Sunday Jan. 22, 2017

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Having Confessed

Having confessed he feels
That he should go down on his knees and pray
For forgiveness for his pride, for having
Dared to view his soul from the outside.
Lie at the heart of the emotion, time
Has its own work to do. We must not anticipate
Or awaken for a moment. God cannot catch us
Unless we stay in the unconscious room
Of our hearts. We must be nothing,
Nothing that God may make us something.
We must not touch the immortal material
We must not daydream to-morrow’s judgement—
God must be allowed to surprise us.
We have sinned, sinned like Lucifer
By this anticipation. Let us lie down again
Deep in anonymous humility and God
May find us worthy material for His hand.

“Having Confessed” by Patrick Kavanagh from Collected Poems. © Penguin Classics, 2005. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of poet Lord Byron (books by this author), born George Gordon Byron in London (1788). In 1812, he published two cantos of his first major work, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. One of his contemporaries wrote: “The effect was electric: his fame had not to wait for any of the ordinary gradations, but seemed to spring up like the palace of a fairy tale — in a night.” As Byron himself put it: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”

He embraced his celebrity lifestyle. He traveled all over Europe and the Middle East. He had a number of widely publicized affairs, and he claimed that during the two years he lived in Venice, he slept with more than 200 women. He collected exotic animals; his friend Percy Shelley wrote: “Lord B’s establishment consists, besides servants, of 10 horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels as if they were masters of it. […] Later I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean palace was defective, I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens and an Egyptian crane.”

It was on this day in 1953 that Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible opened on Broadway. The Crucible is the story of the Salem witch trials in 17th-century Massachusetts, but Miller deliberately wrote the play at a time when Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy was blacklisting people for their ties to Communism. Miller wanted to write a play about the Red Scare, but he wasn’t sure how to do it. Then he read a two-volume, 1,000-page book on the Salem witch trials, published in 1867. He realized that this would be the perfect plot to indirectly comment on the politics of the McCarthy era. But he still wasn’t sure how to approach the play.

On a gray spring day in 1952, Miller visited Salem. The once-vibrant town was mostly abandoned. He went into the courthouse and read through all the primary documents from the witch trials. He found a description of how one of the main accusers in the trial, an orphaned girl named Abigail Williams, seemed to hesitate as she accused a woman named Elizabeth Proctor. The man who had taken a transcript of the trial wrote: “Abigail’s hand came near, it opened, whereas it was made up, into a fist before, and came down exceeding lightly as it drew near to said Procter, and at length, with open and extended fingers, touched Procter’s hood very lightly. Immediately Abigail cried out her fingers, her fingers, her fingers burned.”

Today is the 80th birthday of author Joseph Wambaugh (books by this author), born in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1937). Wambaugh joined the Marines right after he graduated from high school. He served for three years, and then he went to college on the GI Bill. He majored in English, and planned to become an English teacher.

But then he found out that officers with the Los Angeles Police Department made more money than teachers, and had better benefits. His father had been a cop, so Wambaugh had some idea of what it entailed, and the excitement of the job appealed to him, so — on a whim — he decided to take the exams to join the LAPD in 1960. He was still interested in literature, so he continued to take college classes when he was off duty, and eventually earned a master’s degree in English and Spanish. He wrote in his spare time, and no one except his wife, Dee, knew — until he published his first crime novel, The New Centurions, in 1971.

He was able to continue his double life as cop and author for a few years, but by the time he had three best-sellers, he was so well known that people would call in fake crimes and ask for him to investigate, just so they could meet him. He became recognizable from his appearance on TV talk shows, and his fame began to hamper his colleagues’ police work. He retired from the LAPD in 1974.

Wambaugh’s police work inspired his novels and provided material for several true-crime books, including The Onion Field (1973). He revolutionized the crime genre by portraying cops as flawed, fallible, and sometimes frightened human beings. “The cops in my books have been called brutal, racist, cheating, fornicating bastards [but] all they are, in the end, is people. What the hell does anybody expect?” Wambaugh once said.

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