Sunday Oct. 2, 2016

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A Clear Day and No Memories

No soldiers in the scenery,
No thoughts of people now dead,
As they were fifty years ago,
Young and living in a live air,
Young and walking in the sunshine,
Bending in blue dresses to touch something,
Today the mind is not part of the weather.

Today the air is clear of everything.
It has no knowledge except of nothingness
And it flows over us without meanings,
As if none of us had ever been here before
And are not now: in this shallow spectacle,
This invisible activity, this sense.

“A Clear Day and No Memories” by Wallace Stevens from Collected Poems. © Vintage, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins today at sundown.

It’s the birthday of American poet Wallace Stevens (1879) (books by this author), an insurance executive for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1955 for Collected Poems (1954). Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania. He was the son of a wealthy lawyer and was educated at Harvard before entering New York University Law School.

Stevens’ first book, Harmonium (1923), came out when he was 44. Poet Hart Crane loved the book, saying, “There is a man whose work makes most of the rest of us quail,” but many others were left cold, and even angered, by Stevens’ style. He had a penchant for odd imagery, strange humor, and syntax that irritated many fellow poets and critics. Irish-American poet Shaemas O’Scheel actually said Stevens’ poems were “nauseating to read.” Stevens seemed not to care. He said, “The poem must resist the intelligence. Almost successfully.”

Stevens stayed with Hartford Accident and Indemnity until the day he died, saying, “It gives the man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job.” He said he got most of his ideas on his daily walks. He traveled often to Key West, Florida, a place that appears in many of his poems, but he stopped going after getting into arguments with poet Robert Frost on Casa Marina (1935) and having a fistfight with Ernest Hemingway (1936).

Steven’s best-known poems include “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” which may be about a funeral, or a wake, or just wanting ice cream. No one is quite sure. The quest for the poem’s meaning has crept into popular culture, with allusions to the poem appearing in Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot. A popular Irish band is named after the poem. The narrator of Tom Perrotta’s novel Joe College spends the entire novel ruminating on the meaning of the poem and John Irving sprinkles quotes from the poem throughout his novel The Hotel New Hampshire. Even a cosmetics company called Lush has named a soap after the poem.

When asked about the meaning of the poem, Stevens answered, “It wears a deliberately commonplace costume and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry; that is the reason why I like it.”

Wallace Steven’s books of poetry include Ideas of Order (1936), Owl’s Lover (1936), Parts of a World (1942), and Collected Poems (1954). He’s now considered one the world’s finest Modernist poets.

Wallace Stevens said, “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is the essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.”

The comic strip Peanuts made its debut on this date in 1950. Its creator, Charles “Sparky” Schulz (books by this author), was born in Minneapolis in 1922, and grew up across the Mississippi River in St. Paul, where his dad owned a barbershop near the corner of Snelling and Selby Avenues. Sparky was an indifferent student, shy and awkward, and he always failed at least one class every year he was in high school. But he kept going, because he wanted to become a cartoonist. After he graduated high school, he took some correspondence courses in art; he served as a machine gunner in World War II, and when he came home, he returned to the school — Minneapolis’s Art Instruction, Inc. — as an art teacher. While there, he became romantically involved with a redheaded woman who worked in the accounting department. She ended up dumping him, but she later served as the inspiration for the Little Red-Haired Girl whom Charlie Brown had a keen crush on.

In 1947, Schulz sold a comic strip called Li’l Folks to his hometown paper, the Pioneer Press. It was a flop, but he kept drawing, and in 1950 he submitted a collection of his strips to United Features Syndicate. They liked his work, and bought the strip, but they insisted on changing the name to Peanuts, which Schulz didn’t like at first. “I wanted a strip with dignity and significance,” he later said. “Peanuts made it sound too insignificant.”

The strip ran in seven newspapers when it debuted on this date in 1950. It got off to a slow start its first year, but it picked up steam after a book of reprints was published. By 1960, it ran in hundreds of papers, and Schulz had won the most prestigious award in the cartoonists’ pantheon: a Reuben. And in 1969, NASA named its command module “Charlie Brown” and its lunar module “Snoopy.” At its peak, the strip ran in more than 2,600 papers, and was read by more than 350 million people in 75 countries. Peanuts grew into dozens of original books and collections, Emmy Award-winning television specials, full-length feature films, Broadway musicals, and record albums. Schulz’s 1963 book, Happiness Is a Warm Puppy, sold more that year than any other hardcover book for children or adults.

