Sunday Aug. 28, 2016

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Wincing at the Beautiful

So my friend Phil is telling me how
he can’t get a date
how he loves women and how
they’re always giving him looks
so I ask him what kind of looks
so he winces at the beautiful
braless young woman passing by
at that particular propitious moment
giving her a look of such
longing and longevity
that she returns his look with a look
that kills his entire family tree
from the roots to the unimagined
blossoms of the great grandchildren shriveling
on his shriveling bough
and I think I’ve diagnosed his problem now
and I think of quoting some lines from Rilke
but on second thought I think
a sports metaphor might serve him better
so I steer the conversation round to basketball
and the three second rule
which says you can only stand inside
the key for three seconds
before they blow the whistle
they’re just blowing the whistle on you Phil
for breaking the three second rule
for standing there with your eyes
popping out like basketballs
it’s a game like any other I tell him
then I ask him if he wants to score
and now that I have his attention
I throw in those lines from Rilke
I tell him that beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror
we’re still just able to bear
and the reason we adore it so
is that it serenely disdains to destroy us
and he winces again and this time
it’s at the beauty of those lines
or maybe their truth which hits him
like a three-pointer now
that Rilke hits all the way from Germany
at a distance of a hundred years

“Wincing at the Beautiful” by Paul Hostovsky from Bending the Notes. © Main Street Rag, 2008. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the father of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (books by this author), born in Frankfurt (1749), the author of the epic drama Faust. He moved to Italy in 1786, and when he returned to Germany in 1788, he fell in love with a woman from Weimar, Christiane Vulpius, a 23-year-old who was 16 years his junior. That year, he wrote her an epithalamium, a specific type of poem written for a bride on the way to the marital chamber. But he didn’t actually marry her; instead, the couple lived together for 18 years unwed.

They were still living together in 1806, unmarried and with children, when some of Napoleon’s French soldiers — who were drunk — broke into their home in Weimer one evening. Goethe was terrified, but Christiane started shouting at the soldiers, fending them off in hand-to-hand combat, and protecting the bewildered man of the house. After a prolonged skirmish, she pushed them out of the house and barricaded the kitchen and the cellar so the soldiers couldn’t try to steal any more of their food. Grateful to the brave and steadfast woman who’d saved his life and home, Goethe went down to a church the very next day and married her, his live-in girlfriend of 18 years.

In 1806, the same year of the home invasion and marriage, Goethe published a preliminary version of Part I of his great work, Faust, the story of a brilliant scholar named Heinrich Faust, who makes a deal with the devil. The epic has it all: seduction, murder, sleeping potions, an illegitimate love child, a stray poodle that transforms into the devil, contracts signed with blood, imprisonment in dungeons, heavenly voices, and redemption. It’s often called “Das Drama der Deutschen,” or “The Drama of the Germans.” It’s also referred to as a “closet drama” because it’s intended to be read, not performed. Goethe spent 50 years working on this two-volume masterpiece, finishing Part Two in 1832, the year of his death.

Goethe wrote, “A man can stand anything except a succession of ordinary days.”

On this date in 1845, the first issue of Scientific American was published. It’s the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States, and it started as a four-page weekly newsletter. It was founded by Rufus Porter, son of a wealthy New England family and a painter and inventor in his own right. The first issue focused on improvements to the quality of passenger railway cars. Under Porter’s direction, Volume I frequently featured reports from the U.S. Patent Office; the issues also served up poetry and religious news. Porter sold the magazine 10 months later, for $800, to 22-year-old Orson Munn and 19-year-old Alfred Beach. They took over with the publication of Volume II, doubling the page count and dropping the reports on temperance and religion as being unsuitable for a science publication. They kept the poetry, though.

Today is the birthday of the American illustrator Tasha Tudor (books by this author), born Starling Burgess in Boston (1915). She was originally named after her father, W. Starling Burgess, but he was a big fan of War and Peace, and decided to call her “Natasha,” after the character Natasha Rostova, instead. Her mother was the portrait artist Rosamund Tudor. Tasha began using her mother’s maiden name after her — Tasha’s — second divorce.

