Monday Apr. 11, 2016

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Nights in Hackett’s Cove

Those nights lit by the moon and the moon’s nimbus,
the bones of the wrecked pier rose crooked in air
and the sea wore a tarnished coat of silver.
The black pines waited. The cold air smelled
of fishheads rotting under the pier at low tide.
The moon kept shedding its silver clothes
over the bogs and pockets of bracken.
Those nights I would gaze at the bay road,
at the cottages clustered under the moon’s immaculate stare,
nothing hinted that I would suffer so late
this turning away, this longing to be there.

“Nights in Hackett’s Cove” by Mark Strand from New Selected Poems. © Knopf, 2007. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of poet Christopher Smart (books by this author), born in Shipbourne, England (1722), who experienced a religious awakening that convinced him that he was a prophet. He began praying and preaching in the streets of London, and tried to follow the biblical injunction to “pray ceaselessly,” dropping to his knees whenever the spirit moved him, which embarrassed his family. They put him into an asylum, where he wrote the two poems for which he is best known: A Song to David (1763) and Jubilate Agno (first published in 1938).

It's the birthday of humorist Leo Rosten (books by this author), born in Lodz, Poland (1908). He came to America as a small boy, first to Chicago, and then to New York City. He's best known for creating the character Hyman Kaplan, in a series of humorous stories in the New Yorker magazine. He was also the editor of The Joys of Yiddish (1968), a best-selling dictionary that he described as "a relaxed lexicon of Yiddish, Hebrew, and Yinglish words often encountered in English, plus dozens that ought to be." He described the 20 situations where one should say feh; 19 meanings of Nu? (including "What's the hurry?" and "How are things with you?"); and included entries on oy, chutzpah, mish-mosh, and many more words.

It’s the birthday of writer Dorothy Allison (books by this author), born in Greenville, South Carolina (1949), to an unwed 15-year-old who’d dropped out of seventh grade and worked as a waitress. Allison grew up desperately poor, and was sexually abused by her stepfather. But she was inspired by the confidence her teachers and classmates had in her intelligence. “Because they did not see poverty and hopelessness as a foregone conclusion for my life,” she wrote, “I could begin to imagine other futures for myself.”

She won a National Merit Scholarship and was the first person in her family to attend college. There, in the late ’60s, she was introduced to the Feminist movement, which she said “was like opening your eyes under water. It hurt, but suddenly everything that had been dark and mysterious became visible and open to change.” She wrote a memoir about her childhood and family history, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995), but it is her earlier novel, Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), that she’s best known for.

Allison said: “People want biography. People want memoir. They want you to tell them that the story you’re telling them is true. The thing I’m telling you is true, but it did not always happen to me.”

It’s the birthday of poet Mark Strand (books by this author), born in Summerside on Prince Edward Island, Canada (1934). His father worked for Pepsi-Cola, and the family moved frequently: across Canada and the United States, to Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, and Peru. He never really felt at home anywhere. The one constant landscape was that of St. Margaret’s Bay in Nova Scotia, where he spent summers. He loved the ocean, boulders, and trees, the local fishermen, and blueberry pies. He said, “It was the most secure landscape [...] it became the decor for my imagination.”

He wanted to become an artist. He attended the Yale School of Art and Architecture, where he studied under Josef Albers, a painter and color theorist. He said: “I was never much good with language as a child. Believe me, the idea that I would someday be a poet would have come as a complete shock to everyone in my family.” During his years at Yale, he decided that his talent lay in writing, not painting. He received a Fulbright Grant to spend a year in Florence studying 19th-century Italian poetry, and then went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first book of poems was called Sleeping With One Eye Open (1964), and over the next 15 years, he published six more collections. He said: “When I was younger, I felt if I wasn’t publishing, I didn’t exist. If I didn’t have that public exposure, that I was compromised in some way.”

By 1980, with a volume of Selected Poems just published, Strand was burned out. He said, “I didn’t like what I was writing, I didn’t believe in my autobiographical poems.” He decided to take a break from writing poetry. Instead, he wrote children’s books, several books about art, and a book of short stories called Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories (1985). This book included a story about a killer poet, another about a man who used to be a dog, and a third about a U.S. president who is obsessed with reading Chekhov aloud to his cabinet.

During his long hiatus, Strand happened to pick up Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Iliad by Homer. He was so inspired by the beauty of the language that he immediately started writing again. In 1990, he was named poet laureate, and later that year, he published his first book of poems in a decade, The Continuous Life.

For decades, Strand taught at various colleges and continued to publish. Toward the end of his life, at the age of 77, he decided to quit writing poetry again. He fell in love with a Spanish woman, moved to Madrid, and began making art again. He said: “I started collaging as an escape from making meaning. I got tired of writing poems, of trying to make sense — verbal sense. It is a relief to make a different kind of sense — visual sense. One must think, of course, but it is an entirely different kind of thinking, one in which language does not intrude.”

His books include Reasons for Moving (1968), The Story of Our Lives (1973), Blizzard of One (1998), Almost Invisible (2012), and Collected Poems (2014).

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