Tuesday Nov. 15, 2016

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Trick of the Light

In France, the pickpockets
ask tourists to sign petitions
against social injustice,
then run their hands over
their intimate belongings,
gentle and needy as lovers.
It’s hard to judge them harshly,
such artistry.
Even the rush-hour crowd
hurrying toward the downtown C
parts for the woman in checkered spandex
twirling a hula-hoop about her waist
while standing on her head.
Dear unobservant god,
do not snuff us out.
We are beautiful and strange.

“Trick of the Light” by Michelle Y. Burke from Animal Purpose. © Ohio University Press, 2016. Repritned with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of columnist Franklin Pierce Adams (books by this author), born Franklin Leopold Adams in Chicago in 1881. He started his newspaper career in 1903, at the Chicago Journal. His column "The Conning Tower," syndicated in several New York papers beginning in 1914, and signed with his initials "F.P.A.," made him one of the most-quoted columnists during its long run. He occasionally featured the work of other writers in his column, including Edna St. Vincent Millay, Groucho Marx, and Robert Benchley. "The Conning Tower" is credited with launching the careers of Dorothy Parker and James Thurber after Adams featured their verse. Parker dedicated Not So Deep as a Well, her 1936 poetry collection, to F.P.A. and said, "He raised me from a couplet."

It's the birthday of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (1887). She's particularly well known for her giant paintings of flowers, though she once said, "I only paint them because they're cheaper than models and they don't move." On a trip to Taos, New Mexico, O'Keeffe grew to love the desert, which she called "the faraway." She felt that the thin, dry air enabled her to see farther, and she was awed by the seemingly infinite space that surrounded her. She would devote much of the rest of her career to painting desert scenery.

O'Keeffe said: "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life — and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

It's the birthday of Marianne Moore (books by this author), born in Kirkwood, Missouri (1887). Her father was an engineer and inventor who had spent his life trying to build a smokeless furnace. When his business failed, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an institution for the mentally ill. Marianne Moore was born just after her parents had separated, and she never met her father.

She went to Bryn Mawr College, where she hoped to study English literature, but after a professor wrote a disparaging comment on one of her papers, she switched to biology. Working in a laboratory had a profound effect on her writing. She said, "Precision, economy of statement, logic [...] drawing and identifying, liberated [my] imagination."

After college, Moore got a series of jobs teaching typing and bookkeeping, and she contributed poems to Bryn Mawr's alumni magazine. Then, in 1915, she published two poems in The Egoist, an influential literary magazine that was also publishing the early work of James Joyce at the time. Her work caught the attention of modernist poets — T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and others — and she moved to Greenwich Village to join the literary scene there. She became friends with poets such as William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. She went to parties every night and attended art shows and exhibitions, even though she went on living with her mother and read the Bible every day.

Her first collection, Poems (1921), was published without her knowledge by the poet Hilda Doolittle, who admired her work. She said, "Anyone could do what I do, and I am, therefore, the more grateful that those whose judgment I trust should regard it as poetry." Her Collected Poems (1951) won the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize.

It was on this day in 1940 that 75,000 men were called to Armed Forces duty under the first peacetime conscription in American history. The draft had never been popular in America. During the Civil War it had sparked riots, and during World War I more than 3 million men refused to register at all. But people had heard about Hitler's army invading and occupying Poland and France over the course of several months. In October of 1940, 16 million young men appeared at precinct election boards across the country to register with the Selective Service, and the first 75,000 draftees were called up to service on this day in 1940. In 1939, a poll had shown that only 35 percent of Americans approved of a draft, but by 1940 that support had gone up to 92 percent.

It's the birthday of American poet Ted Berrigan (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1934). He served in the Korean War as a sentry, went to college at the University of Tulsa, and then went to live on the Lower East Side of New York City, where he met up with poets Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard, and Dick Gallup.

In 1962, Berrigan married Sandy Alper after a courtship of only a few days, and they had a son the next year. It was around this time he started work on his innovative collection of 14-line poems called The Sonnets. He wrote the first six sonnets in one night, and then he wrote two or three per day for about three months. Some of the sonnets were made from lines of poems he or his friends had already written, some were translations of poems, some were completely new.

The Sonnets was published in 1964, and it was a big success. Berrigan later said: "When I came to New York I hadn't written anything good at all. I came to New York to become this wonderful poet [...] to find out how to work at it. That only took about a year and a half, then I wrote this major work and there I was. Just as I thought I would be, in my inane stupidity." He went on to teach and write poetry for 30 years, until his death in 1983, at the age of 48.

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