Wednesday Mar. 1, 2017

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My time in better dresses

I remember job hunting in my shoddy
and nervous working class youth,
how I had to wear nylons and white
gloves that were dirty in half an hour
for jobs that barely paid for shoes.

Don’t put down Jew, my mother
warned, just say Protestant, it
doesn’t commit you to anything.
Ads could still say “white” and
in my childhood, we weren’t.

I worked in better dresses in Sam’s
cut-rate department store, $3.98
and up. I wasn’t trusted to sell.
I put boxes together, wrapped,
cleaned out dressing rooms.

My girlfriend and I bought a navy
taffeta dress with cutout top, wore it
one or the other to parties, till it failed
my sophistication test. The older
“girls” in sales, divorced, sleek,

impressed me, but the man in charge
I hated, the way his eyes stroked,
stripped, discarded. How he docked
our pay for lateness. How he sucked
on his power like a piece of candy.

“My time in better dresses” by Marge Piercy from Made in Detroit. © Knopf, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of poet Richard Wilbur (books by this author), born in New York City (1921). He wrote poetry occasionally as a child — he was paid one dollar for his first published poem at age eight — but it was just one of many interests, and he didn’t imagine that it would become his career. He went to Amherst, where he was the editor of the student literary magazine.

Immediately after graduation, he married his college sweetheart. He planned to join the Army as a cryptographer, so he spent part of his honeymoon learning Morse code. He started training in cryptography, but when the Army uncovered evidence of his involvement in leftist organizations in college, and found a volume of Marx he carried with him, they demoted him to the infantry. He said, “It was quite true that I held leftist views [...] but then as now I had an uncomplicated love of my country, and I was naively amazed to learn that my service record was stamped ‘Suspected of Disloyalty.’”

In his new position, he fought on the front lines in Italy and France. As a means of coping, he began writing poems and sending them home to his wife and close friends. He said of his time in the war: “There are all kinds of ways to forget how frightened and disoriented you are. But I think one of the best is to take pencil and paper — which is all you need, thank heavens, to be a poet and which makes it possible to practice poetry in a foxhole — and [...] jell things into an experience that will be a poem.”

After the war, he went to Harvard on the GI Bill and set out to write a scholarly book on Edgar Allan Poe. At Harvard, Wilbur became friends with Robert Frost, who warmed to the young poet when he realized that Wilbur’s wife was the granddaughter of the editor who had first published Frost’s poetry. Another of Wilbur’s friends was the French poet André du Bouchet, who edited a literary magazine and worked as a talent scout for a New York publisher called Reynal & Hitchcock. One day, Wilbur’s wife took all the poems her husband had sent her during the war and showed them to du Bouchet. Wilbur wrote: “He took them home with him and reappeared at our apartment about two hours later, rushed in, and, with a marvelous display of Gallic fervor, wrapped his arms around me, kissed me on both cheeks, and declared me a poet.” Du Bouchet sent the poems to Reynal & Hitchcock and they announced that they wanted to publish Wilbur’s book. He said, “I guess I had the most painless introduction to publication any writer’s ever had.” That first book was The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947).

In the 1950s, Wilbur was very involved in the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, a theater that brought world-renowned poets and plays to a small space above a hardware store. His rhyming translation of Molière’s The Misanthrope was staged there in 1955, and it was a huge success. After that, he collaborated with the composer Leonard Bernstein and the playwright Lillian Hellman to write the lyrics for the musical Candide, based on the novel by Voltaire. Throughout his career he continued to work in theater and in translation.

He has published more than 10 volumes of poetry, including Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), Things of This World (1956), New and Collected Poems (1988), and Anterooms (2010). He won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize (twice), and served as poet laureate.

He said: “As embarrassing as that word is — ‘inspiration’ — I do think it corresponds to my experience. A poem comes looking for me rather than I hunting after it.”

President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation making Yellowstone this country’s first national park on this date in 1872.

People had been living in Yellowstone for 11,000 years, but the first European American to see the region was most likely a man named John Colter, in 1807. People ridiculed his stories and began referring to the place as “Colter’s Hell.” But word of its natural wonders continued to trickle eastward over the next few decades. Most of the descriptions sounded like feverish delusions. The famous trapper and guide Jim Bridger reported seeing stone forests and upside-down waterfalls. Another trapper named Joe Meek described fire and brimstone, steaming rivers, and boiling mud. East Coast newspapers refused to print the description sent to them by a group of prospectors in 1869, saying that they didn’t publish works of fiction. In 1870, a railroad man named Nathaniel Pitt Langford led an expedition through the region in hopes of drumming up support for the Northern Pacific Transcontinental Railroad. He was stunned to find that all the tall tales were true. Finally, in 1871, the government sent out an official scouting party made up of a group of scientists. The party submitted a 500-page description of the region, which was enough to convince Congress to place the area under governmental protection.

Yellowstone covers nearly 3,500 square miles, and is home to one of the world’s 30 active super volcanoes. The volcano lies underneath Yellowstone Lake, and it’s responsible for some of the more dramatic of the park’s features, including hot springs, mud pots, and the famous Old Faithful and Steamboat Geysers.

It’s the birthday of poet Robert Lowell (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1917). He once said, “Sometimes nothing is so solid to me as writing — I suppose that’s what a vocation means — at times a torment, a bad conscience, but all in all, purpose and direction.”

Today is the birthday of novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison (books by this author), born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1914. He was the grandson of slaves, and he originally wanted to be a classical composer, but when he met the great African-American writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, they encouraged him to become a writer instead.

One day, while recovering from a bad kidney infection on his friend’s Vermont farm, Ellison was sitting in the barn with a typewriter. He stared at it for a while and then suddenly typed the sentence “I am an invisible man.” He didn’t know where it came from, but he wanted to pursue the idea, to find out what kind of a person would think of himself as invisible. It took him seven years to write the book, and it was the only novel published in his lifetime. It was Invisible Man, published in 1952.

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