Methodist Church held more members than any other Christian denomination in the United States. A convert needed only to believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and everyone’s personal savior. Methodists believed that all other questions about Christianity were up for discussion.
Methodists have established more colleges, hospitals, child-care facilities, and retirement homes than any other denomination. A 19th-century Methodist preacher named William Booth noticed that his lower-class converts were often turned away from respectable churches, so he founded the Salvation Army to reach the poor and needy. Methodists also started Goodwill Industries in 1902, with stores across the country that employ people with disabilities to repair furniture and mend old clothes to be sold at a discount.
Today is the birthday of avant-garde American poet, essayist, and translator Ron Padgett (1942) (books by this author), who once said: “If you match yourself up against Shakespeare, guess what? You lose. It’s not productive. Better to focus on the poem you’re writing, do your work, and leave it at that.”
Padgett was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father was a bootlegger who also traded cars; his mother was a housewife who assisted Padgett’s father with bootlegging. Padgett was a precocious reader as a teenager, drifting toward Baudelaire and Rimbaud. He said: “When I got to adolescence, I became more and more gloomy and introspective and serious and angst-ridden.” He and a few friends started an avant-garde literary journal called The White Dove, which lasted for five years. They weren’t shy about writing to their literary heroes and soliciting work. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and LeRoi Jones all published poems in Padgett’s small magazine.
Padgett went to New York to attend Columbia University (1960), where he fell in with a group of poets who favored stream-of-consciousness writing, vivid imagery, and spontaneity. It was the 1960s, and Padgett, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and Ted Berrigan drew inspiration from the art galleries, museums, dancers, and artists that surrounded them. Padgett inherited Kenneth Koch’s teaching position as a “poet-in-the-schools” (1969) for the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and stayed for nine years. In the beginning, he was paid $50 for three class visits, which he could do in one day, and which paid for an entire month’s rent, utilities, and his phone bill. He loved teaching public school children. He said that whenever poets visited a classroom, “We were like heroes being welcomed home.”
Padgett’s collections of poetry include Bean Spasms: Poems and Prose (1967, with Ted Berrigan); How to Be Perfect (2007); and Alone and Not Alone (2015). His collection How Long (2011) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Padgett says: “Almost everything that’s happened in my poetry is what you might call organic. I don’t do much pre-conceiving. If I start to sound too much like the Ron Padgett that I’ve read before, I stop myself.”
On writing his poems, he says: “If I don’t make line breaks, it’s a prose poem. The line breaks are part of the dance of the poem. If I’m not dancing, I don’t know what steps to take. I don’t know whether to turn or to bow or to move quickly or whatever. I don’t know what to do if I don’t have the line breaks.”