Charlie Brown’s dog first appeared in the third installment of Peanuts. Snoopy was inspired by a black and white dog Schulz had had as a kid. His dog’s name was Spike — the name Schulz eventually gave to Snoopy’s desert-dwelling cousin. The strip wasn’t explicitly political, but its creator was clearly aware of the changing times, and commented on issues like New Math, the Battle of the Sexes, and trends in psychotherapy. Peppermint Patty, an athletic tomboy from a single-parent household, made her debut in 1966. Schulz introduced Franklin, the strip’s first African-American character, in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; Franklin’s father was a veteran of the Vietnam War. The 1960s counterculture also inspired another beloved character: Snoopy’s friend Woodstock, the little yellow bird, whose speech bubbles contain nothing but a series of vertical lines.

Schulz suffered a stroke in November 1999; he was also diagnosed with colon cancer. He announced his retirement in December, and died at home on February 12, 2000 — the night before the final Peanuts strip appeared in the papers. Charlie Brown and his friends are still beloved by young and old alike. When Jim Davis, creator of Garfield, showed his two-year-old son a drawing of the famous fat tabby cat, the boy promptly and joyfully cried out, “Snoopy!” Last year, a new 3-D Peanuts feature film hit the theaters to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the strip, and the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the first animated Peanuts special.

It’s the birthday of novelist Graham Greene (books by this author), born in Berkhamsted, England (1904). He came from a well-off family, but he had an unhappy childhood — he was frequently depressed and even went to psychoanalysis when he was 16, a rare thing at the time. He graduated from Oxford, then began his career writing essays and reviews. Greene was an avowed atheist, but he had been questioning his faith since his days at boarding school. He wrote about one particularly miserable episode of bullying: “So faith came to one — shapelessly, without dogma, a presence above a croquet lawn, something associated with violence, cruelty, evil across the way. I began to believe in heaven because I believed in hell, but for a long while it was only hell I could picture with a certain intimacy.”

When he was 21, he wrote an essay referring to Catholics as people who “worship” the Virgin Mary. He received an indignant reply from a young woman named Vivien Dayrell-Browning, explaining that Catholics did not worship the Virgin Mary, they venerated her. He wrote her back, they met, and Greene was smitten. Unfortunately, Dayrell-Browning was a very devout Catholic, and she had several more eligible men courting her. But Greene was stubborn. He wrote her no less than 2,000 letters and postcards, sometimes three a day. And he converted to Catholicism. How much of his conversion was influenced by his future wife, and how much by other spiritual motives, no one knows for sure. But he became a Catholic, married Vivien, and went on to write novels about characters struggling to reconcile their faith with the rest of their lives. He published his first novel, The Man Within (1929), when he was just 25, and it was successful enough that he was able to work as a full-time novelist.

About 10 years into his marriage, Greene began the first of a series of affairs that would continue for the rest of his life. Although he and his wife eventually separated, they never divorced.

The Power and the Glory (1940) is a novel about an old Mexican priest. He calls himself a “whisky priest” and looks back on his life of excess — drinking, adultery, even fathering a child with one of his parishioners. At the end of his life, he is living on the run, practicing his faith even though the new revolutionary government has outlawed Catholic sacraments. The Power and the Glory was so popular that it attracted the attention of the Vatican, which appointed two different people to review it and decide whether the Church should take an official position. The two readers had similar reactions to the novel. One wrote: “Odd and paradoxical, a true product of the disturbed, confused, and audacious character of today’s civilization. For me, the book is sad.” They thought it should never have been written, but they also knew it would look bad for the Church to officially condemn it, since Greene was the most famous Catholic writer in England. Instead, they recommended that Greene’s bishop privately scold him for it and direct Greene “to write other books in a different tone, attempting to correct the defects of this one.” Greene did nothing of the sort, and continued to write about characters struggling with their own moral failings and their Catholicism in novels like The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951), which he dedicated to his mistress.

Greene’s other novels include Brighton Rock (1938), The Third Man (1949), The Quiet American (1955), The Comedians (1966), and The Honorary Consul (1973).

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