Sunday Sep. 11, 2016

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Sleeping Faces

Tonight the first fall rain washes away my sly distance.
I have decided to blame no one for my life.
This water falls like a great privacy.
Letters sink into the desk,
The desk sinks away, leaving an intelligence
Slowly learning to talk of its own suffering.
The muttering of thunder is a gift
That reverberates in the roof of the mouth.
Another gift is a child’s face in a dark room
I see as I check the house during the storm.
My life is a blessing, a triumph, a car racing through the rain.

“Sleeping Faces” by Robert Bly from Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life. © White Pine Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the former U.S. poet laureate Reed Whittemore (books by this author), born in New Haven, Connecticut (1919). His family lost most of their money during the Great Depression, and moved in with Whittemore’s paternal grandmother for a while.

When he was a 20-year-old English major at Yale, Whittemore co-founded a literary magazine called Furioso, which — thanks to his persistence — published poems by Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. The magazine’s co-founder was James Angleton, Whittemore’s roommate; he would go on to serve as the CIA’s counterintelligence chief. The magazine didn’t have much money, so contributors weren’t always paid with currency: “When we were short of money, which was most of the time, we paid off our poets with fine Italian cravats from the stock that the Angleton haberdasher in Italy kept replenishing,” Whittemore recalled.

He published 11 volumes of poetry, a memoir (Against the Grain, 2007), and a biography (William Carlos Williams, Poet from Jersey, 1975). His books include Heroes and Heroines (1946); An American Takes a Walk (1956); The Fascination of the Abomination: Poems, Stories, and Essays (1963); and The Mother’s Breast and the Father’s House (1974), which was nominated for the National Book Award.

Whittemore, on writing: “When I look at history, literary and social, I find that I side pretty steadily with history’s eccentrics. I don’t mean all the mad astrologists and mystics [...] but simply the mundane eccentrics who have stood on the sidelines with the game in progress, and made frosty remarks instead of cheering.”

It’s the birthday of O. Henry (books by this author), born William Sidney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina (1862). His mother died when he was a kid, and he was raised by various relatives and headed off to Texas when he was 15. He worked as a hired hand on a sheep ranch, and he fell in love with a wealthy young woman. They got married and had a daughter. He got a respectable job at a bank, and then as a reporter for the Houston Post. But the bank was audited after he left, and he was arrested on charges of embezzling money. His wife’s father posted bail for him, but before his trial he ran away, heading to Louisiana and then to Honduras. His wife was too sick with tuberculosis to meet him there, and heartbroken, he went back to Texas and turned himself in so that he could be with his wife while she died. Afterward, he was sentenced to prison for five years. It was while he was in jail that his writing career really took off — he published 14 stories before he was let out for good behavior after three years. He would send his stories to a friend who would send them to publishers, so no one ever suspected that O. Henry was writing from jail.

When the New York Times asked O. Henry if he had any advice for young writers, he wrote: “I’ll give you the sole secret of short-story writing, and here it is: Rule 1. Write stories that please yourself. There is no rule 2. The technical points you can get from Bliss Perry. If you can’t write a story that pleases yourself, you will never please the public. But in writing the story forget the public.”

It’s the birthday of English novelist, poet, and short-story writer D.H. Lawrence (1885) (books by this author), born David Herbert Richards Lawrence. He’s best known for his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), which was banned in several countries for its explicit content.

Lawrence grew up in the coal-mining town of Eastwood, England. Lawrence was physically frail as a child, poor at sports, and prone to illnesses. He had no friends, life in Eastwood was bleak and violent, and his family life was troubled. He said, “If I think of my childhood it is always as if there was a sort of inner darkness, like the gloss of coal in which we moved and had our being.”

When Lawrence was 12, he became the first pupil from Eastwood to win a scholarship to Nottingham High School (1897), but he was lonely there, too, and failed to distinguish himself.

He earned his teaching certificate and found himself in London, where he began writing his first poems, plays, and stories. In 1906, he began writing a novel called Laetitia, which he rewrote three times before it was published under the title The White Peacock (1911). The book was inspired by a painting called An Idyll by Maurice Greiffenhagen. About the painting, Lawrence said: “It moves me almost as if I were in love myself. Under its intoxication, I have flirted madly this Christmas.” Lawrence had been close to his mother, who died of cancer just before The White Peacock was published. He plunged into what he called “a savage darkness.”

Her death profoundly influenced what many believe to his masterpiece, the novel Sons and Lovers (1913).

The book received a lukewarm reception and accusations of obscenity. In fact, when Lawrence first sent it to his publisher, his publisher was enraged at the content and wrote back, “The degradation of the mother, supposed to be of gentler birth, is almost inconceivable.” Lawrence revised the book four times before publication.

For the rest of his writing life, Lawrence’s novels came under attack for obscenity and his depiction of human life as raw and bleak. He tried to exile himself in Cornwall, but it was the height of World War I and Cornwall didn’t want a controversial writer married to a German woman, so Lawrence and his wife had to leave. His books never made much money while he was alive, and he found himself writing educational history books for money. Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy American socialite, invited him to the United States. And in exchange for an adobe ranch house 20 miles north of Taos, New Mexico, Lawrence gave her the original manuscript of Sons and Lovers.

The ranch needed work, but Lawrence loved the open horizon and the daily routine of carrying water from the spring, chopping wood, and riding two miles down the road for butter and milk. It was probably the happiest time of his life. He said, “I find myself a good deal of satisfaction living like this in the unbroken country.”

Lawrence’s books include The Rainbow (1915), Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was his last novel. The story of an aristocratic lady and her working-class lover, the book contained a multitude of sex scenes and unprintable four-letter words. The first edition was published privately in Italy (1928) and an edited version appeared in Britain in 1932. The unexpurgated version wasn’t published in the United Kingdom until 1960 and promptly came under attack. At the obscenity trial, the attorney for the prosecution famously asked the jury, “Is it a book you would have lying around? Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?”

Novelist E.M. Forster was called as a witness for the defense in the British trial. His good friend Lawrence had died a long time before, in 1930, of tuberculosis in Vence, France. Forster called Lawrence “the greatest imaginative novelist of his generation.”

Lawrence’s ashes are interred in a small chapel in what is now the D.H. Lawrence Ranch in New Mexico. He said, “If there weren’t so many lies in the world, I wouldn’t write at all.”

And, “The human soul needs actual beauty more than bread.”

Today is the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Fifteen years ago on this date, in 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes. Two of the planes were crashed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center; a third crashed into the Pentagon. On the fourth, which was bound for Washington, D.C., passengers attempted to take control of the plane and it ended up crashing near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Altogether, nearly 3,000 lives were lost — all the passengers and crew on board the planes, thousands of people who worked at the World Trade Center or were near the buildings, more than 100 in the Pentagon building, and hundreds of rescue workers.

On September 11, 2011, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “Ten years have passed since a perfect blue sky morning turned into the blackest of nights. Since then we’ve lived in sunshine and in shadow, and although we can never unsee what happened here, we can also see that children who lost their parents have grown into young adults, grandchildren have been born and good works and public service have taken root to honor those we loved and lost.”

And President Obama said, “Even the smallest act of service, the simplest act of kindness, is a way to honor those we lost, a way to reclaim that spirit of unity that followed 9/11.”

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