In the 1970s, Tudor moved to Vermont and lived in a house that her son Seth built for her using only hand tools. She often said she wished she had been born in 1830, and she lived as if she had been. She was skilled at candle making, knitting, and weaving. She also made her own cheese and ice cream. She went barefoot much of the time, and spun flax into linen. For years, she didn’t have electricity. She didn’t even have running water at her home until her youngest child was five years old. But as the kids grew up, they found it difficult to get their mother to talk about their real-world problems, and some of them became estranged from her.

She illustrated almost 100 children’s books, including editions of classics like Mother Goose, Little Women, and The Secret Garden. She wrote her first story, Pumpkin Moonshine (1938), for her husband’s niece. She also wrote a popular series about a village of corgi dogs; Tudor loved corgis and owned as many as 13 at once. When she wasn’t at work on illustrations, she could often be found tending her lush, lavish gardens. Tudor died in 2008, and her home is now a museum.

It’s the birthday of American poet Rita Dove (books by this author), born in Akron, Ohio (1952). Her father was the first African-American chemist to work in the Unites States tire industry; he was a research chemist at Goodyear. Her mother loved to read and often quoted Shakespeare while cooking. Dove’s parents encouraged their children to read widely and there were always a lot of books in the house. Dove remembers reading The Iliad when she was 10, calling it “an incredibly tense and interesting story.” She wrote her first poem at the age of 10, too. It was an Easter poem titled “The Rabbit with the Droopy Ear.” The last lines of the poem were, “Hip-hop hooray / Let’s toast him a cup / For now both ears are hanging up.”

Dove played cello growing up and was an excellent student, even traveling to the White House as a Presidential Scholar. A high school teacher took her to hear the poet John Ciardi and Dove was entranced. She said: “I didn’t know writers could be real, live people, because I never knew any writers. Here was a living, breathing, walking, joking person, who wrote books.” At Miami University, she took a lot of creative writing courses and gradually realized she was scheduling her life around writing. Things clicked when she read Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy.” Dove says, “It was the first time I realized you didn’t have to be polite.”

She credits poets Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks as inspirations, but also James Wright, a fellow Ohioan. When asked if she considers herself an African-American poet, she answered, “I’m an African-American poet; I’m a woman poet; I’m an American poet. But I’m a poet first.”

Dove writes often about historical events and people. Her subjects have included Persephone, Rosa Parks, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and George Bridgetower, a biracial violinist who collaborated with Beethoven. Dove came across Bridgetower while watching a film biography of Beethoven called Immortal Beloved. She was curious about the black violinist in one scene and began researching who it was. She discovered that George Bridgetower was violin prodigy in Europe, and good friends with Beethoven, who originally dedicated his “Kreutzer” Sonata to Bridgetower, who was the first one to play it in public. But they had a falling out over a woman, and Beethoven cut the dedication. Dove’s collection Sonata Mulattica (2009) is an attempt to restore Bridgetower’s legacy to history.

Dove’s other books include The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), American Smooth (2004), and Thomas and Beulah (1986), a novel in verse about the lives of her grandparents, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize (1987). Dove was the second African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She was also the youngest person to be poet laureate to the Library of Congress, a position she received at age 40.

Dove is a crossword fanatic and an avid ballroom dancer, competing nationally with her husband. She always travels with a notebook so she can write down interesting things. She says she writes best between midnight and six a.m., always using pencil and paper, and can work on seven poems at once. Each poem may take 30 to 40 drafts. On writing, she says: “Every time I sit down to write, I try to feel that I’m starting over. It’s all new. It’s all fresh, and I’m learning as we go.”

Dove says, “All I ever wanted to do was write the best damn poem that I could write — a poem that was true and honest and the very best I could write artistically and linguistically.”

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