Saturday Sep. 10, 2016

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Newspaper Nights

After midnight when the presses were rolling
we would leave the Herald Tribune building
and walk up to Times Square.
The three of us would still be laughing and joking.

I can see a sign that says Schenley.
There are numbers high on a building
telling the time, 12:27,
the temperature, 36.

We have the streets all to ourselves.
There is only the sound of an ambulance or a fire.
There are only the lights that still keep changing
from green to red and back to green in silence.

“Newspaper Nights” by Louis Simpson from Collected Poems. © Paragon House Publishers, 1988. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of editor and essayist Cyril Connolly (books by this author), born in Whitley, England (1903). He was one of the most important English literary critics and edited the literary journal Horizon from 1940 to 1950, publishing authors like W.H. Auden and George Orwell. Connolly said that he drifted into being a literary critic through unemployability. Even though he became one of the best book reviewers in England, he always hated it. He said, “I review novels to make money, because it is easier for a sluggard to write an article a fortnight than a book a year.” He published one novel, The Rock Pool (1936), but he thought it was so bad that he decided never to write fiction again. Instead, he wrote two great books about the misery of not being able to write great books, The Enemies of Promise (1938) and The Unquiet Grave (1944).

It’s the birthday of American poet Mary Oliver (1935) (books by this author), born and raised in Maple Heights, Ohio, a semi-rural suburb of Cleveland. Her father was a social studies teacher and athletic coach in Cleveland public schools. Of her childhood, Oliver said: “It was a very dark and broken house that I came from. And I escaped it, barely. With years of trouble.”

She skipped school and read voraciously to escape her home life, mostly the work of John Keats and Emily Dickinson. She also began taking long walks in the woods by her house and writing poems. She says, “I got saved by poetry. And by the beauty of the world.” She calls her early poems “rotten.”

After Oliver graduated from high school, she took a trip to Steepletop, the home of the famous poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, in Austerlitz, New York. She became good friends with Millay’s sister Norma and ended up staying for seven years, helping Norma organize Millay’s papers and writing her own poems. She attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College, but never earned degrees.

Oliver’s first collection of poetry, No Voyage and Other Poems (1963), was published to wide acclaim when she was 28. She writes short, poignant poems, most often about her observations of the natural world, particularly the world of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she spent more than 50 years with her partner, Molly Malone Cook, who was one of the first staff photographers for The Village Voice.

She finds most of her inspiration on her walks and hikes. She takes along a hand-sewn notebook so she can stop and write. Once, she lost her pencil, and now she hides pencils in the trees along the trails so she always has spares. She says: “It has frequently been remarked, about my own writings, that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer.”

Oliver’s books consistently hit the best-seller lists. Her collections include Dream Work (1986), Why I Wake Early (2007), Blue Horses (2014), and Felicity (2015). She was outside replacing the shingles on her house when she got the phone call that she’d won the Pulitzer Prize (1984) for American Primitive (1983). Her books about the writing of poetry, A Poetry Handbook (1994) and Rules for the Dance (1998), are routinely used in high school and college creative writing courses.

On writing poetry, Mary Oliver says: “One thing I do know is that poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn’t be fancy. I have the feeling that a lot of poets writing now [...] sort of tap dance through it. I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary shouldn’t be in a poem.”

One of her most famous poems, “The Summer Day,” ends with the line, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” When an interviewer asked her what she’d done with her own wild and precious life, Oliver answered, “Used a lot of pencils.”

It’s the birthday of best-selling novelist Hannah Webster Foster (books by this author), born in Salisbury, Massachusetts (1758). She went to a women’s academy, married a minister, had six children, and settled into life as a minister’s wife. She was almost 40 years old when she wrote an epistolary novel called The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797). Foster did not put her name on the novel — it was attributed to “A Lady of Massachusetts.”

The Coquette was a huge success. It was one of the best-selling novels of 18th-century America, and its popularity continued well into the 19th century — it was reprinted eight times between the years 1824 and 1828. Hannah Foster died in 1840, and it wasn’t until 1866 that her name was printed on the book.

The story of Eliza Wharton was based heavily on the true story of Elizabeth Whitman. Whitman was a beautiful, spirited, and accomplished minister’s daughter from a well-known family. She became pregnant out of wedlock and died after giving birth to a stillborn child at a roadside tavern, lonely and abandoned. Elizabeth Whitman was a distant relative of Hannah Foster’s husband. The man who supposedly impregnated her was Pierpont Edwards, son of the famous preacher and theologian John Edwards, who started the Great Awakening movement and delivered the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Naturally, all of New England was fascinated by the story, and Foster capitalized on the gossip by turning it into a novel. Elizabeth Whitman became Eliza Wharton, and Pierpont Evans became Major Peter Sanford, the dashing man who steals Eliza away from the boring but safe Reverend Boyer.

The Coquette opens with a letter from Eliza to her friend Miss Lucy Freeman: “An unusual sensation possesses my breast; a sensation, which I once thought could never pervade it on any occasion whatever. It is pleasure; pleasure, my dear Lucy, on leaving my paternal roof! Could you have believed that the darling child of an indulgent and dearly beloved mother would feel a gleam of joy at leaving her? But so it is.”

It’s the birthday of evolutionary biologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould (books by this author), born in Queens, New York, on this day in 1941, the son of an artist and a court reporter. He’s known for his essays on natural history and for explaining really complicated scientific theories in a way that most people can understand them. He’s the author of about a dozen volumes of essays subtitled “Reflections in Natural History,” including The Panda’s Thumb (1980), Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (1983), The Flamingo’s Smile (1985), Bully for Brontosaurus (1991), and Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995). He campaigned against the teaching of creationism, but wasn’t anti-religious. Gould once said, “If there is any consistent enemy of science, it is not religion, but irrationalism.”

He argued that science and religion shouldn’t be viewed as opposed to each other, but simply distinct from each other: non-overlapping disciplines that shouldn’t be used to try to explain aspects of the other. The National Academy of Sciences adopted his stance, saying officially a decade ago: “Demanding that they [religion and science] be combined detracts from the glory of each.”

Among his best-known works are the treatises The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Full House (1996), and Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1998). He taught at Harvard for most of his life, and later at NYU.

He said, “Science is not a heartless pursuit of objective information; it is a creative human activity.”

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