Sunday Sep. 20, 2015

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O Cheese

In the pantry the dear dense cheeses, Cheddars and harsh
Lancashires; Gorgonzola with its magnanimous manner;
the clipped speech of Roquefort; and a head of Stilton
that speaks in a sensuous riddling tongue like Druids.

O cheeses of gravity, cheeses of wistfulness, cheeses
that weep continually because they know they will die.
O cheeses of victory, cheeses wise in defeat, cheeses
fat as a cushion, lolling in bed until noon.

Liederkranz ebullient, jumping like a small dog, noisy;
Pont l’Évêque intellectual, and quite well informed; Emmentaler
decent and loyal, a little deaf in the right ear;
and Brie the revealing experience, instantaneous and profound.

O cheeses that dance in the moonlight, cheeses
that mingle with sausages, cheeses of Stonehenge.
O cheeses that are shy, that linger in the doorway,
eyes looking down, cheeses spectacular as fireworks.

Reblochon openly sexual; Caerphilly like pine trees, small
at the timberline; Port du Salut in love; Caprice des Dieux
eloquent, tactful, like a thousand-year-old hostess;
and Dolcelatte, always generous to a fault.

O village of cheeses, I make you this poem of cheeses,
O family of cheeses, living together in pantries,
O cheeses that keep to your own nature, like a lucky couple,
this solitude, this energy, these bodies slowly dying.

“O Cheese” by Donald Hall from Old and New Poems. © Ticknor & Fields, 1990. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The American Association for the Advancement of Science was established in Philadelphia on this date in 1848. Its stated purpose was to “procure for the labors of scientific men increased facilities and a wider usefulness.”

The term “scientist” had been coined in English just 15 years earlier, and all over the world scientists were making important new discoveries and formulating new ideas. Europe tended to be the center for the great theorists of science — in the year 1848, Léon Foucault set up his first rudimentary pendulum to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation; Darwin was at work on his theory of evolution; Michael Faraday was at the height of his work on electromagnetism. But America was cut off from Europe, and it was hard to compete with the scientific community there. Instead, there was an interest in invention and science that supported industry. Just four years earlier, the first telegraph line was installed, stretching from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. Trains were popping up all over the country, and in the year 1848, four times as many train tracks were laid as in 1847. In 1845, Elias Howe had invented the mechanical sewing machine. The inventor Cyrus McCormick had sold the patent for his McCormick Reaper in the 1830s.

It’s the birthday of poet, editor, and literary critic Donald Hall (1928), born in Hamden, Connecticut (books by this author). He started writing poems when he was a kid at his grandparents’ farm in New Hampshire. When he was 16, he went to a writing conference and met Robert Frost, and later that year, he published his first poetry. He moved around for many years, studying and teaching at various universities, and at the University of Michigan, he met another poet, Jane Kenyon, and they got married and moved back to his grandparents’ farm. He said that moving there was like “coming home to the place of language.”

Hall and Kenyon wrote about each other and their life together. Kenyon called him “Perkins,” and he called her “Stubbsy” because they played Ping-Pong every afternoon at the farmhouse, and he thought her arms were too short to play properly. After they moved to the farmhouse, they lived simply, writing poetry in the mornings, eating lunch, taking a nap, and then writing again.

When Kenyon died of leukemia in 1995, Hall wrote Without (1998) about caring for his wife during her illness and living without her after her death. Of that time he said, “It was a year without seasons; it was a year without punctuation.”

Hall still lives in the farmhouse at Eagle Pond and was named the 14th poet laureate of the United States in 2006. His books include Kicking the Leaves (1978), The One Day (1988), The Back Chamber (2011) and Essays After Eighty (2011).

Hall has always been a fierce revisionist, often putting a single poem through more than 600 hundred drafts. He says: “When I was 25, a poem took six months or a year. Typically, now, it takes two years to five.”

He says, “You should stare at a poem long enough so that you have one hundred reasons for using every comma, one hundred reasons for every line break, one hundred reasons for every and or or.”

It’s the birthday of poet and novelist Stevie Smith (books by this author), born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull, Yorkshire, England (1902). She lived in the same house from the time she was three years old until her death in 1971. She approached a publisher with her first book of poems when she was in her 30s. He told her to go away and write a novel instead. So that’s what she did. Her first novel was Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), and she went on to write other novels and short stories, but her greatest love was always poetry. She actually wrote one of her short stories in meter, and later published it as a poem.

She was known for writing light verse about dark subjects. Her most famous collection of poems is Not Waving but Drowning (1957). In the title poem, she wrote: “Nobody heard him, the dead man, / But still he lay moaning; / I was much further out than you thought / And not waving but drowning.”

It’s the birthday of muckraking pioneer Upton Sinclair (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1878). A precocious child, Sinclair entered City College of New York at the age of 14, which he paid for himself, since his father’s alcoholism had left his family in dire straits. He funded his education by publishing stories in newspapers and magazines. And by the time he was 17, Sinclair was doing well enough to pay for his own apartment, as well as send his destitute parents a regular income. Before long, though, Sinclair married, had a son, and found that he could not support his family.

Sinclair’s extended family was as rich as his immediate one was poor, and a loan from his uncle bankrolled his first, self-published novel when he was 21. But the disparity between this great poverty and wealth within his own family troubled Sinclair. He became a member of the Socialist Party and committed himself to writing fiction about injustice. When the editor of a Socialist journal commissioned him to write about the plight of immigrants working in Chicago meatpacking houses — and the publishing house Macmillan gave him an advance for the book rights — Sinclair moved to the stockyards district for seven weeks. He took copious notes on the miserable working conditions there, and then returned to the East Coast to transform his investigative journalism into fiction.

The Jungle was serialized in the journal, as planned, but Macmillan wanted nothing to do with the book, urging Sinclair to lose the “blood and guts,” which he declined. Four other publishers followed suit, rejecting the book for its graphic imagery. Sinclair decided to self-publish once again, and he began taking advance orders. Encouraged by his brisk sales, Doubleday swooped in at the last minute and agreed to publish the book on the condition that its claims could be verified. The publisher’s lawyer traveled to the Chicago stockyards to witness for himself the miserable state of affairs, and The Jungle caused an almost instant sensation when it was published in 1906.

Although Sinclair had intended to highlight the mistreatment of the workers in the meatpacking industry, readers reacted instead to his descriptions of the mistreatment of the animals — that is to say, the readers’ food. The outcry over the unsanitary preparation of meat helped pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act.

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