Archives for category: Literature

Happy birthday, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

When I was a student at Wellesley College, I would sometimes take solitary walks around Lake Waban and think deep thoughts. As I walked, trampling the leaves, I would often recite out loud Gerard Manley Hopkins’ beautiful poem, “Spring and Fall to a Young Child.”

This description of Hopkins appeared on Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac.” Today is a big day, because it is also the birthday of Beatrix Potter (“The Tale of Peter Rabbit”), Jacqueline Kennedy, Karl Popper, and Earl Tupper, the inventor of Tupperware.

Today is the birthday of English poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844) (books by this author), born in Stratford, Essex. He won a poetry prize in grammar school and then received a grant to study at Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied Classics and continued to write poetry. His academic record was outstanding, earning him the approbation of one of his masters, who called him “the star of Balliol.”

While he was at Oxford, Hopkins (who had been raised in the Anglican Church) converted to Roman Catholicism. His experience was so profound that he decided to become a Jesuit priest in 1868, and he burned all his poetry, feeling it was not befitting his profession as a clergyman. He did continue to keep a journal, however, and in 1875, he returned to poetry. He was living in Wales, and found its landscape and its language inspirational. When five Franciscan nuns died in a shipwreck, he was moved to write a long poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland.

Once he was ordained in 1877, he worked as a parish priest in the slums of Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow. He lived in Dublin from 1884 until his death of typhoid fever in 1889. Overworked, exhausted, and unwell, he wasn’t happy there, and his poetry reflects his unhappiness. Called the “terrible sonnets,” they show the poet’s struggles with spiritual and artistic matters.

Most of his poetry wasn’t published in his lifetime, and it was so innovative that most people who did get to read it didn’t understand it. As he wrote in a letter to Burns, “No doubt, my poetry errs on the side of oddness …” But it influenced such 20th-century poets as W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Charles Wright.

Here is one of my favorite poems, “Spring and Fall to a Young Child”:

Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

This tribute appeared on Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac.”

Today is the birthday of English author Aldous Huxley (books by this author), born in Godalming, Surrey (1894). He was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, a scientist and man of letters who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his defense of the theory of evolution. Huxley wrote a few novels that satirized English literary society, and these established him as a writer; it was his fifth book, Brave New World (1932), which arose out of his distrust of 20th-century politics and technology, for which he is most remembered. Huxley started out intending to write a parody of H.G. Wells’ utopian novel Men Like Gods (1923). He ended by envisioning a future where society functions like one of Henry Ford’s assembly lines: a mass-produced culture in which people are fed a steady diet of bland amusements and take an antidepressant called soma to keep themselves from feeling anything negative.

Brave New World is often compared with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), since they each offer a view of a dystopian future. Cultural critic Neil Postman spelled out the difference in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. … In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”

 

This appeared today in Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac”:

 

J.D. Salinger‘s novel The Catcher in the Rye was published on this date in 1951 (books by this author). The novel begins, “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Salinger had thought about Holden Caulfield for years. He carried six Caulfield stories with him when he went off to fight in World War II. The stories were with Salinger on the beach at Normandy and in the hours he spent with Ernest Hemingway in Paris. By the time Salinger began to assemble the novel The Catcher in the Rye, he had nine stories about Holden and his family.

When he finished the manuscript, Salinger sent it to publisher Robert Giroux at Harcourt, Brace. Giroux was impressed with the book, and was pleased to be its editor, but he never thought it would be a best-seller. Giroux sent the book to his boss, Eugene Reynal. Reynal didn’t really get it, and sent it to a textbook editor for his opinion, since it was about a prep-school boy. The textbook editor didn’t like it, so Harcourt, Brace would not publish it. Rival house Little, Brown picked it up right away, and Robert Giroux quit his job and went to work for Farrar, Strauss instead.

Reviewers called the book “brilliant,” “funny,” and “meaningful.” Salinger couldn’t cope with the amount of publicity and celebrity the book gave him. He moved to a hilltop home in New Hampshire and lived the rest of his life in seclusion. Many directors approached Salinger over the years, hoping to obtain the movie rights, and Salinger turned them all down.

I chose to include this link on my birthday because it gave me an hour of aesthetic joy, following its links.

Maria Popova is a Bulgarian-born polymath who lives in Brooklyn and reads voraciously with deep understanding and love of knowledge.

On June 26, she wrote about the artist Keith Haring and his love of life and art, and how his art inspired her and others, and how his life demonstrated “the courage to be yourself.”

As I began reading, I started opening links, one of which sent me to her archive (not easy to find), and I was soon reading about Mary Wollstonecraft, the world’s first radical feminist, who died giving birth to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, who survived the death of three of her children and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Reading Maria Popova is sheer bliss and an invitation to share her joy of reading. I signed up to send her a small monthly gift, to sustain her as she pursues knowledge and shares its fruits.

