Thursday Aug. 25, 2016


Ars Poetica II

I find, after all these years, I am a believer—
I believe what the thunder and lightning have to say;
I believe that dreams are real,
                                                       and that death has two reprisals;
I believe that dead leaves and black water fill my heart.

I shall die like a cloud, beautiful, white, full of nothingness.

The night sky is an ideogram,
                                                       a code card punched with holes.
It thinks it’s the word of what’s-to-come.
It thinks this, but it’s only The Library of Last Resort,
The reflected light of The Great Misunderstanding.

God is the fire my feet are held to.

“Ars Poetica II” by Charles Wright from Appalachia. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of novelist Brian Moore (books by this author), born in Belfast, Northern Ireland (1921). When he died in 1999, his obituary in the LA Weekly began, “The most accomplished and least fashionable writer in Los Angeles died last week.” Graham Greene once described him as “my favourite living author,” and said, “Each book of his is dangerous, unpredictable, and amusing. He treats the novel as a trainer treats a wild beast.” But many people have never read his work.

Brian Moore was one of nine children born into a devout Catholic family. He quickly rejected the teachings of Catholicism, but continued to write about them for the rest of his life. The Catholic Church banned several of his novels. Moore left Ireland after World War II, spent time working for the U.N. in Poland, and moved to Canada in 1948, where he started working for a Montreal newspaper. In 1952, he left the newspaper to concentrate on writing novels. His first book under his own name was rejected by 12 different American publishers before it was finally accepted. Published in 1955 as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, the book was a bleak tale of an unmarried alcoholic Catholic woman living in Belfast. He later said: “I was very lonely, I had almost no friends, I’d given up my beliefs, was earning no money and I didn’t see much of a future. So I could identify with a dipsomaniac, isolated spinster.”

He moved to New York to write his second novel, and in 1966, he moved to California, where he remained for the rest of his life. Several of his own books were adapted into Hollywood movies, and he wrote other screenplays, too. He wrote the screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock movie Torn Curtain and said that the ordeal was “awful, like washing floors.” It so happened that Moore could do an uncanny impersonation of Alfred Hitchcock.

Moore once said in an interview: “Writers like me, you see, lead a surrogate life. We don’t really have a life of our own. I’m only happy when I’m writing about something or somebody else — perhaps that’s part of the problem of not being better known than I am — I live through my books, in a way. No personality of my own.”

It’s the birthday of American poet Charles Wright (1935) (books by this author), born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, a tiny, rural community named for the title character of Charles Dickens’s novel The Pickwick Papers. Wright was named for his great-grandfather Charles Penzel, who at age 23 took a bullet in the mouth when shouting “Charge!” during the Battle of Chickamauga during the Civil War. Wright’s father was a civil engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority and they moved often during his childhood, living comfortably in government housing. His father also worked on the Manhattan Project, the research and development project that produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II.

Wright was an active and diligent student in high school, helping to coach the football team, serving as vice president of his class, and being named to the honors program. He read all of William Faulkner by the time he graduated (1953), but he didn’t start writing poetry until he served four years in the U.S. Army. He was stationed in Italy when he came across Ezra Pound’s Cantos, which he used first as a kind of guidebook to Italy and then as a way to begin writing his own poems. He’s never thrown away his poems from Italy; they are stored in a footlocker. He says: “They don’t know how to do anything. Mostly, I guess, because they didn’t know what they were supposed to do. And I myself had no clue.”

When he returned to the United States, Wright enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where the workshops were held in Quonset Huts left over from World War II. He was reading voraciously, especially poems by Dante, Emily Dickinson, and Arthur Rimbaud, but he was unprepared for the rigors of the workshop. He says, “I’d never written a proper poem in my life.” When he graduated, he began teaching and publishing in magazines. His first collection, The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), received good reviews and established the basis for his style: expansive, almost cinematic language. About his writing, he says: “I once said if a guy can’t say what he has to say in three lines, he better change his job. I haven’t gotten that far yet, but I’m down to six lines.”

Wright’s other collections of poetry include The Southern Cross (1981), Country Music (1982), Black Zodiac (1997), Littlefoot (2007), and Caribou (2014). He won the Pulitzer Prize (1998) for Black Zodiac. Wright served as U.S. poet laureate of the United States from 2014 to 2015.

On writing poetry, he says: “Language is the element of definition, the defining and descriptive incantation. It puts the coin between our teeth. It whistles the boat up. It shows us the city of light across the water. Without language there is no poetry, without poetry there’s just talk. Talk is cheap and proves nothing. Poetry is dear and difficult to come by. But it poles us across the river and puts music in our ears.”

It was on this day 100 years ago, in 1916, that President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the act that established the National Park Service. Yellowstone was designated as the first national park in 1872, and by the 1890s, there were three others: Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant (now known as Kings Canyon). When Congress created the first national parks, it didn’t assign a part of the government to run them, and the task ended up falling to the Army. The Army patrolled for poachers or vandals — traveling on skis in the cold Yellowstone winters —but they didn’t have any legal recourse to deal with criminals, so they just gave them warnings. In 1894, the last remaining wild buffalo herd in the country was in Yellowstone, and it was small. That year, a poacher named Edgar Howell bragged to reporters that there wasn’t much anyone could do about his buffalo hunting, since the most serious penalty he faced would be to get kicked out of Yellowstone and lose $26 worth of equipment. The editor of Field and Stream ran that story in his magazine, and there was a huge uproar. President Grover Cleveland signed the “Act to Protect the Birds and Animals in Yellowstone National Park,” but that was just one park. Without a national system regulating the parks, the government remained limited in its control.

The Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of War all claimed to protect the National Parks, but no one was really doing the job. In 1914, the conservationist John Muir died, after losing a long fight to preserve Yosemite’s beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley against developers who wanted to turn it into a dam and reservoir for the city of San Francisco. Although Hetch Hetchy was dammed, Muir had stirred up public opposition, and many citizens worried that the national parks weren’t adequately protected. The issue was brought up in Congress that year, but they wouldn’t sign a bill to change it.

Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane knew that they needed a good lobbyist to convince Congress to protect the parks better. Then he got a letter from an old college classmate named Stephen Mather. Mather was a self-made millionaire who struck it rich as the sales manager for Pacific Coast Borax Company, thanks to his genius for advertising and promotion. In his letter, Mather complained that he had just been on a visit to Yosemite and Sequoia and was upset by what he saw: cattle grazing, development, and trails in terrible condition. Lane told Mather that if he was unhappy he should come to Washington and fix the problem himself. Mather agreed.

Mather was talented and he was rich: a perfect lobbyist. He went to Washington and threw himself into a publicity campaign to designate a government agency specifically for the national parks. He hired Horace Albright, a legal assistant, and Robert Sterling Yard, the editor of the New York Herald. He paid much of their salaries himself. He sponsored the “Mather Mountain Party,” a two-week trip for 15 extremely influential business leaders and politicians in the Sierra Nevadas — he paid for it himself — and the men enjoyed a luxurious vacation, hiking and fishing, and enjoying fine dining (complete with linens) in the midst of the parks. By the end of the two weeks, they all supported Mather’s request for a national agency to oversee the national parks. He partnered with the railroads in their huge “See America First” publicity campaign. He got national newspapers to run headlines about the cause, started a campaign for school kids to enter essay contests, and after convincing National Geographic to devote an entire issue to the national parks, Mather gave every member of Congress a copy. His assistant Albright drafted a bill to create a parks bureau, which would be part of the Department of the Interior. On this day in 1916, Wilson signed it into law, and the National Park Service was created.

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