Thursday Mar. 26, 2015

The audio for today's poem is not available online.

An Equalizer

It is as true as Caesar’s name was Kaiser
That no economist was ever wiser
(Though prodigal himself and a despiser
Of capital and calling thrift a miser).
And when we get too far apart in wealth,
’Twas his idea that for the public health,
So that the poor won’t have to steal by stealth,
We now and then should take an equalizer.

"An Equalizer" by Robert Frost from The Poetry of Robert Frost. © Henry Holt and Company, 1928, 1969. © Robert Frost, 1956. Used by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Tennessee Williams (books by this author), born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi (1911), author of more than 24 full-length plays, including Pulitzer Prize-winners A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

Williams said: “I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really.”

And, “A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.”

It’s the birthday of the poet and classical scholar A.E. (Alfred Edward) Housman (books by this author), born in Fockbury, Worcestershire, England (1859). He only published two books of poetry during his lifetime, but one of those was the 63-poem cycle A Shropshire Lad (1896). It includes the lines “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now / Is hung with bloom along the bough, / And stands about the woodland ride / Wearing white for Eastertide.”

It’s the birthday of Erica Jong (books by this author), born Erica Mann in New York City (1942). She grew up on the Upper West Side, and attended Barnard and Columbia. “We had all the problems of a New York Jewish intellectual family,” she says. “It was hard to get a word in at the table.” Her mother was an artist, and her father was a songwriter turned businessman. Although she was passionate about music and writing, Jong originally intended to become a doctor, and write poetry on the side, like William Carlos Williams. Eventually, she switched her major to literature, and edited the Barnard literary magazine.

A novelist and a poet, Jong is best known for her 1973 novel Fear of Flying. It’s the story of Isadora Wing, a struggling 29-year-old woman who is searching for her own identity in turbulent times. She is, in many ways, similar to her creator. Like Isadora, Jong married young, then divorced, then married a psychiatrist. She started off as a poet, but wanted to write a novel. Fear of Flying is best remembered for Isadora’s quest for a truly pure, guilt-free sexual encounter. The book was taken seriously as literature, unlike Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (1956), Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966), and Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker (1971) — other books written by women that dealt frankly with women’s sexuality. Jong’s novel was praised highly by such literary heavyweights as John Updike and Henry Miller. “I was aware I was committing a rebellious act,” said Jong of the book. “And I was sure no one would ever read it, no one would publish it.” The book has sold 20 million copies.

Since Fear of Flying, Jong has written 20 more books — nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Her books include the poetry collections Loveroot (1975), At the Edge of the Body (1979), and Ordinary Miracles (1983); and the nonfiction books The Devil at Large (1993) and Fear of Fifty (1994). She also wrote two sequels to Fear of Flying: How to Save Your Own Life (1977) and Parachutes and Kisses (1984). Her most recent book is a poetry collection, Love Comes First (2009).

It was on this day in 1920 that This Side of Paradise was published, launching 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author) to fame and fortune. The first version of the book was called The Romantic Egotist, and Fitzgerald had started writing it in the fall of 1917 while awaiting commission as an Army officer. He wrote most of the manuscript at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and sent chapters as he wrote them to a typist at Princeton where he had been a student. In March 1918, he submitted the novel to Charles Scribner’s Sons. Scribners rejected the novel but encouraged Fitzgerald to revise it. He submitted a new version titled The Education of a Personage to Scribners in September 1918, but that second version was also rejected.

In July 1919, after his discharge from the Army, Fitzgerald returned to his family’s home at 599 Summit Avenue in St. Paul. He pinned revision notes to his curtains and rewrote much of the novel. In August 1919, Fitzgerald finished a new draft, now titled This Side of Paradise. He gave it to a friend from St. Paul for a final edit and sent the new typescript to Scribners on September 4, 1919. Two weeks after he mailed the manuscript, Fitzgerald received Maxwell Perkins’ letter accepting the book. Fitzgerald was so excited that he ran outside and stopped cars on the street to announce the news.

And it is the birthday of poet Robert Frost (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1874). Frost’s life was filled with tragedy and loss: his father died of tuberculosis when Frost was 11. Three of Frost’s children died: one from cholera, one from fever, and one from suicide. He would lose his wife, once his co-valedictorian in high school, to breast cancer. Frost spent 12 years on a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, rising early to write poetry, and then working all day. The New England landscape and its people suited his poetic sensibility; his poems developed a folksy sense of directness, often employing the accent of a soft-spoken New Englander. Poetry, he said, “begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness.” He wasn’t a very successful farmer, but then again none of his neighbors were doing very well either — it was a bad economy and the soil was poor. His neighbors thought he was lazy; he said, “I always liked to sit up all hours of the night planning some inarticulate crime, going out to work when the spirit moved me, something they shook their heads ominously at.” On the other hand, when he took a trip to New York City to try to interest editors in his poems, he was too much of a farmer; he wrote: “I had mud on my shoes. They could see the mud, and that didn’t seem right to them for a poet.”

Frost sold the farm in 1911 and moved to England, where he befriended the poet Edward Thomas. He often said his best-known poem, “A Road Not Taken,” was really about Thomas and the long walks they often took together in the countryside. Thomas was often unable to choose which path they should walk, which amused Frost.

Several months after arriving in England, Frost published A Boy’s Will (1913) and then North of Boston (1914), which sold 20,000 copies and made him famous. The majority of the poems from those two books had been written at the farm in Derry, and some from his third book too. He wrote in a letter: “The core of all my writing was probably the five free years I had there on the farm. [...] The only thing we had was time and seclusion. I couldn’t have figured on it in advance. I hadn’t that kind of foresight. But it turned out right as a doctor’s prescription.” Frost’s other books include Mountain Interval (1916), New Hampshire (1923), A Further Range (1937), and A Witness Tree (1943).

Frost won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times. He said: “One thing I care about and wish young people would care about, is taking poetry as the first form of understanding. If poetry isn’t understanding all, the whole world, then it isn’t worth anything.”

He also said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

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

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