As they sit there, happily drinking,
their strokes, cancers and so forth are not in their minds.
Indeed, what earthly good would thinking
about the future (which is Death) do? Each summer finds
beer in their hands in big pint glasses.
And so their leisure passes.
Perhaps the older ones allow some inkling
into their thoughts. Being hauled, as a kid, upstairs to bed
screaming for a teddy or a tinkling
musical box, against their will. Each Joe or Fred
wants longer with the life and lasses
And so their time passes.
Second childhood: and ‘Come in, number eighty!’
shouts inexorably the man in charge of the boating pool.
When you’re called you must go, matey,
so don’t complain, keep it all calm and cool,
there’s masses of time yet, masses, masses…
And so their life passes.
“Yorkshiremen in Pub Gardens” by Gavin Ewart from Selected Poems. © New Directions, 1988. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of German composer Richard Strauss, born in Munich in 1864. He’s known for writing what he called “tone poems” inspired by literary characters. He wrote Don Juan (1889) and Don Quixote (1897), and operas too, of course. In 1905, he wrote the opera Salome, based on the play by Oscar Wilde.
He said, “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.”
It was on this day in 1935 that listeners first heard FM radio, when the American inventor Edwin Howard Armstrong gave a demonstration in Alpine, New Jersey. Armstrong demonstrated the clarity of FM compared to AM radio by playing classical music and the sound of water being poured.
Today is the birthday of American novelist William Styron (books by this author), born in Newport News, Virginia (1925). Styron’s novels often addressed messy, unwieldy themes of crime, punishment, and redemption against the backdrop of history: Nazi death camps in Sophie’s Choice, the rebellion of slaves in The Confessions of Nat Turner. As a child, he read voraciously. “I read everything I could get my hands on,” he said. “I read poetry, I read drama, I read novel after novel. I read until I realized I was causing damage to my eyes. It was a kind of runaway lust.” After a stint in the Marine Corps, he found himself miserable in New York, editing at McGraw-Hill. He managed to get himself fired, which left him free to compose his first novel, Lie Down In Darkness (1951), about the suicide of a young woman. The novel received the prestigious Prix de Rome. He was compared to William Faulkner and James Joyce and was vocal about his disdain for creative writing classes for young writers. “It can be an awful waste of time,” he said. “I don’t think even the most conscientious and astute teachers can teach anything about style. Style only comes after long, hard practice and writing.”
Styron moved to Europe, drank a lot of cognac, married Rose Burgunder, a poet, and befriended several other young American writers, including George Plimpton, James Jones, and James Baldwin. In 1953, the group founded the influential literary journal Paris Review. Baldwin often bunked on Styron’s couch and was an early reader for The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), rightly predicting the controversy that would surround a novel written by a white man in the voice of a black man. He told Time magazine, “Bill’s going to get it from all sides, from whites and blacks.” The Confessions of Nat Turner won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize and was a best-seller.
Styron wrote in the afternoons, in longhand, on yellow sheets of paper. “I like to stay up late at night and get drunk and sleep late,” he said. “The afternoon is the only time I have left and I try to use it to the best advantage, with a hangover.” When asked if he found writing enjoyable, he answered, “I certainly don’t. I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day.” In 1985, shortly after he turned 60, in Paris to accept an award, Styron abruptly stopped drinking, a lifelong habit he had relied on to keep his mood swings at bay. He suddenly plummeted into severe, suicidal depression and was hospitalized for over a year. It was the beginning of a years-long battle with mental illness, one that culminated in the publication of his memoir, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990), which helped destigmatize the subject of mood disorders and depression. The response to the book, he told Charlie Rose, was overwhelming. “It was just by the thousands that the letters came in. I had not really realized that it was going to touch that kind of a nerve.”
Styron spent the remaining years of his life as a reluctant advocate for mental health, admitting that depression had sapped his writing. “Clinical depression is the antithesis of creativity; everything in the mind is in a deep stagnation. It’s like having a fog over the intellect.” His advice to aspiring writers was not to listen to critics. “There’s only one person a writer should listen to, pay attention to. It’s not any damn critic. It’s the reader.” William Styron died in 2006, at the age of 81, at his home on Martha’s Vineyard.