Wednesday Oct. 26, 2016

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Regarding (Most) Songs

                Whatever is too stupid to say
                can be sung.
                        —JOSEPH ADDISON (1672-1719)

The human voice can sing a vowel to break your heart.
It trills a string of banal words,
but your blood jumps, regardless. You don’t care
about the words but only how they’re sung
and the music behind—the brass, the drums.
Oh the primal, necessary drums
behind the words so dumb!
That power, the bang and the boom and again the bang
we cannot, need not, live without,
nor without other means to make sweet noise,
the guitar or violin, the things that sing
the plaintive, joyful sounds.
Which is why I like songs best
when I can’t hear the words, or, better still,
when there are no words at all .

“Regarding (Most) Songs” by Thomas Lux from The Street of Clocks. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the playwright John Arden (books by this author), born in Barnsley, England (1930) who was bookish and well behaved until he joined the army, where he said, "I heard a lot of stories which I found rather distressing and not what I thought the army was for." He came home and started writing plays that attacked British conformity. He's best known for his play Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (1959), about four deserters from the British army who try to persuade the local people in their town that war is pointless. John Arden said, "Theater must celebrate noise, disorder, drunkenness, lasciviousness, nudity, generosity, corruption, fertility, and ease."

It was on this day in 1900 that Henry James (books by this author) wrote his first letter to the budding novelist Edith Wharton (books by this author), beginning a long friendship. Wharton was an admirer of James's work, and she sent him one of the first short stories she ever wrote. He wrote back to say that he liked the story but that she shouldn't write about Europe if she didn't live there. He said, "Be tethered in native pastures, even if it reduces [you] to a back-yard in New York." His advice inspired her to write about the New York society she'd grown up in, and the result was The House of Mirth (1905), which became her first big success.

They remained friends for the rest of James's life, but while Wharton became more successful, James's novels sold less and less well. When he learned that she'd used the proceeds from a recent book to buy herself a new car, he joked that he hoped his next book would provide enough money for him to buy a new wheelbarrow. But he always appreciated her friendship, and once wrote to her, "Your letters come into my damp desert here even as the odour of promiscuous spices ...might be wafted to some compromised oasis from a caravan of the Arabian nights."

Andrei Bely was the pseudonym of Russian novelist and poet, Boris Nikolayevich Bugaev (books by this author), who was born in Moscow on this day in 1880 to a prominent intellectual family.

He is best remembered for his 1913 novel, Petersburg, the book of which Vladimir Nabokov said, "My greatest masterpieces of twentieth-century prose are, in this order: Joyce's Ulysses; Kafka's Transformation; Bely's Petersburg ..."

Petersburg is a story of conspiracy and betrayal set during the 1905 Russian Revolution, when massive political and social unrest spread across the country. In the book, a group of radicals plan to assassinate a senator with a time bomb disguised as a can of sardines, but the bomb is lost, the conspirators only manage to destroy someone's study, and their attempt at revolution becomes a farce.

The language of Petersburg is by turns comical, poetic, and abstract, the city in a landscape where "In this melting greyness there suddenly dimly emerged a large number of dots, looking in astonishment: lights, lights, tiny lights filled with intensity and rushed out of the darkness in pursuit of the rust-red blotches, as cascades fell from above: blue, dark violent and black."

Nothing in Russian literature up to that point had prepared Russian readers for Bely's novel, which mixed the scientific and rational with the intuitive and spiritual, an omniscient voice with the first person, adding music, color, past and present, and gleeful humor to a story of impending patricide. But although Petersburg is difficult to classify, critics have remarked that Bely's novel would be strangely familiar to contemporary readers who have seen the blend of fact and fantasy in The Black Swan or A Beautiful Mind, and that Bely's writing foreshadows the late American author David Foster Wallace.

Bely lived in poverty through the 1917 Russian Revolution, which led to the end of Tsarist Russia and the beginning of the Marxist regime. He worked as a lecturer in Moscow for a few years, traveled to Berlin for a few more, and returned to find himself denounced in the new Marxist view of literature.

It's the birthday of the early American self-help writer Napoleon Hill (books by this author), born in a one-room cabin in rural Wise County, Virginia (1883). His mother died when he was young, and his father wasn't sure how to take care of his son, so Hill he became a little terror, idolizing Jesse James and running around the county with a gun. But his father remarried and his new stepmother convinced Hill that he would be a good writer; she offered to buy him a typewriter in exchange for the gun. He agreed, and when he was 13 years old, he started going around to local newspapers and offering to be their "mountain reporter."

Hill was able to make his living as a reporter, and when he was in his mid-20s, he was assigned to interview Andrew Carnegie, who grew up poor in Scotland and worked his way up in the American steel industry to become one of the richest men in the world. Carnegie told Hill that in his opinion, there was a formula for success, and anyone could achieve it. He was in his 70s and didn't have the energy for this new project, but he liked the young man and asked him if he would consider writing a book about this idea. So Hill went around interviewing hundreds of successful people. 19 years after he had first sat down to interview Andrew Carnegie, Hill published Think and Grow Rich (1937), refining his early ideas into an accessible self-help book. It was enormously successful, and still is — Think and Grow Rich has sold more than 70 million copies.

In Think and Grow Rich, he wrote: "Do not wait: the time will never be 'just right.' Start where you stand, and work whatever tools you may have at your command and better tools will be found as you go along."

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

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