Sunday Mar. 1, 2015

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Discrepancies, Happy and Sad

We’ve moved into a bigger house.
Now our voices wander among the rooms
calling, Where are you?

And what we can’t forget
of other houses confuses us
as we answer back and forth, Over here!

It’s a little like returning to the village
where you were born, the sad bewilderment
of discrepancies between
what you remember and what’s there.

No. It’s more like a memory of heaven.
Voices coming closer, voices moving away,

and what we thought we knew
about life on earth confounding us.

And then that question
from which all the other questions begin.

“Discrepancies, Happy and Sad” by Li-Young Lee from Book of My Nights. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2001. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Yellowstone was named a national park on this date in 1872. Written descriptions of Yellowstone began to appear in the East Coast media over the next few decades, but most of them were dismissed as tall tales. Mountain man Jim Bridger insisted over and over that he had seen petrified trees and waterfalls shooting upward into the sky. Trapper Joe Meek, describing the Norris Geyser basin, recounted stories of steaming rivers, boiling mud, and fire and brimstone. Because of the Native American wars and the Civil War, the United States Geological Survey did not come in to investigate Yellowstone until 1871. The crew submitted a 500-page report to Congress, and on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Act of Dedication to preserve more than 2 million acres of wilderness as the world's first national park.

It's the birthday of poet Robert Lowell (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1917). He began his poetry career emulating the style of John Milton, writing about impersonal events and using strict meter and rhyme, but by the time his collection Life Studies was published in 1959, he was writing free verse about his own life. He's considered the father of confessional poetry, inspiring his former students W.D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath to follow his example.

Suffering from bipolar disorder, Lowell was in and out of mental institutions for a good share of his life, but he carried on steady friendships with a number of people, including fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop, with whom he had 30 year correspondence. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published the letters as Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

Today is the birthday of the poet Richard Wilbur (books by this author), born in New York City (1921). He came from a long line of editors, and thought he might become a journalist, but World War II changed his plans. He served in the infantry, read Edgar Allan Poe in the trenches, and wrote poems about the war, but he didn't write about the battles and the experience of being on the front lines. Instead, he wrote about the quiet, lonely moments, like evenings spent peeling potatoes in the Army kitchen.

He said: "I would feel dead if I didn't have the ability periodically to put my world in order with a poem. I think to be inarticulate is a great suffering, and is especially so to anyone who has a certain knack for poetry."

Today is the birthday of novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison (books by this author), born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1914. He was the grandson of slaves, and he originally wanted to be a classical composer, but when he met the great African-American writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, they encouraged him to become a writer instead.

One day, while recovering from a bad kidney infection on his friend's Vermont farm, Ellison was sitting in the barn with a typewriter. He stared at it for a while, and then suddenly typed the sentence "I am an invisible man." He didn't know where it came from, but he wanted to pursue the idea, to find out what kind of a person would think of himself as invisible. It took him seven years to write the book, and it was the only novel published in his lifetime. It was Invisible Man, published in 1952. After he finished his first novel, he worked for the rest of his life on his second, but never finished it. That book, published posthumously, was Juneteenth (1999). He also published two essay collections: Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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