Thursday Jan. 5, 2017

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What was I looking for today?
All that poking under the rugs,
Peering under the lamps and chairs,
Or going from room to room that way,
Forever up and down the stairs
Like someone stupid with sleep or drugs.

Everywhere I was, was wrong.
I started turning the drawers out, then
I was staring in at the icebox door
Wondering if I’d been there long
Wondering what I was looking for.
Later on, I think I went back again.

Where did the rest of the time go?
Was I down cellar? I can’t recall
Finding the light switch, or the last
Place I’ve had it, or how I’d know
I didn’t look at it and go past.
Or whether it’s what I want, at all.

“Looking” by W.D. Snodgrass from Selected Poems: 1957-1987. © Soho Press, 1987. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1643 the first legal divorce recorded in the American colonies was finalized. Anne Clarke of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had petitioned for divorce from her estranged and adulterous husband, Dennis Clarke. Mr. Clarke admitted to abandoning his wife and two children for another woman, and confirmed that he would not return to the marriage. The court’s record read: “She is garunted to bee divorced.”

It’s the birthday of the poet W.D. (William DeWitt) Snodgrass born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania (1926) (books by this author). He was studying poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the early 1950s when his marriage began to fall apart, and he began writing about it in his poems. He showed some of these personal poems to his teacher, the poet Robert Lowell, but Lowell didn’t like them. He said, “You’ve got a brain; you can’t write this kind of tear-jerking stuff.”

Lowell later recanted and helped Snodgrass get his poetry collection, Heart’s Needle, published in 1959. It was Snodgrass’s first book, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Lowell called it “a breakthrough for modern poetry.”

Snodgrass’s work helped inspire a whole new school of poetry in which American poets began to write openly about their personal lives for the first time in decades. Snodgrass has since been called one of the founders of confessional poetry, but he said, “The term confessional seems to imply either that I’m concerned with religious matters (I am not) or that I’m writing some sort of bedroom memoir (I hope I’m not).”

But in defense of writing personal poems, Snodgrass said: “The only reality which [a poet] can ever surely know is that self he cannot help being. … If he pretties it up, if he changes its meaning, if he gives it the voice of any borrowed authority, if in short he rejects this reality, his mind will be less than alive. So will his words.”

It’s the birthday of author Ngugi wa Thiong’o (books by this author), born James Ngugi in Limuru, Kenya (1938). The 1960s were productive years for Ngugi. He produced his first play, The Black Hermit, in 1962 while still in college; in 1964, he published the first East African novel written in English. That book is Weep Not, Child, and it’s based on his family’s troubles during the Mau Mau Uprising. He published The River Between (1965) a year later, and A Grain of Wheat in 1967. Around this time, he changed his name to Ngugi wa Thiong’o to reflect his Kikuyu heritage, and he stopped writing in English.

He was sent to a maximum-security prison in 1977 for the overtly political play I Will Marry When I Want, and while he was there, he wrote Devil on the Cross (1980), the first novel in the Gikuyu language. He was denied paper, so he wrote the novel on prison toilet paper. In 1982, he was packing to return home from a book launch in London when he found out the Moi dictatorship in Kenya was plotting to kill him. He suddenly found himself an exile. “At first I would only use the word shipwrecked, not exile, to refer to my situation; shipwrecks end with rescue, right?” he later wrote. “I did not unpack the suitcase. Seven years later the suitcase was still packed.” He eventually settled in the United States.

In 2010, he published a memoir called Dreams in the Time of War; it’s about his childhood in a Kikuyu compound outside of Nairobi. Last year, he published another memoir, called Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening (2016). It’s about his university days in Uganda, where he found his writerly and political voice.

From Birth of a Dream Weaver: “[Winston] Churchill had erased human presence from the Ugandan landscape. But when 50 years later I reemerged from the garden into the city at the railway station in Kibuli, it was into a human bustle and hustle of black presence selling matokes, potatoes, peanuts, clearly the fruits of their hands on their own soil. Black Baganda women in flowing busutis and black men in white kanzus and regular Western attire dominated the streets. Even the sight of Indians outside their shops along either side of the city streets added rather than took way from this incredible sight of black people who did not walk as if they were strangers in their city.”

It’s the birthday of Stella Gibbons (1902) (books by this author). She was born in London, and earned a degree in journalism in 1923. Her father was a doctor, and he was also a drunk and a womanizer who was verbally and physically abusive. She had two younger brothers, and, after her parents’ deaths in 1926, she was the family breadwinner. She worked at the Evening Standard, where one of her duties was to summarize the romance novels of Mary Webb and similar authors, which were being serialized in the paper. Gibbons had to recap the installments that had gone before, for the readers who might have missed a segment or come late to the story. She was not a fan of the genre. In 1930, she took a job writing for Lady, “the magazine for gentlewomen.” It was in her small office in Covent Garden that she wrote her first and most famous novel in her spare time: Cold Comfort Farm (1932), a parody of Webb’s style.

Gibbons wrote more than 20 other novels, including the strongly autobiographical Enbury Heath (1935). She also produced three volumes of short stories and four books of poetry. She was pleased by Cold Comfort Farm’s reception at first, but gradually grew resentful at the way it overshadowed her other work: “Cold Comfort Farm is a member of my family;” she said in 1966, “he is like some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but who is often an embarrassment and a bore.” Recently, 14 of her other novels have been brought back into print.

And it’s the birthday of Italian novelist Umberto Eco (1932) (books by this author), the bespectacled, bearded semiotics scholar who wrote a murder mystery set in a 14th-century monastery called Il nome della rosa or, The Name of the Rose (1980). Nobody expected much from a mystery filled with biblical references, discussions of Christian theology and heresies, and a medieval setting, but the book became an international best-seller and later a movie starring Sean Connery. Umberto Eco said simply, “People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”

Eco was born in Alessandria, Italy, a town known for its Borsalino hats. He began writing at 10, and as a teenager, he was fascinated with American jazz and played the trumpet, which he continued throughout his life. Eco said, “For me, the trumpet is evidence of the sort of young man I was. I don’t feel anything for the violin, but when I look at the trumpet I feel a world stirring in my veins.” He also tried writing poetry, but, he said, “My poetry had the same functional origin and the same formal configuration as teenage acne.”

After serving 18 months in the Italian army, Eco dashed his father’s hopes that he would study law, opting to read philosophy and literature instead. He also became interested in semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, and the Middle Ages. He said, “I developed a passion for the Middle Ages the same way some people develop a passion for coconuts.”

He was teaching at the University of Bologna, Europe’s oldest university, and applying his theory of semiotics to everything from the James Bond novels to the comic strip Peanuts, when a friend of his said she wanted to publish detective novels by amateur writers and asked him to write something. He said if he did, it would be a 500-page book about medieval monks. The Name of the Rose took Eco two years to write and ended up selling more than 10 million copies.

Eco’s other books include The Island of the Day Before (1994) and The Prague Cemetery (2011). His novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) took eight years to write and was sprinkled liberally with references to Kabbalah, alchemy, and conspiracy theory. Not everyone appreciated his lofty intentions. Novelist Salman Rushdie called Foucault’s Pendulum “humorless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts.”

He tended to rewrite the same passages over and over. About his writing habits, he said, “Before I sit down to write, I am deeply happy.” He died in February of 2016.

When asked if he’d enjoy living in the Middle Ages, where so many of his books were set, Umberto Eco answered: “I suspect that if I lived in the Middle Ages my feelings about the period would be dramatically different. I’d rather just imagine it.”

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