Saturday Mar. 18, 2017

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In our teens we all bought girdles
with rubber knobs to hold up our stockings.
We wiggled into them, our “foundations.”

So many things look absurd from a distance
that people still take seriously,
like whether there’s a Heaven for pets.

What ever happened to my girdle?
One day I peeled it off for the last time
and all hell broke loose.

“Girdle” by Connie Wanek from Rival Gardens. © University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Manly Hall (books by this author), born in Peterborough, Ontario (1901). He was fascinated by the occult and he traveled all over lecturing. He wrote quite a few books, and he is most famous for The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabalistic, and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy (1928). It took him six years to write the book, and during that period he worked for a while on Wall Street, which he hated. He wrote: "I felt strongly moved to explore the problems of humanity, its origin and destiny, and I spent a number of quiet hours in the New York Public Library tracing the confused course of civilization. ... Translations of classical authors could differ greatly, but in most cases the noblest thoughts were eliminated or denigrated. Those more sincere authors whose knowledge of ancient languages was profound were never included as required reading, and scholarship was based largely upon the acceptance of a sterile materialism." So he translated and interpreted the texts himself, and wrote his magnum opus.

It's the birthday of poet Wilfred Owen (books by this author), born in Shropshire, England (1893). When he was young, his family was well-off, living in a house owned by his grandfather, a prominent citizen. But then his grandpa died, and it turned out that the old man was broke, and the family had to leave and move into working-class lodgings in an industrial town.

He started writing poems as a boy, and he was good at literature and science, but he didn't do well enough on his exams to get a scholarship at a university. He enlisted to fight in World War I, and he became a lieutenant. In 1917, he was wounded, diagnosed with shell shock, and sent to a hospital to recuperate. There he met another soldier diagnosed with shell shock, Siegfried Sassoon, who was an established poet and mentored Owen. At the hospital, Owen wrote many of his most famous poems, including "Dulce et Decorum Est" and "Anthem for Doomed Youth." He was one of the first poets to depict the horrifying realities of war, instead of writing glorified, nationalistic poems.

But the next year, he went back to fight, and he was killed in battle at the age of 25. Two years later, Poems of Wilfred Owen (1920) was published.

It's the birthday of French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (books by this author), born in Paris (1842). He supported himself — and, once he married, his wife and family — by working as a schoolteacher, though he didn't enjoy the work. He began publishing his poems in magazines in 1862, when he was 20 years old. He regularly hosted salons at his home, where writers met to discuss literature and philosophy. Regular attendees included W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Verlaine, and Paul Valéry.

He said: "There is nothing but beauty — and beauty has only one perfect expression, Poetry. All the rest is a lie."

It's the birthday of novelist John Updike (books by this author), born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1932). He went to Harvard, where he majored in English and drew cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon (he also wrote the majority of each issue). After graduation, he got married, sold his first short story to The New Yorker, and headed off to England with his new wife. In England, Updike studied painting at Oxford University and continued to send poems and stories to The New Yorker. His work impressed E.B. and Katharine White — E.B. wrote for The New Yorker and Katharine was its fiction editor. While they were vacationing in England they visited Updike and offered him a job writing the magazine's "Talk of the Town" column. The Updikes moved back to America with their daughter, and he went to work.

His first "Talk of the Town" column was so good that the editor immediately promoted him. After that, his pieces were published verbatim instead of edited, and he earned $200 per story instead of $100. He wrote a faux-academic piece about Manhattanites' faces, another about pigeons, and for another he eavesdropped from the corner of the Biltmore Hotel's bar during college spring break. For one column, Updike walked from the Empire State Building to the Rockefeller Center without walking on Fifth or Sixth Avenue — a task that involved climbing through a basement window and squeezing underneath fences. He described his work: "The New Yorker paid me to gad about, to interview tertiary celebrities, to peek into armories, and to write accounts of my mild adventures."

After two years at The New Yorker, Updike and his wife had another child, and they decided to leave the city for a 17th-century house in the small town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. He wrote: "The decade was the sixties, my wife and I were youngish, and the house suited us just fine. [...] A previous owner had put a pipe and a pole in a small upstairs room to make a walk-in closet; fair weather or foul, I would hike from our bedroom to my clothes every morning. I find I have no memory at all of where my wife kept hers. Perhaps, it being the sixties, she only needed a miniskirt and a lumberjack shirt. Our children, four of them, slept in four little rooms in a row above the long kitchen, which for a time had been two kitchens, a partition intervening. There had been only two children when we moved in, and if there had been six little rooms, we might have felt obliged to fill them up."

By 1959, Updike was just five years out of Harvard, but already he had published more than a hundred pieces in The New Yorker and finished three books: a novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959); a book of poetry, The Carpentered Hen (1958); and a book of stories, The Same Door (1959). That same year, he began the novel Rabbit, Run (1960), which he followed with the sequels Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). Those novels, the best-known of his books, tell the life story of Harry Angstrom, nicknamed "Rabbit," a former high school basketball star living in suburban Pennsylvania. Updike said: "I could observe, looking around me at American society in 1959, a number of scared and dodgy men — and I felt a certain fright and dodginess within myself. This kind of man who won't hold still, who won't make a commitment, who won't quite pull his load in society, became Harry Angstrom. [...] He accumulated characteristics — even his nickname, ‘Rabbit.' Rabbits are dodgy, rabbits are sexy, rabbits are nervous, rabbits like grass and vegetables."

Updike wrote more than 50 books, including 22 novels. His books include Couples (1968), Too Far to Go (1979), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), and Terrorist (2006).

He said, "No amount of learned skills can substitute for the feeling of having a lot to say, of bringing news. Memories, impressions, and emotions from your first 20 years on earth are most writers' main material; little that comes afterward is quite so rich and resonant. By the age of 40, you have probably mined the purest veins of this precious lode; after that, continued creativity is a matter of sifting the leavings."

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