Tuesday Aug. 8, 2017

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The New Criticism

My stepdaughter
says I’m boring.
“Everything you say
is boring and like
so seventies.” Her mother
says I’m wonderful, though.
“She’s being fresh. Don’t
listen to her,” she says.
But I can’t help listening
because I want to be
fresh and not boring,
and I want to say ‘like’
like my stepdaughter
because everything
is like something, not
exactly but sort of.
And she’s so contemporary
and provocative and like
alive. She knows all the new
neologisms and would
never use neologism
in a poem. Like ever.

“The New Criticism” by Paul Hostovsky from Is That What That Is. © Future Cycle Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, born in Canton, South Dakota (1901). He was a curious child — at age two, he tried to figure out how matches worked and ended up lighting his clothes on fire. His best friend in Canton was a boy named Merle Tuve, who would go on become a famous geophysicist. The boys built gliders together and constructed a crude radio transmitting station.

Lawrence worked his way through college — he received an undergraduate degree from the University of South Dakota and graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota and Yale. He accepted a position at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1930 he became the youngest full professor there. Lawrence put in 70-hour weeks at the Berkeley Radiation Lab, and he expected everyone else to do the same. The Lab was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It was there that he invented a machine that he called a "proton merry-go-round," better known as the cyclotron. Lawrence's first version of the cyclotron was very makeshift — it involved a kitchen chair, clothes racks, and a pie pan — but eventually he produced a more sophisticated device. The cyclotron was a machine that could accelerate particles and then hurl them at atoms to smash the atoms open. This allowed scientists to discover radioactive isotopes of elements and sometimes new elements. In 1940, Lawrence won the Nobel Prize for his invention.

The first refrigerator was patented in the United States on this date in 1899. The practice of preserving food by keeping it cold had been around for hundreds of years. At first, this meant burying it deep in the ground, or submerging it in cold streams. In 18th-century England, people collected sheets of ice in the winter and put it in specially constructed underground ice houses, where it was salted and wrapped in flannel to preserve it until the summer. That led to the development of the slightly more portable icebox: a wooden box lined with tin and insulated with cork or sawdust. A Scot named William Cullen publicly demonstrated the first artificial cooling system in 1755, but he didn’t put his invention to any practical use.

Modern artificial cooling systems work by compressing gas into a liquid state, and then allowing it to evaporate into a gas again, in a small space. This process removes heat from the surrounding area, and its discovery paved the way for the development of more advanced artificial cooling machines in the early 1800s. At first they were used in a hospital setting, to cool the air for yellow fever patients. But these early refrigeration machines used toxic gases, which created serious problems if the compression system developed a leak.

None of these early attempts — successful though they may have been — were granted a patent in the United States. It was the work of Albert T. Marshall that was finally deemed worthy, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued the first American refrigerator patent on this date in 1899. In 1918, the Frigidaire Company was founded to manufacture home refrigerators. The market grew in the 1920s and ’30s with the development of Freon, which was a safe alternative to toxic gases; by the end of World War II, no modern kitchen was without one. It wasn’t just a convenience for housewives. Artificial refrigeration revolutionized the way food was produced, and refrigerated rail cars made it possible to transport perishable foods over great distances.

It's the birthday of American novelist Valerie Sayers (1952) (books by this author), best known for her novel The Powers (2013), which features baseball legend Joe DiMaggio as he embarks on his historic hitting streak in 1941 against the backdrop of World War II.

Sayers was born and raised in Beaufort, South Carolina, in a large family. She was also raised Catholic at a time when being Catholic in the South was looked down upon, an experience that later informed much of her fiction. Sayers's father was a Yankees fan, and she became a baseball devotee, which came in handy later on when she was writing The Powers.

She didn't seriously consider being a writer until college, when she took a poetry course. She tried fiction after that, and was hooked. She says, "I finally understood that I really did have to put in the hard work, that becoming a writer was, in its own way, sort of like becoming a brain surgeon." In college she was also a part of the Catholic Worker movement, considering it a part of her lifelong advocacy for pacifism.

Sayers has written six novels, including Due East (1987), How I Got Him Back (1989), Who Do You Love (1991), and Brain Fever (1996). When she started writing The Powers, she used the game of baseball as a kind of metaphor for the writing process. She says, "A baseball game has a complex plot line, great pacing [...] tremendous tension, moral crisis, revelation."