Garrison Keillor writes today in “A Writer’s Almanac” about Saul Bellow:

It’s the birthday of Saul Bellow, (books by this author) born Solomon Bellows in Lachine, Quebec, in 1915, two years after his parents emigrated from Russia. He was born in Canada, but when he was young he was smuggled across the border into Chicago, and so he grew up as an illegal immigrant. His dad was an onion importer and a bootlegger. His mom was religious, and she hoped he would be a rabbi or maybe a concert pianist. But when he was eight years old, he read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and he decided he would become a writer.

He wrote two novels that didn’t sell very well. But then he won a Guggenheim Fellowship and moved to Paris to write. And while he was there, he realized how much he loved Chicago.

So he started a new novel whose opening lines are: “I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.” That was The Adventures of Augie March (1953),which became his first real success and won the National Book Award. He continued writing plays, nonfiction, and more novels, including Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), and Humboldt’s Gift (1975).

He said, “In expressing love we belong among the undeveloped countries.” And, “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” And, “I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.'”

LINK CORRECTED!

Over the past few weeks, Peter Greene has written several articles on the subject of “Why Teach Literature?”

He writes faster than I can post, so I am far behind.

Greene includes all of the articles in this series.

Now you can read them all in one sitting!

On his daily “The Writer’s Almanac,” Garrison Keillor recognizes two important historical birthdays today. I must have read every Edward Lear poem and limerick to my children. His writings gave them a love of language and wordplay, which I believe is a firm foundation for learning..


Today is the birthday of the poet and artist Edward Lear (books by this author) who wrote lots of limericks and nonsense verse, including “The Owl and the Pussycat.” He was born in London in 1812. He was the 20th of 21 children, about half of whom died in infancy. Lear himself survived to the age of 75, but he suffered epileptic seizures and was prone to fits of deep depression, which he dubbed “the Morbids.”

He began selling his drawings when he was 16, and later found work as a drawing teacher, and a sign painter, and an illustrator of medical textbooks. He was hired by the London Zoological Society to produce a series of bird paintings, and he insisted on only painting from live specimens, not stuffed dead birds. His paintings impressed Edward Stanley, the Earl of Derby, so much that Stanley asked Lear to come and document the animals in the private zoo he kept on his estate. Lear lived at Knowsley Hall for four years on and off, working on the paintings, which were eventually published in the book Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall (1846). He also befriended the Earl’s grandchildren and began writing poetry for them including “The Owl and the Pussycat.”

It’s the birthday of Florence Nightingale, born in Florence, Italy, to a wealthy English family (1820). Her parents didn’t have any sons, and they gave her advantages that would have gone to a son, though they still expected her to marry and be a wife and mother. When she was 25, Nightingale told her parents that she wanted to become a nurse. Since nursing was a working-class occupation, her parents were horrified, but she believed she had been given a purpose by God.

In London, Nightingale met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America. Blackwell encouraged and inspired her, and she finally obtained her father’s permission to study nursing when she was 31. And in 1854, with the British Army crippled by outbreaks of typhus, cholera, and dysentery during the Crimean War, she took a group of 38 nurses to Turkey. She became known as “the lady with the lamp,” because she would quietly make her rounds among the patients at all hours of the night. Conditions in the field hospitals were appalling, and she began a campaign to reform them, but the military stonewalled her. She used her London newspaper contacts to publish accounts of the horrible way wounded soldiers were being treated. Finally she was allowed to reorganize the barracks hospitals. She thought that the high death rates were due to poor nutrition and overwork; it wasn’t until after the war that she realized the role that proper sanitation played in patient care.

After the war, she continued to fight for military hospital reform and the education of nurses; she was soon one of the most famous and influential women in Britain, second only to Queen Victoria. In 1860, she founded the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses. But she had returned from the war an invalid herself, possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and for the last several years of her life, she was in need of nursing herself.

Here is Lear’s most famous poem. Someone set it to music, and we used to sing it together.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

‘Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Robin Lithgow titles this wonderful post Flores y Canciones: The Poet as Witness. She writes about a culture that values its poets.

She writes:

I’ve just finished a riveting memoir titled “What You Have Heard is True,” by Carolyn Forché. It is about the lead-up to the civil war in El Salvador in the 80s. I recommend it highly because of the perspective Forché gives on our troubling history with Central America and our current concern for immigrants and separated families at the border.

