Wednesday May 25, 2016

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My Papa’s Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. © University of Washington Press, 1982. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the man who said, “Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air.” That’s Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author), born in Boston (1803). His father, who died when Ralph was eight, was a Unitarian minister, as were many of Emerson’s family members before him. He was a quiet and well-behaved young man, not an exceptional student. He graduated in the middle of his class, studied at Harvard Divinity School, and got a job as a ministerial assistant at Boston’s Second Church. Not long after his ordination, he was married. He was happy at home and in his work, and soon he was promoted to senior pastor.

Two years after Emerson was married, his wife, Ellen, died of tuberculosis, at the age of 19. He was devastated. He began to have doubts about the Church. A year after Ellen’s death, he wrote in his journal: “I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers.” He took a leave of absence and went on vacation in the mountains of New Hampshire. By the time he returned, he had decided to resign from his position as minister.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

On this date in the year 240 B.C.E., Chinese astronomers noted the earliest recorded sighting of Halley’s comet at perihelion — its closest approach to the sun. Of course, it wasn’t called Halley’s comet then; it wasn’t given that name until the 18th century, when English astronomer Edmond Halley first speculated that similar comets observed in 1531, 1607, and 1682 were probably actually the same comet, returning at regular intervals. He predicted its return, and though he didn’t live to see it, his prediction was correct: the comet returned on Christmas Day, 1758 — the year he had predicted.

Counting back through the years based on Halley’s computation, researchers deduced that the comet described in the Shih Chi and Wen Hsien Thung Khao chronicles must have been the same one. It was recorded again in 164 B.C.E. and 87 B.C.E., on Babylonian clay tablets. Its most famous appearance was probably in 1066, just a few months before the Norman Invasion of England. And the comet curiously bracketed Mark Twain’s life: it appeared in 1835, the year Twain was born. In 1909, he said: “I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.” He died on April 21, 1910, one day after the comet reached perihelion.

Halley’s comet has appeared in some famous works of art through the ages. It is portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry, woven in the 11th century. It also appears as the Star of Bethlehem in Giotto’s The Adoration of the Magi, painted in 1305.

It’s the birthday of poet Theodore Roethke (books by this author), born in Saginaw, Michigan (1908). He kept dozens of notebooks with thoughts and lines of verse in them; his pockets were always filled with notes about snatches of conversations that he had heard. He was an immensely popular teacher at various colleges, including Penn State, Bennington, and the University of Washington. His works include The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), Praise to the End! (1951), and I Am! Says the Lamb (1961). He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for his poetry collection The Waking.

He said: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.”

It’s the birthday of American short-story writer and novelist Raymond Carver (1938) (books by this author), born in Clatskanie, Oregon, and raised in Yakima, Washington. Carver was the son of a sawmill worker and a waitress. His father was a heavy drinker and his mother suffered from “nerves.” They were poor, but Carver’s memories were mostly happy: his nickname was “Frog,” he loved fishing and hunting, listening to his father read Zane Grey novels aloud, and reading Mickey Spillane and Outdoor Life magazine.

He married right out of high school, had two kids, and worked as a deliveryman, library assistant, and sawmill laborer. He started writing, too, first at community college, and then later at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he got a fellowship. It was too hard to make ends meet, though, and he and his family moved back to California, where he got a job as night janitor at a hospital. He could finish all his duties in the first hour, so he spent the rest of his shift writing.

He was writing stories about the hardscrabble world he was living in: people who worried their old cars wouldn’t start or that they wouldn’t have enough money for rent. His stories were stripped down and minimal in language; his characters didn’t have the words to express themselves. Carver said: “I’m a paid-in-full member of the working poor. I have a great deal of sympathy with them. They’re my people.” He didn’t mind putting bits and pieces of his real life into his work. He said, “A little autobiography and a lot of imagination is best.”

He got his big break in 1967, when his story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” was published in the Best American Short Stories anthology. Carver was so excited he fell asleep holding the book.

That story became the title of his first collection in 1976. By then he was drinking heavily and his life was in ruins. It wasn’t until he joined AA and sobered up that his life began to improve. His next collections, Cathedral (1984) and Where I’m Calling From (1988), made his name. He also published several collections of poetry, including Near Klamath (1968) and Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985).

On writing fiction, Raymond Carver said: “It just has to be there for the fierce pleasure we take in doing it. Something that throws off these sparks — a persistent and steady glow, however dim.”

It’s the birthday of writer Jamaica Kincaid (1949) (books by this author), best known for her trenchant, sometimes vitriolic writing on the effects of colonization and corruption in the Caribbean, particularly her birthplace of Antigua. She was born Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John’s, Antigua, a small island colonized by the British in 1622. Antigua didn’t achieve independence until 1981, and though Kincaid received a colonial education, studying the Bible and reading Paradise Lost by John Milton, she was a girl, and a poor one at that, so her prospects were very narrow. Kincaid grew up without electricity, running water, or plumbing, but her mother gave her an Oxford English Dictionary for her seventh birthday, and words became her solace.

Starting when she was nine years old, her mother gave birth to three boys in quick succession, an event that left Kincaid bitter and confused. Boys were more valued than girls in Caribbean society and though she was bright, Kincaid said, “I never heard anybody say that I was going to be anything except maybe a nurse. There was no huge future for me.”

Her mother was busy with the babies and her stepfather was ill. At 16, her mother pulled her from school so she could work to help support the family. Soon after that, her mother sent her to the United States to work as an au pair in Scarsdale. Kincaid was so angry that she refused to send money back to Antigua and did not open her mother’s letters. She said, “The way I became a writer was the my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me.”

As an au pair, she took evening classes at a community college and soon moved to New York City, where she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid, explaining that it was a way “to do things without being the same person who couldn’t do them — the same person who had all these weights.” She wrote for The Village Voice and Ingenue and soon found herself writing “Talk of the Town” features for The New Yorker, which she did for nine years. There were strict rules about the “Talk of the Town” pieces: they couldn’t discuss sex, or use curse words, for instance. Kincaid reveled in the work, though: she wrote about the West Indian American Day carnival, comedian Richard Pryor, and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt. Those essays were collected in the book Talk Stories (2002).

Kincaid’s first novel, Annie John, was published in 1985. It had first been serialized in The New Yorker. Annie John is the coming-of-age story of a young girl in Antigua. When asked about the similarities between her upbringing and Annie John’s, Kincaid shrugged, saying, “I write about myself for the most part, and about things that have happened to me.” She continued to mine her own experiences in her second novel, Lucy (1990), and in her book The Autobiography of My Mother (1996). See Now Then (2013), her fifth novel, is about a bitter marriage in which the husband leaves his wife for a younger woman, a musician. In real life, Kincaid’s husband, Allen Shawn, left her for a younger woman, a musician. Kincaid says: “Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true. You couldn’t admit to any of it in a court of law. It would not be good evidence.”

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