Sunday Jul. 24, 2016

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The Chairs That No One Sits In

You see them on porches and on lawns
down by the lakeside,
usually arranged in pairs implying a couple

who might sit there and look out
at the water or the big shade trees.
The trouble is you never see anyone

sitting in these forlorn chairs
though at one time it must have seemed
a good place to stop and do nothing for a while.

Sometimes there is a little table
between the chairs where no one
is resting a glass or placing a book facedown.

It may not be any of my business,
but let us suppose one day
that everyone who placed those vacant chairs

on a veranda or a dock sat down in them
if only for the sake of remembering
what it was they thought deserved

to be viewed from two chairs,
side by side with a table in between.
The clouds are high and massive on that day.

The woman looks up from her book.
The man takes a sip of his drink.
Then there is only the sound of their looking,

the lapping of lake water, and a call of one bird
then another, cries of joy or warning—
it passes the time to wonder which.

“The Chairs That No One Sits In” by Billy Collins from Aimless Love. © Random House, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of English poet and novelist Robert Graves (books by this author), born in Wimbledon in 1895. He was one of 10 children; his father, Alfred Perceval Graves, was a Celtic scholar and his mother, Amalie, was related to noted historian Leopold von Ranke. He began writing poetry as a schoolboy, and wrote three books of verse while serving as an officer on the Western Front during World War I. He was badly wounded in 1916, and again in 1918, and he battled the physical and psychological effects of the Great War for several years to come. Good-Bye to All That (1929) is his grim memoir of the war years, and it sold well enough that he was able to settle on the island of Majorca with his lover, American poet Laura Riding.

He wrote more than 120 books, including historical fiction like I, Claudius (1934), about the Roman Empire; and The Golden Fleece (1944), about Hercules. His research of mythology for The Golden Fleece led him to write a controversial book, The White Goddess; A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948); in it, he argues for throwing off the old patriarchal gods and relying on a divine female deity for inspiration. He believed the White Goddess inspired poetry that was magical, rather than the rational, Classical verse that arose from meditating on a male god.

He wrote in his essay “A Case for Xanthippe” (1960): “Though philosophers like to define poetry as irrational fancy, for us it is practical, humorous, reasonable way of being ourselves. Of never acquiescing in a fraud; of never accepting the secondary-rate in poetry, painting, music, love, friends. Of safeguarding our poetic institutions against the encroachments of mechanized, insensate, inhumane, abstract rationality.”

It’s the birthday of American thriller writer John D. MacDonald (books by this author), born in Sharon, Pennsylvania (1916). He is best known for his novels featuring Travis McGee, whom MacDonald called “a tattered knight on a spavined steed.” McGee, who is 6’4” and 212 pounds, lives on a houseboat called The Busted Flush, docked at Slip F-18 in the Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. McGee has an aversion to, among other things: credit cards, payroll deductions, actresses, pageants, time clocks, television, progress, and manifest destiny. There are 21 books in the Travis McGee series, with each one having a color in the title, such as The Deep Blue Goodbye (1964) and The Lonely Silver Rain (1985). MacDonald’s publisher suggested that the titles include a color, so harried travelers in airports could quickly identify which McGee novels they had not yet read.

It’s the birthday of Anglican clergyman and hymn writer John Newton, born in London (1725). His father was a ship’s captain, and his pious mother died when he was seven years old, so he accompanied his father to sea. He once tried to desert the Royal Navy, and was publicly flogged and demoted. Later, another ship traded him as cargo, and he became the servant of an African slave dealer. He ended up a captain and carried slaves between Europe, the sugar plantations of the West Indies, and Africa’s slave coast.

In 1748, he had a spiritual conversion on a journey back to England. He almost drowned in a terrible storm, but he prayed to God, and the ship did not sink. After that, he stopped gambling and drinking, and he married a girl he had loved for many years.

Newton was ordained as a minister. He gave up the slave trade entirely, and later in his life he became an outspoken abolitionist. In his best-selling pamphlet Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade (1788), he described the awful conditions of the slave ships he had captained. By this time, Newton was a well-known preacher and writer of hymns, and the public listened to him. In 1805, the 80-year-old Newton went completely blind, but he didn’t stop working. The slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in March of 1807; Newton died that December.

He is best remembered for his hymns, which include “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and “Amazing Grace.”

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