The Writer’s Almanac for July 28, 2018

“My Own Heart” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Public domain.  (buy now)

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.


It’s the birthday of the children’s author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, (books by this author) born Helen Beatrix Potter in London, England (1866). She’s the author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903), The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904), and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908).


And it’s the birthday of the poet John Ashbery, (books by this author) born in Rochester, New York (1927). His father was a fruit farmer and his mother a high school biology teacher, and neither of them was very interested in literature. But his grandfather lived nearby and had a big library, and the boy would spend hours in there reading everything he could. He said, “There is the view that poetry should improve your life. I think people confuse it with the Salvation Army.”


It’s the birthday of one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era, Gerard Manley Hopkins, (books by this author) born at Stratford, England (1844). He’s known for being a technical master of poetic devices like alliteration, assonance, and sprung rhythm.

Hopkins was nervous, intense, and often despairing. He’d grown up in an Anglican family and in his 20s decided to convert to Catholicism along with a few friends. And then he went even further — he decided to become a priest, a Jesuit.

He set fire to all his early poems, judging them to be too “worldly.” Even among a campus full of Jesuit seminarians in rural Wales, he earned a reputation for being particularly odd and eccentric. In the winter, he would go stare at ponds that had frozen over, fixated on the arrangement of little bubbles stuck inside. After it rained, he would run outside to see how the water formed dew drops on the grass. He absolutely loved nature, and he wrote that lying down and staring up at willow trees overhead was “the summit of human happiness.”

After he graduated from seminary, the Jesuits sent him off to teach kids at inner-city grade schools around Great Britain. He was miserable in these industrial cities, where the skies were polluted and there were not many ponds or fields for him to look at. He wrote that his “muse turned utterly sullen in the Sheffield smoke-ridden air.”

Eventually, he was appointed classics professor at University College–Dublin where, according to biographer Richard Ellmann, Hopkins was “out of place in the Irish scene but at home in a state of exalted misery.” He died of typhus at the age of 44.

He wrote:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.


It’s the birthday of Austrian science philosopher Karl Popper (books by this author), born in Vienna in 1902. His main contribution to the philosophy of science is his rejection of inductive reasoning, which is the view that one can prove a scientific theory is true through trials and experiments. Popper countered that it was impossible to prove irrefutably that something was true; the best you could do was to try every method you could think of to prove that it was not true. If you were unable to prove it false, then you could consider your theory corroborated, but not proven “true.”

He said that Freudian psychoanalysis, astrology, and Marxist history were not sciences because they couldn’t be proven false. He also said: “Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program. And yet, the theory is invaluable. I do not see how, without it, our knowledge could have grown as it has done since Darwin.”


Today is the birthday of inventor Earl Tupper (1907). He was born on a farm in Berlin, New Hampshire, where his mother took in laundry and ran a boarding house. He was a salesman and inventor even as a child, selling the farm’s produce door-to-door and inventing contraptions to save labor on the farm. Tupper started his own landscape and nursery business, Tupper Tree Doctors, which went bankrupt in 1936; he then took a job with the DuPont Chemical Company and began working with polyethylene plastics.

He only stayed at DuPont for a year, but he took what he learned about plastics and developed clear storage containers with watertight, flexible lids, which he called “Tupperware.” He sold his product through department and hardware stores, without much success; people couldn’t figure out how to make the lids work unless someone demonstrated it for them. In 1948, he met with home products distributor, Brownie Wise, who told him she’d had great success selling Tupperware at parties in her home. He pulled his products from the shelves and named Wise the vice president of the new Tupperware Home Parties in 1951.


It’s the birthday of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, born Jacqueline Bouvier in Southampton, New York (1929). She was the eldest of two daughters, and she wrote poems and essays as a child. Her work occasionally appeared in local newspapers, and she won the graduating award for literature in high school for a cartoon series she wrote and illustrated. In 1951, she entered Vogue magazine’s Prix de Paris contest: Entrants were asked to design an entire issue of the magazine, as well as an advertising campaign, and write an essay on the subject “People I Wish I Had Known.” (She named playwright Oscar Wilde, poet Charles Baudelaire, and Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes.) She won the contest, but because part of the prize involved working in Paris for six months, her mother made her turn it down. She later worked as “Inquiring Camera Girl” for the Washington Times-Herald, earning $42.50 a week and interviewing several politicians, including her future husband, John F. Kennedy.

She never lost her love of poetry, even though her life took her far from her early writing career, and she tried to instill that love in her children, Caroline and John Jr. Every year, she required them to select a poem that they liked, copy it down, and present it to her for her birthday. She saved them in her scrapbook. Caroline has carried on the tradition with her own children, and has also published three poetry anthologies, including A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children (2005), whose cover features a photo, taken by Jackie, of young Caroline reading to her teddy bear. “The things parents enjoy and care about really do get passed on,” Caroline told CBS’s The Early Show. “I think both my parents really believed in the power of words to change the world. Think it really helps people find their own way if they read and write and think about themselves and finding their voice. I think poetry has a great role to play and really can connect the generations.”

 


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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

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Writing

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

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