Sunday Nov. 6, 2016

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Wet Autumn

Early morning, everything damp all through.
Cars go by. A ripping sound of tires through water.
For two days the air
Has smelled like salamanders.
The little lake on the edge of town hidden in fog,
Its cattails and island gone.
All through the gloom of the dark week
Bright leaves have been dropping
From black trees
Until heaps of color lie piled everywhere
In the falling rain.

“Wet Autumn” by Tom Hennen from Darkness Sticks to Everything. © Copper Canyon Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

In 1860 on this day, Abraham Lincoln was elected president with an 82 percent voter turnout. Lincoln had dinner that evening in Springfield, Illinois, and then went to the telegraph office in town to wait for word from each of the states. At about two in the morning, he heard that he had won New York, which made his election certain. He later wrote, “I went home, but not to get much sleep, for I then felt as I never had before the responsibility that was upon me.” He had won the election with less than 40 percent of the popular ballot, and not one single vote in 10 of the Southern states.

It’s the birthday of the March King, John Philip Sousa, born in Washington, D.C. (1854). His father was a U.S. Marine Band trombonist, and he signed John up as an apprentice to the band after the boy tried to run away from home to join the circus. By the time he was 13 years old, Sousa could play violin, piano, flute, cornet, baritone, trombone, and was a pretty good singer too. At 26, he was leading the Marine Band and writing the first of his 136 marches, including “Semper Fidelis,” which became the official march of the Corps, and “The Washington Post March.” In addition to those marches, he wrote nearly a dozen light operas, and as many waltzes too; and he wrote three novels. But he’s best known for “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

It’s the birthday of American poet Anne Porter (1911) (books by this author), who lived most of her life as the wife of painter Fairfield Porter, raising five children and sitting patiently for his portraits. At the age of 83, after Fairfield Porter’s death, she published her very first collection of poetry. It was nominated for a National Book Award.

Anne Porter was born and raised in the countryside of Sherborn, Massachusetts. Her mother loved to read poetry aloud to her children. Porter said her mother “gave us the idea that poetry was perfectly natural.” Porter published poems in Poetry magazine and wrote avidly at Bryn Mawr and Radcliffe Colleges, but she mostly stopped writing when she married Fairfield Porter. One of the last poems she wrote was called “Lovers” and she composed it just after a camping trip she took with Fairfield; they’d decided they were in love. She wrote: “I can still feel your hand/ Holding my hand/ That day/ When human, quarrelsome/ But stronger/ Than death or anger/ A love began.”

Porter had five children with her husband. They were active in the New York art scene of the ’40s and ’50s, and she even had a starring role in artist Rudy Burckhardt’s silent film A Day in the Life of a Cleaning Woman (1953). Fairfield Porter preferred to paint Anne doing domestic things, like the dishes, or holding one of their children. She always knew the paintings weren’t really about her. She said, “I remember once having to leave while he was painting my feet, so I slipped out of my shoes and left them there for him to paint while I went away.”

After his death, she realized how alone she was, and began to rifle through her old notebooks, rereading uncompleted poems. She even bought a book called Getting Organized and dutifully arranged her drafts, brought out her Olivetti typewriter, and began rewriting. She revised, crossed out, and coated her poems in Wite-Out, which amused her friends. One of them, fellow poet David Shapiro, secretly submitted her poems to a press, which promptly accepted them. Anne Porter’s first book, An Altogether Different Language, was published (1994) when she was 83 years old.

It’s the birthday of Harold Ross (1892), a miner’s son born in Aspen, Colorado, who later founded The New Yorker, the seminal arts and literary magazine.

Ross could be elusive about his personal life; when the Saturday Evening Post asked him for a biography, he responded by writing a seven-sentence letter that began with “I was born in Aspen, Colorado” and ended with “I knew this subject would come up sometime.” Aspen was a mining town during Ross’s childhood, and Ross helped the family by delivering beer and groceries to the red-light district.

Ross liked to read, and to tell jokes, and he especially liked to read the newspaper. When he was 13, he ran away from home to an uncle in Denver and worked for the Denver Post. Eventually, he returned to Aspen and his family, but not to school. Instead, he began to find work, first as a stringer and later as an editor, for newspapers in cities like San Francisco, New Orleans, and Atlanta.

When World War I began, Ross found himself in France. He was once described as looking like “a dishonest Abe Lincoln,” with coarse, stiff hair that rose three inches off his head. He was rejected for Officer Training because of his habit of swearing, so he hiked 150 miles to Paris to apply for a job as the editor for Stars and Stripes, the U.S. serviceman’s newspaper. He made $38 a month.

Back in the United States, he toiled on humor magazines like Judge and for the veteran’s magazine The Home Sector, but he was also toying with the idea of starting his own magazine, one that would reflect the cosmopolitan lifestyle and intelligence of New York City. Ross was a sometime member of “The Vicious Circle,” a group of wits and writers who gathered regularly at the Algonquin Bar in Manhattan. There he met writers Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker and broached the idea for a weekly magazine he might call either “Our Town” or “Manhattan.”

Parker called Ross “a professional lunatic,” and writer Ben Hecht was skeptical too. He said, “How the hell could a man who looked like a resident of the Ozarks and talked like a saloon brawler set himself up as the pilot of a sophisticated, elegant periodical?”

Ross persevered and the first issue of The New Yorker debuted on February 21, 1925. From the start, Ross was determined not to have a regular, dry weekly. He once scoffed, “Who reads Fortune Magazine? Dentists.” Indeed, the first issue of magazine declared, “The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” During his time at Stars and Stripes, Ross had learned that a weekly couldn’t compete with a daily for hot news, so he devised a magazine that relied on long features, personality profiles, and behind-the-scenes stories. The New Yorker became famous for its witty cartoons, and its “Talk of the Town” and “Letter from Paris” features.

Harold Ross told his writers, “If you can’t be funny, be interesting,” and he was famous for his obsessive editing. When one piece mentioned two characters chatting beside a fireplace, he wrote in the margins, “Which side?”

Ross worked 10 hours a day, every day of the week, editing each issue: 1,399 issues in all, until his death, which cost him three marriages.

When New Yorker writer and editor James Thurber asked him if it was worth it, Ross replied, “I’m married to this magazine. It’s all I think about.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®