Another October. The maples have done their slick trick
of turning yellow almost overnight; summer’s hazy skies
are cobalt blue. My friend has come in from the West,
where it’s been a year of no mercy: chemotherapy, bone
marrow transplant, more chemotherapy, and her hair
came out in fistfuls, twice. Bald as a pumpkin.
And then, the surgeon’s knife.
But she’s come through it all, annealed by fire,
calm settled in her bones like the morning mist in valleys
and low places, and her hair’s returned, glossy
as a horse chestnut kept in a shirt pocket.
Today a red fox ran down through the corn stubble;
he vanished like smoke. I want to praise things
that cannot last. The scarlet and orange leaves
are already gone, blown down by a cold rain,
crushed and trampled. They rise again in leaf meal
and wood smoke. The Great Blue Heron’s returned to the pond,
settles in the reeds like a steady flame.
Geese cut a wedge out of the sky, drag the gray days
behind them like a skein of old wool.
I want to praise everything brief and finite.
Overhead, the Pleiades fall into place; Orion rises.
Great Horned Owls muffle the night with their calls;
night falls swiftly, tucking us in her black velvet robe,
the stitches showing through, all those little lights,
our little lives, rising and falling.
“Equinox” by Barbara Crooker from Selected Poems. © Future Cycle Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It's the birthday of Noah Webster (books by this author), born in Hartford, Connecticut (1758). When he was 43 years old, he began writing the first American dictionary, which he put together because he wanted Americans to have a national identity that wasn't based on the language and ideas of England. And the problem wasn't just that Americans were looking to England for their language; it was that they could barely communicate with each other because regional dialects differed so drastically.
So in 1783, he published the first part of his three-part A Grammatical Institute, of the English Language; the first section was eventually retitled The American Spelling Book, but usually called by the nickname "Blue-Backed Speller." The Blue-Backed Speller taught American children the rules of spelling, and it simplified words — it was Webster who took the letter "u" out of English words like colour and honour; he took a "g" out of waggon, a "k" off the end of musick, and switched the order of the "r" and "e" in theatre and centre.
In 1801, he started compiling his dictionary. Part of what he accomplished, much like his textbook, was standardizing spelling. He introduced American words, some of them derived from Native American languages: skunk, squash, wigwam, hickory, opossum, lengthy; and presidential, Congress, and caucus, which were not relevant in England's monarchy.
It's the birthday of Oscar Wilde (books by this author), born in Dublin (1854), who was already a successful playwright when he fell into a love affair with the young aristocrat Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was married with two children at the time, and the affair ruined his reputation in society. He later wrote, "I curse myself night and day for my folly in allowing him to dominate my life." But it was the most creative period of his life. He wrote three plays in two years about people leading double lives, including A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), about two men who use an imaginary person named Earnest to get themselves out of all kinds of situations, until their invented stories and identities get so complicated that everything is revealed.
The actor who played Algernon Moncrieff later said, "In my fifty-three years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest." But that same year, Wilde was accused of sodomy by the father of his lover. Wilde might have let the accusation pass, but he chose to sue his accuser for libel, because he thought he could win the case by his eloquence alone. Private detectives had dug up so much damning evidence on Wilde that he was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to two years of hard labor. His plays continued to be produced on the stage, but his name was removed from all the programs. He was released from prison in 1897 and died three years later in a cheap Paris hotel.
Oscar Wilde, who said, "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling." And, "An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all."
It's the birthday of Eugene O'Neill (books by this author), born in New York City (1888). Eugene was born in a hotel room, and his father went back on tour two days after the birth. For much of his childhood, O'Neill accompanied his father. He said: "My early experience with the theater through my father really made me revolt against it. As a boy I saw so much of the old, ranting, artificial, romantic stage stuff that I always had a sort of contempt for the theater." Then in 1907, when O'Neill was 18 years old, he saw the Russian actress Alla Nazimova star in Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at the Bijou Theatre in New York. He said: "The experience discovered an entire new world of the drama for me. It gave me my first conception of a modern theater where truth might live." Hedda Gabler ran for 32 performances, and O'Neill went to 10 of them.
He went on to write 50 plays, including The Hairy Ape (1921), Desire Under the Elms (1924), The Iceman Cometh (1939), and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1941).
He said: "Keep on writing, no matter what! That's the most important thing. As long as you have a job on hand that absorbs all your mental energy, you haven't much worry to spare over other things. It serves as a suit of armor."