The Powers is an expansive novel featuring not only DiMaggio, but also two love stories, World War II, and a coming-of-age plotline. Using baseball to examine the impact of war didn't deter Sayers while she was writing. She said, "Baseball's theater, too, and it's filled with poetry, but I read it as a story."

Valerie Sayers's advice to young writers is, "Have some fun. What the hell."

It's the birthday of Sara Teasdale (1884) (books by this author), a popular American lyric poet who won the Columbia Poetry Prize in 1918 for her collection Love Songs (1917). The Columbia Poetry Prize was later renamed the Pulitzer Prize, making Teasdale the first winner in poetry.

Sara Teasdale was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents thought she was sickly, and treated her delicately, homeschooling her until she was nine, when she was finally educated at strict all-girls schools. She published her first poem, "Guenevere," in Reedy's Mirror (1907), a local newspaper, when she was 23. She and some friends also started a popular monthly literary magazine in St. Louis, called The Potter's Wheel.

She made frequent trips to Chicago, where she fell in with Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Magazine crowd, including dashing poet Vachel Lindsay, who desperately loved her. Lindsay often took the summers to wander the country, singing and chanting his poems in exchange for food and shelter. He even carried a pamphlet titled "Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread." He didn't think he could support Teasdale financially, and she was wary, too, so she married St. Louis businessman Ernst Filsinger and moved to New York City, where they rented an apartment near Central Park West. She remained platonic friends with Lindsay for the rest of her life.

Teasdale's poems were simple and concise and often romantic in nature. She was very popular with readers. Her collections include Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems (1907), Rivers to the Sea (1915), and Stars To-Night (1930). The New York Timescalled Rivers to the Sea "a little volume of joyous and unstudied songs."

Teasdale was unhappy in her marriage and divorced Filsinger. She lived alone for the rest of her life in an apartment just two blocks from the one she shared with Filsinger. She was a semi-invalid and suffered from depression. She died in 1933, in the bathtub, after taking too many sleeping pills. Vachel Lindsay had died two years earlier after drinking poison.

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury liked Sara Teasdale's poem "There Will Come Soft Rains" so much that he used the poem as a motif in a short story of the same name, which became very famous and was included in his classic, The Martian Chronicles(1950).

It's the birthday of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1896). As a girl, she loved to write, and she published stories and essays in the children's section of newspapers. As a young wife, she moved to Rochester, New York, where she wrote for a society magazine. She suggested to the editor of the Rochester Times-Union that she write a daily column in verse, called "Songs of a Housewife." The editor was unconvinced, but he finally agreed to let her try. Her column was extremely popular, syndicated in 50 newspapers. She wrote poems about cooking, being a mother, gardening, neighbors, housework, and the weather. Her first column was called "The Smell of Country Sausage," and it began: "I let the spiced aromas / Call up the kitchen stair / Before I have my table set / The family all is there." She wrote 495 columns of "Songs of a Housewife."

Then she and her husband purchased an orange grove in Cross Creek, Florida. She spent the rest of her life there, even after her marriage ended because her husband did not like rural life. A few years after her divorce, she published her best-known book, The Yearling (1938). It's the story of Jody Baxter, a lonely Florida farm boy, and Flag, his adopted orphaned fawn. Jody grows up along with Flag, but when Flag eats the family's corn crop, his parents tell Jody that he has to shoot the deer. Although The Yearling is now marketed as a children's or young adult novel, at the time of its publication it appealed to a general audience. It was the best-selling novel of the year 1938, and Rawlings' editor was Maxwell Perkins, who was most famous as the editor for Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Yearling won the Pulitzer Prize, and like several of Rawlings' other novels, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

In her memoir Cross Creek, she wrote: "We at the Creek need and have found only very simple things. We must need flowering and fruiting trees, for all of us have citrus groves of one size or another. We must need a certain blandness of season, with a longer and more beneficent heat than many require, for there is never too much sun for us, and through the long summers we do not complain. We need the song of birds, and there is none finer than the red-bird. We need the sound of rain coming across the hamaca, and the sound of wind in trees — and there is no more sensitive Aeolian harp than the palm. The pine is good, for the needles brushing one another have a great softness, and we have the wind in the pines, too. We need above all, I think, a certain remoteness from urban confusion, and while this can be found in other places, Cross Creek offers it with such beauty and grace that once entangled with it, no other place seems possible to us, just as when truly in love none other offers the comfort of the beloved. We are not even offended when others do not share our delight. Tom Glisson and I often laugh together at the people who consider the Creek dull, or, in the precise sense, outlandish."

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