Monday May 8, 2017

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As soon as the snow melts the grass begins to grow. Even
though the daytime high is barely above freezing, even
though May is very like November, marsh marigolds bloom
in the swamp and the popple trees produce a faint green
that hangs under the low clouds like a haze over the valley.
This is the way the saints live, no complaints, no suspicion,
no surprise. If it rains, carry an umbrella, if it’s cold, wear
a jacket.

“Saints” by Louis Jenkins from Just Above Water. © Holy Cow! Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Edmund Wilson (books by this author), born in Red Bank, New Jersey (1895). He is generally considered one of the greatest American man of letters of the 20th century, though he published almost all of his work in popular magazines. He never took a teaching position and rarely gave lectures.

He went to communist Russia and learned both Russian and German to write about the history of socialism in his book To the Finland Station (1940). He wrote about Russian poetry, Haitian literature, the Hebrew language, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the literature produced during the American Civil War.

Wilson introduced Americans to writers like James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Vladimir Nabokov. He almost single-handedly resurrected the reputation of the novelist Henry James, who had been forgotten for years. He championed new writers like Ernest Hemingway, and it was Wilson who persuaded American readers that F. Scott Fitzgerald had been a genius, and that The Great Gatsby was an American classic.

Wilson said, “If I could only remember that the days were, not bricks to be laid row on row, to be built into a solid house, where one might dwell in safety and peace, but only food for the fires of the heart.”

And: “No two persons ever read the same book.”

Today is believed to be the birthday of poet Phillis Wheatley (books by this author), born in West Africa, most likely in Senegal or Gambia (1753). She was kidnapped and put on a slave ship, the Phillis, when she was eight years old. She ended up at a slave auction in Boston, where John Wheatley, a prominent tailor, bought her as a personal servant for his wife, Susanna. She was slender, frail, and asthmatic, and the captain believed she was terminally ill, so he sold her at a greatly reduced price.

The Wheatleys named her Phillis after the ship that had brought her to Boston, and she took their last name, as was customary. It soon became apparent that the child was exceptionally bright, so she was taught to read and write by the older Wheatley children. She mastered English in two years and went on to learn Latin and Greek, and translated a story by Ovid. She studied astronomy, geography, history, and British literature — especially John Milton and Alexander Pope. She began writing poetry as a teenager, and the first poem she wrote was probably “To the University of Cambridge in New England” — although she didn’t publish it until she was older. She published her first poem in a Rhode Island newspaper when she was 13; that was “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” (1767). But it was “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine … George Whitefield” (1770) that brought her wide renown.

In 1772, Wheatley appeared in court to prove that she really was the author of her poems. She was examined by 17 Boston men, who then signed an affidavit that was included in the preface for her first and only book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). No one in Boston would publish her book, so she went to London in 1773, escorted by the Wheatleys’ son Nathaniel. With the help of Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, she found a publisher there.

English friends appealed to John and Susanna Wheatley to grant Phillis her freedom, and she was manumitted in 1778.

She was an admirer of George Washington and the fight for American independence from Great Britain. She wrote several poems in Washington’s honor and he invited her to his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1776. But she rarely wrote about herself, or her childhood in Africa, or her life as a slave. The most notable exception was “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” which includes the lines “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.”

In 1778, she married John Peters, a free black man from Boston. They had three children together, but two died in infancy and the third, a son, was a sickly baby. They were terribly short of money, and Wheatley worked as a scullery maid in a boarding house. It was hard work under poor conditions, unlike the relatively easy life she had had the Wheatleys. One Wheatley relative remarked: “The woman who had stood honored and respected in the presence of the wise and good … was numbering the last hours of life in a state of the most abject misery, surrounded by all the emblems of a squalid poverty!” In 1784, her husband was thrown in jail for debt. Phillis Wheatley, whose health had always been poor, died in poverty, followed just a few hours later by their baby son.

It’s the birthday of the American poet, essayist, and translator who once said, “Poetry gives you permission to say any kind of language, using any kind of grammar.” That’s Gary Snyder (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1930). He is a practicing Buddhist and an environmental activist. He writes most often about spirituality and the environment. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti once called Snyder “The Thoreau of the Beat Generation.”

Gary Snyder grew up in King County, in Western Washington. It was just after the Great Depression and his family owned farm with dairy cows, hens, and an orchard, so Snyder worked hard every day. As a teen, his family moved around a lot, but he found a home in books and fell in love with D.H. Lawrence. He worked as a camp counselor and a mountaineer for a time and refers to his early attempts at writing poetry as, “Phase One: romantic teenage poetry about girls and mountains.”

In the 1950s, he was captivated by the Beat poets in San Francisco for a time and became good friends with Jack Kerouac, who would later become famous for his coming-of-age novel, On the Road (1957). Kerouac and Snyder lived together in a cabin in Mill Valley, California, for several months. The character of Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums (1958) was loosely based on Snyder.

Snyder wasn’t long for the San Francisco scene, which was quickly turning hedonistic. He said: “I’ll just say that I am grateful that I came to meet with peyote, psilocybin, LSD, and other hallucinogens in a respectful and modest frame of mind. I was suitably impressed by their powers, I was scared a few times, I learned a whole lot, and I quit when I was ahead.”

He sailed for Japan, where he spent the next several years living on a small volcanic island called Suwanosejima in the East China Sea, along with several other people. They fished, hunted for food, and meditated daily.

Snyder also began exploring Buddhism. His dharma name is “Chofu,” which means, “Listen to the Wind.” He ended up spending more than a decade in Japan studying Buddhism and living in monasteries. Sometimes, because the monastery had no books, he would leave the monastery for a few months and rent an apartment nearby, just so he could catch up on reading and writing poetry. He made ends meet by teaching conversational English and by taking jobs on oil tankers.

On what Buddhism has taught him about poetry, he says, “Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dip stick, don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.”

He said, "As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the Neolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe."

And he said, "True affluence is not needing anything."

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