But that’s not the purpose of this post. I’m writing about it here because the author is a poet. I’m intrigued by the fact that a charismatic and mysterious coffee plantation owner named Leonel Gomez Vides, the protagonist of the book, would drive all the way from El Salvador to San Diego in 1978 just to ask a young poet to visit his country and bear witness to its struggles.

Why a poet?

If you read the book, you may understand why poetry might be needed to weave such a vivid and painful narrative. It reminded me of something I learned working with the Office of Multi-cultural Studies during my time in the Arts Education Branch at LAUSD. We were developing a professional development for our elementary dance, theatre, and visual arts teachers, incorporating the arts to focus on the La Llorona (the weeping woman). La Llorona is an oral legend known by virtually every hispanic child in our schools but only vaguely familiar to many of their teachers. In fact, some of our arts teachers were weirded out by the workshop. This is understandable. It’s a terrifying story about a woman who drowns her own children and then spends the rest of her life mourning them and snatching other innocent children away from their homes. Hardly an uplifting tale! But we thought it appropriate that we were drawing on a legend from deep in the cultural consciousness of the children we teach, and, like Euripides’ Medea, as a piece of literature it has the powerfully emotional resonance of a poem.

Here is Carolyn Forché in her own words in an interview with Robin Lindley at George Washington University. explaining why Leonel Gomez Vides chose her to write about his country:

“He came to visit me as an American poet. And of course, I tried to dissuade him from imagining that a poet could accomplish the task he imagined, explaining to him that poets didn’t have a great deal of exposure or credibility in the United States, and that we weren’t consulted on matters of foreign policy. We were considered a subculture or a fringe element. He was surprised by that because, of course, in Latin America poetry is very important and taken very seriously, so he decided that one of my tasks was to change the role of poets in the United States, which I thought was very quixotic and probably more impossible than anything else he was asking me to do.

“I was touched by his faith in poetry and by his regard for it…”

Reading this I remembered that I’ve heard this twice before. Barbara Kingsolver said the exact same thing about her book The Lacuna, which tells the story of Trotsky’s time living in Mexico. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves describes a time in ancient British history when poets sat next to kings in government. Poets are, and have always been, valued in other cultures far more than they are in ours. They interpret, clarify, and vivify the times to which they are witness.

Read on. Finish the post.

Lithgow shows you the beauty and importance of poetry.

What is the role of poetry in the Common Core curriculum? Will poetry help you write a market analysis? What does it do? Why does it matter?

If you have never read the poetry of Wilfred Owen, do it now.

Today is his birthday.

This bio comes from Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.”

“It’s the birthday of poet Wilfred Owen (books by this author), born in Shropshire, England (1893). When he was young, his family was well-off, living in a house owned by his grandfather, a prominent citizen. But then his grandpa died, and it turned out that the old man was broke, and the family had to leave and move into working-class lodgings in an industrial town.

“He started writing poems as a boy, and he was good at literature and science, but he didn’t do well enough on his exams to get a scholarship at a university. He enlisted to fight in World War I, and he became a lieutenant. In 1917, he was wounded, diagnosed with shell shock, and sent to a hospital to recuperate. There he met another soldier diagnosed with shell shock, Siegfried Sassoon, who was an established poet and mentored Owen. At the hospital, Owen wrote many of his most famous poems, including “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” He was one of the first poets to depict the horrifying realities of war, instead of writing glorified, nationalistic poems.

“But the next year, he went back to fight, and he was killed in battle at the age of 25. Two years later, Poems of Wilfred Owen (1920) was published.”

Garrison Keillor included these birthday notes today in his daily “Writer’s Almanac,” which is online and free.

It was on this day in 1818 that Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was published (books by this author).

Two years before she had spent the summer in a cabin on Lake Geneva with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, her sister Claire, and Claire’s lover, the poet Lord Byron. It rained a lot that summer, and one night, Byron suggested they all write ghost stories. At first Mary had trouble coming up with a story, but while lying in bed, reported having a waking nightmare, seeing a vision of a man reanimating a creature. She wrote: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” So she set to work on Frankenstein.

It’s the birthday of children’s author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats (books by this author), born Jacob Ezra Katz in Brooklyn (1916). The son of impoverished Jewish immigrants from Warsaw, he wanted to be an artist, and that worried his family — but he couldn’t afford art school, so he got a job painting murals for the Works Progress Administration, and designed army camouflage during World War II.

The first book he wrote and illustrated on his own was The Snowy Day (1962), done all in collage, about a young black boy named Peter playing in his neighborhood after a new snowfall. It was one of the first children’s books to feature a black character. He went on to illustrate more than 80 children’s books, and to write and illustrate more than 20 books.

He said, “I love city life. All the beauty that other people see in country life, I find taking walks and seeing the multitudes of people.”