Thursday Sep. 24, 2015

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When I am alone I am happy.
The air is cool. The sky is
flecked and splashed and wound
with color. The crimson phalloi
of the sassafras leaves
hang crowded before me
in shoals on the heavy branches.
When I reach my doorstep
I am greeted by
the happy shrieks of my children
and my heart sinks.
I am crushed.

Are not my children as dear to me
as falling leaves or
must one become stupid
to grow older?
It seems much as if Sorrow
had tripped up my heels.
Let us see, let us see!
What did I plan to say to her
when it should happen to me
as it has happened now?

“Waiting” by William Carlos Williams from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. © New Directions, 1991. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author), born Francis Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Minnesota (1896). The son of a would-be furniture manufacturer who never quite made it big in business, Fitzgerald grew up feeling like a "poor boy in a rich town," in spite of his middle-class upbringing. This impression was only strengthened when he attended Princeton, paid for by an aunt, where he was enthralled by the leisure class, tried out and was cut from the football team, and fell in love with a beautiful young socialite who would marry a wealthy business associate of her father's. By the time Fitzgerald dropped out of college and entered the Army — wearing a Brooks Brothers-tailored uniform — it was little wonder he called the autobiographical novel he was writing The Romantic Egotist.

Fitzgerald's time at an officer training camp in Alabama didn't turn out as he'd hoped, either; the war ended before he ever made it to Europe, his book was rejected, and when he failed to make it big in New York City, his new debutante girlfriend, Zelda Sayre, called off their engagement.

Fitzgerald was probably much like most young men of his generation who dreamed of being a football star, the war hero, the wealthy big shot, the guy who gets the girl, but he actually had talent, drive, and an unshakeable faith that he could translate all that familiar yearning into something new. His revised book, This Side of Paradise, was a triumphant success. Requests for his writing came pouring in, Zelda married him, and the two of them — a Midwesterner and a Southerner — became the quintessential New York couple, the epitome of the Jazz Age, a term Fitzgerald himself coined. And although they eventually died separated, she in a mental hospital, he in debt and obscurity, Fitzgerald's two greatest regrets remained, for the rest of his life, having failed to serve overseas and play Princeton football.

He said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

And his daughter, "Scottie" Fitzgerald, said about her parents, "People who live entirely by the fertility of their imaginations are fascinating, brilliant and often charming, but they should be sat next to at dinner parties, not lived with."

It's the birthday of "Blind" Lemon Jefferson, born on a farm in Couchman, Texas, in about 1893. There is a lot of conflicting information about Jefferson and most of it comes from others' memories of him. Census records and his draft registration don't agree on a date or even a year of birth. There are only two confirmed photographs of him. No one knows much about his musical training, but it seems he first picked up the guitar when he was a young teenager. Former residents of nearby Wortham, Texas, remember him playing his guitar in front of the bank at lunchtime, collecting change in a tin cup.

Jefferson began playing picnics and parties in the region, and eventually he made his way to Dallas. He performed every day on the corner of Central and Elm, near a train stop where the black workers would get off at the end of their day to visit the neighborhood bars and dance halls. Stories vary, but Dallas was probably the place where he first met fellow blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, prior to World War I. Lead Belly had been in the business longer, but Jefferson was the better musician, and Lead Belly later wrote "Blind Lemon's Blues" in tribute to his friend and erstwhile music partner. Another legend holds that Jefferson hired a young T-Bone Walker to guide him around Dallas. Jefferson paid Walker in guitar lessons, and Walker went on to become a blues legend in his own right. Jefferson may have made money on the side as a bootlegger and a professional wrestler, depending on who's telling the story. He also had a way with the ladies, according to blues singer Victoria Spivey, who recalled in 1966: "Although he was supposed to be completely blind, I still believe he could see a little bit. If he couldn't, he darn sure could feel his way 'round — the old wolf!"

In the early 1920s, Jefferson began traveling: to the Mississippi Delta, and Memphis, and maybe even farther than that. Late in 1925, he was "discovered" by a Texas talent scout, who took Jefferson to Paramount Records in Chicago; there he recorded two gospel songs under an alias. Over the next three years, he recorded nearly a hundred songs and became the first country blues musician to develop a national following. He was expected to produce one record a month, and in between recording sessions, he traveled around the South. Everybody had a story about seeing him at the local venue. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to "see" even through sightless eyes; musician Mance Lipscomb said later: "He had a tin cup, wired on the neck of his guitar. And when you pass to give him something, why he'd thank you. But he would never take no pennies. You could drop a penny in there and he'd know the sound. He'd take and throw it away." Delta musician Ishman Lacey said, "He carried a pearl-handled .44, and he could shoot the head off a chicken. And he couldn't see nary a lick. Just did it from the sound he heard."

His death of heart failure is also shrouded in mystery. His body was found on a Chicago street after an especially brutal December snowstorm, and it's been said he was the victim of a car accident, or attacked by a dog, or robbed and killed over royalty money, or abandoned by his chauffeur, or poisoned by a jealous lover, or simply lost his way. He was only about 36 years old. He was buried in Wortham, Texas, in a grave that remained unmarked until 1967; in the 1990s, fans raised money to erect a granite marker engraved with Jefferson's own lyrics: "Lord, it's one kind favor I'll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean."

Today is the birthday of poet Eavan Boland (books by this author), born in Dublin (1944). When she was just six, her father was appointed the Irish Ambassador to the UK and moved the family to London, where she first witnessed anti-Irish hostility. She returned to Dublin as a young teen, with a deeper appreciation of her heritage and a desire to write. But when she looked more closely at the Irish literary tradition, she found almost no women poets in the ranks. There was "a magnetic distance between the word 'woman' and the word 'poet,'" she said. While she admired Keats and Joyce, she felt strongly that her own life should make it into her poetry, so she wrote about the trials and rewards of motherhood, or life in the suburbs. She published her first collection, 23 Poems, while still a freshman in college in 1962, and followed up with another 10 books of verse, including Night Feed (1982) and In a Time of Violence (1994), for which she received the Lannan Literary Award.

Boland is the co-founder of Arlen House Press. She divides her time between Dublin and California, where she directs the creative writing program at Stanford University.

Speaking on the importance of the oral tradition in Irish poetry, Boland said: "Poetry is one of the most fugitive arts: it can be assigned to memory, taken and hidden in the mind, smuggled into smoky cabin back rooms, recited there and then conveyed only by speech to another person. It is therefore the most likely to survive colonization."

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