Friday Sep. 2, 2016

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Oh you can make fun of the splendors of moonlight,
But what would the human heart be if it wanted
Only the dark, wanted nothing on earth

But the sea’s ink or the rock’s black shade?
On a summer night to launch yourself into the silver
Emptiness of air and look over the pale fields

At rest under the sullen stare of the moon,
And to linger in the depths of your vision and wonder
How in this whiteness what you love is past

Grief, and how in the long valley of your looking
Hope grows, and there, under the distant,
Barely perceptible fire of all the stars,

To feel yourself wake into change, as if your change
Were immense and figured into the heavens’ longing.
And yet all you want is to rise out of the shade

Of yourself into the cooling blaze of a summer night
When the moon shines and the earth itself
Is covered and silent in the stoniness of its sleep.

“VII” by Mark Strand from New Selected Poems. © Knopf, 2007. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man known as "The Poet of Childhood": Eugene Field (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri (1850). His father was a prominent lawyer who represented the fugitive slave Dred Scott, but Field did not grow up with him; Field's mother died a few years after his birth, and he and his brother were shipped off to Massachusetts to live with a relative. Field was clever, but he never did well in school. He barely passed the entrance exams to Williams College, and dropped out after a few months. He went to Knox College and left after a year. Finally, he enrolled at the University of Missouri and dabbled in acting and law, but he wasn't very good at either, and he left before graduating.

When his father died, Field took his inheritance and set off for Europe with a friend. Six months later, he had spent it all, and he returned to America. In 1873, he married the sister of his traveling companion. That same year, he became a reporter for the St. Louis Evening Journal, and for the next 10 years, he worked as a reporter at a series of papers in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver. In 1880, he took over as managing editor of The Kansas City Times. His friend and colleague, the writer Slason Thompson, wrote of Field: "Under his management the Times became the most widely quoted newspaper west of the Mississippi. He made it the vehicle for every sort of quaint and exaggerated story that the free and rollicking West could furnish or invent. He was not particular whether the Times printed the first, fullest, or most accurate news of the day so long as its pages were racy with the liveliest accounts and comments on the daily comedy, eccentricity, and pathos of life."

In 1883, The Chicago Daily News offered Field his own column: $50 a week and the freedom to write "exactly what I please on any subject I please." So he moved his large family to Chicago and began writing a column called "Sharps and Flats," a witty commentary on life in the city. He also published light verse, focusing especially on poems for and about children. In 1888, he published a sentimental poem called "Little Boy Blue," about a group of toys waiting faithfully for their owner, a toddler who has died. "Little Boy Blue" was published in a magazine called America, and it was wildly popular, much more so than a poem in the same magazine by the famous poet James Russell Lowell. Inspired by the success of "Little Boy Blue," Field threw himself into writing poems. He only lived for seven more years, but he published several books of poetry before he died, and more were published posthumously, more than a dozen in all. Some of his best-known poems include "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod," "The Rock-a-By Lady," and "The Duel."

His books include A Little Book of Western Verse (1889), Love-Songs of Childhood(1894), and The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac (1896).

"Wynken, Blynken, and Nod," which begins:

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe, —
Sailed on a river of crystal light
Into a sea of dew.
"Where are you going, and what do you wish?"
The old moon asked the three.
"We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,"
Said Wynken,
And Nod.

It was on this day in 1901, that Vice President Teddy Roosevelt came to the Minnesota State Fair and, in a speech before several thousand people, outlined his view of America's new role in world affairs: He used an old African proverb and said that "America must speak softly but carry a big stick."

It's the birthday of Austrian novelist and journalist Joseph Roth (books by this author), born in Brody, Ukraine (1894). He started out as a journalist just after the end of the First World War, and he began moving back and forth between Berlin and Paris, as well as Russia, Poland, Albania, Italy, and southern France. He covered the riots and assassinations and political uprisings that went on all over Europe during the 1920s and '30s. He rarely had a home in his adult life, and lived in hotels for years on end. He wrote his novels in between newspaper deadlines, while sitting at café counters. He somehow managed to produce 16 novels in 16 years.

He had one big hit novel, Job (1930), a modern retelling of the biblical story. Roth was inspired by his small success to try writing a big ambitious book, and the result was his masterpiece, The Radetzky March (1932), a historical novel about the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The book had just come out when Hitler came to power in Germany, and Roth had to flee the country. As a result, he lost his publishers, his newspaper employers, and his readers.

Roth spent his last years in Paris, living in poverty and suffering from alcoholism. When he died in 1939, he was largely unknown as a writer. His last novel had been published in the Netherlands, and the Nazis destroyed the entire first printing of the book just after it had come off the presses.

It's only been in the last decade that all of his work has been translated into English. Joseph Roth said, "We all overestimated the world."

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