So much gloom and doubt in our poetry—
flowers wilting on the table,
the self regarding itself in a watery mirror.
Dead leaves cover the ground,
the wind moans in the chimney,
and the tendrils of the yew tree inch toward the coffin.
I wonder what the ancient Chinese poets
would make of all this,
these shadows and empty cupboards?
Today, with the sun blazing in the trees,
my thoughts turn to the great
tenth-century celebrator of experience,
Wa-Hoo, whose delight in the smallest things
could hardly be restrained,
and to his joyous counterpart in the western provinces,
“Despair” by Billy Collins from Ballistics. © Random House, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the 75th birthday of Bob Dylan (books by this author), born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota (1941). He grew up in the nearby mining town of Hibbing, just off Highway 61, the road that ran all the way up from New Orleans and inspired the name of his sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited (1965). He got his first guitar at the age of 14, and joined his first rock and roll band in high school. After he graduated, he moved down to Minneapolis and studied art at the University of Minnesota. He kept up with his music, but he soon left rock behind in favor of folk. He later said: “I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.” He would often perform at a coffeehouse, the Ten O’clock Scholar, in the Dinkytown neighborhood near campus. He left Dinkytown for New York because he wanted to meet his idol, Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was hospitalized with Huntington’s Disease, and Dylan visited him often. He also became the new darling of Greenwich Village’s folk community. He released his first album — called simply Bob Dylan — in 1962. In 1963, he became romantically involved with fellow folk singer Joan Baez, who was already famous in the protest movement. He wrote some of her biggest hits, and she gave him a built-in audience at her shows. By 1964, he was playing 200 concerts a year.
By the mid-1960s, he’d gone electric, forsaking folk and returning to his rock roots. His fans were shocked; they booed him at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Since then, he has dabbled in country, blues, jazz, and spirituals too. His lyrics evolved away from protest songs, and he drew inspiration from literary giants like Arthur Rimbaud, John Keats, and Dylan Thomas — the inspiration for his name change. His were the first rock lyrics to be viewed as literature, and they are sometimes studied as poetry in college classrooms. In the liner notes for his second studio album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), he acknowledged that the line between lyrics and poetry is sometimes blurry: “Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem.”
In 1966, a motorcycle accident forced him into seclusion for nine months. When he returned to the spotlight, his new work was mellower. In 1979, he announced that he was a born-again Christian, and his gospel album Slow Train Coming was a commercial hit. It also earned him his first Grammy Award. Bruce Springsteen gave the speech to induct Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ten years later, in 1989. Springsteen said, “Bob freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body [...] He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and changed the face of rock and roll forever.”
Dylan has even found his way into medical literature, but not in any way you might expect. Five Swedish scientists have had a running contest for many years: they are competing to see who can work the most Bob Dylan references into their writing. It started with an article about intestinal gas, titled “Nitric Oxide and Inflammation: The answer is blowing in the wind.” The article’s co-author, Eddie Weitzberg, explained, “We both really liked Bob Dylan and we thought the quotes really fitted nicely with what we were trying to achieve with the title.”
It was recently reported that Amazon.com is planning a new hour-long drama series for its video streaming service. Called Time Out of Mind after Dylan’s 1997 album, the series will be set in the 1960s and ‘70s, and will be based on lyrics, characters, and scenarios from the full catalog of Dylan’s more than 600 songs. And the producers of the famous Coachella music festival in Indio, California, have announced that Dylan will appear at a three-day mega-festival this fall. The festival also features Neil Young, Roger Waters, Paul McCartney, and the Rolling Stones.
On this day in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to traffic. It took fourteen years to build and twenty-seven workers died during construction, including the bridge’s designer and engineer, John Roebling, whose toes were smashed by a boat while he was doing measurements. He died three weeks late of tetanus. His son, Washington Roebling, took over the project, but he developed compression sickness, or “the bends” while underwater checking cables. He was bedridden for the rest of construction and his wife, Emily, took his instructions to workers and oversaw the completion of the bridge.
The Brooklyn Bridge spans 1,595 feet over the East River. It was the largest steel suspension bridge built to that date and connected the cities of New York and Brooklyn for the first time. Previously, you had to take a boat or ferry between the cities.
President Chester A. Arthur and Govenor Grover Cleveland presided over the ceremonies, which included fireworks, celebratory cannon fire, a military band, and attachment troops. Emily Roebling was given the first ride over the bridge. She held a rooster in her lap, the symbol of victory.
It’s estimated that within 24 hours, more than 250,000 people had crossed the bridge using the specially designed pedestrian promenade, which cost one cent to use. Images of the Brooklyn Bridge have been used to sell everything from Vaseline to vodka and even Italian chewing gum.
It’s the birthday of poet Joseph Brodsky (books by this author), born in St. Petersburg, Russia (1940). His father was a naval officer who got kicked out of the service for being Jewish, so the family lived in poverty. Joseph started writing poetry when he was 15, but in 1963 — when he was 23 — a Russian newspaper declared that his poetry was “pornographic and anti-Soviet.” The authorities were worried because he was becoming so popular and his readings were attracting large, enthusiastic crowds. He was interrogated, he was put in a mental institution, and then he was arrested. The authorities couldn’t actually find anything wrong with his poetry, so they arrested him on the charge of “social parasitism,” called him “a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers,” and accused him of not doing any honest work that would make Russia a better place. His trial was in secret, but the transcript was smuggled out, and his defense of the right to be a poet made him a hero, especially in the United States and Europe. He was sentenced to five years in a labor camp in Siberia, but there was so much protest that his sentence was commuted after a year and a half. For the next few years he continued to write, but he was harassed and finally expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972.
He went to Austria, where the poet W.H. Auden took Brodsky under his wing and helped set him up with a teaching position at the University of Michigan. From there, he went on to teach at Queens College and Mount Holyoke. He liked to speed around campus in an old Mercedes, and he would interrupt people during conversations to jot down notes on little pieces of paper.
He published poems, plays, and essays, including A Part of Speech (1977), Less Than One (1986), and To Urania (1988). In 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—his response was, “A big step for me, a small step for mankind.” Four years later, he became the Poet Laureate of the United States. He died in 1996 at age 55.
He said, “After all, it is hard to master both life and work equally well. So if you are bound to fake one of them, it had better be life.”
And, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
It’s the birthday of American novelist Michael Chabon (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1963).
He published his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), when he was just 25. It was his master’s thesis at the University of California-Irvine and his professor sent it to a literary agent without telling him. Chabon got a big advance and the book was a surprise best-seller. As a young writer, he read a lot of John Updike, Philip Roth, and Jorge Luis Borges. He said, “I just copied the writers whose voices I was responding to, and I think that’s probably the best way to learn.”
Michael Chabon is the author of Wonder Boys (1995), The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007), and Telegraph Avenue (2012). He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), an epic historical novel that spans 16 years in the lives of two Jewish cousins who create a popular comic book series in the 1940s. His newest book, Moonglow, will be published in the fall of 2016.
Chabon writes from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. every day, Sunday through Thursday, at least 1000 words a day. About writing, he says, “There have been plenty of self-destructive rebel-angel novelists over the years, but writing is about getting your work done every day. If you want to write novels, they take a long time, and they’re big, and they have a lot of words in them. The best environment, at least for me, is a very stable, structured kind of life.”