Monday Mar. 27, 2017

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XII.

The old man is in the last days
of work he has done and loved
for many years. He is mowing
with his old team, the white horse
and the black, on the open hillside
under the open sky, within
the surrounding woods. This work
once was known by many
of his kind, and he is one
of the last to know it. But now
as his time grows scarce, his work
rarer by the day, its sights and motions
could be filmed, its sounds recorded,
it could be preserved perhaps forever
by wonders of modern technology.
He says no. He thinks no.
He refuses with his whole heart
the already futile wish to make
of a past present a future past.
Being so saved, his days
would be lost, would be no longer
even a memory. He needs these last
of his workdays. He needs them to be
his last, his own, such days
as do not come to one unwilling
to let them go. Had he been unwilling
for them to go, they would not yet
have come. Had he not been glad
to be the only one to know them,
he would never have known them.
If he remembers them to the last, giving
his thanks, how great will be his reward!

“XII.” by Wendell Berry from A Small Porch. © Counterpoint, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of French novelist and poet Henri Murger (books by this author), born in Paris (1822). He's most famous for his book Scènes de la vie bohème (1851), a fictionalized version of his experiences as an impoverished writer living in the Latin Quarter of Paris's Left Bank. It's an area filled with universities and cafés and known for its intellectual life, and Murger playfully romanticized his starving-artist-living-in-a-Paris-attic bohemian lifestyle. And he also wrote about his friends, who called themselves "the water drinkers" because they could not afford to buy wine.

At first, he published these sketches of his bohemian life in literary magazines, but they didn't really attract that much attention. But then a young ambitious French playwright named Théodore Barrière asked Murger if he could do a play based on his work. Murger agreed and worked on it with him, and the play was a huge hit in Paris. People wanted to hear more of Murger's life. So he compiled those short stories he'd published earlier in literary magazines, added an introductory chapter and some closing ones, wrote up a few segue passages to make the tale flow better, and also a little treatise on what it means to be "bohemian" — and he called it a novel, which he published in 1851.

It became the basis for Giacomo Puccini's opera La Bohème (1896), one of the most famous operas of all time. The character of Rudolphe (or Rudolfo in Puccini's opera) is based on Murger himself. Besides Puccini's opera, there are a number of other works that take up Murger's theme, including another opera called La Bohème (1897) by an Italian opera composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo, a number of films, and even the musicals Rent (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2001).

It’s the birthday of the woman who wrote “Happy Birthday to You,” Patty Smith Hill, born in Anchorage, Kentucky (1868). Most of her life was spent as a kindergarten teacher. She began teaching in Louisville, Kentucky, and it was there, in 1893, that Hill first wrote the lyrics to the song. But it was originally meant as a welcome to start the school day and was first called “Good Morning to All.” Hill’s sister Mildred, an accomplished musician, provided the melody. Hill was 25 when she wrote the lyrics to the famous song.

It became popularized with the invention of radio and sound films. The song appeared in the Broadway musical “The Band Wagon” (1931), and was used for Western Union’s first singing telegram in 1933. A third sister, Jessica Hill, noticed the similarities between “Happy Birthday to You” and the song her sisters wrote, and it was officially copyrighted in 1935. The song produced about $2 million in licensing revenue for years. Then in 2015, federal judge George H. King ruled that that the copyright claim under Warner Music Group was invalid, and “Happy Birthday to You” became part of the public domain—available for anyone to use without being fined.

It’s the birthday of novelist and poet Julia Alvarez (books by this author), born in New York City (1950). She grew up in the Dominican Republic and returned to New York when she was 10 years old. “All my childhood I had dressed like an American, eaten American foods, and befriended American children. I had gone to an American school and spent most of the day speaking and reading English. At night, my prayers were full of blond hair and blue eyes and snow. [...] All my childhood I had longed for this moment of arrival. And here I was, an American girl, coming home at last.” Instead of finding a fantasy land, she said, she “lost almost everything: a homeland, a language, family connections, a way of understanding, and a warmth.”

She often writes about the experience of between caught between two cultures. Her first book was a collection of poetry, called Homecoming (1984), and her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), was based on the experiences Alvarez and her sisters had upon coming to New York. She also wrote a nonfiction book, Once Upon a Quinceañera (2007), about the tradition of throwing elaborate 15thbirthday parties for young Latinas. “Imagine,” she said, “a whole community spends three months, six, a year, preparing and focusing on its young girls. Quite an investment of time and energy, and it makes the girls feel supported, loved, encouraged to be the new up and coming leaders in the community. Positive things happen at a time in life when young girls are especially vulnerable.” Her latest poetry book is A Wedding in Haiti (2012).

On this day in 1912, President Taft’s wife, Helen, and the wife of the ambassador from Japan planted the first of Washington, D.C.’s cherry trees. The cuttings were scions from the most famous trees in Tokyo, the ones that grow along the banks of the Arakawa River. Workers took over, and thousands of cherry trees, all gifts from the Japanese government, were planted around the Tidal Basin. During the Second World War, Tokyo lost scores of cherry trees in the allied bombing raids; after the surrender, horticulturalists took cuttings from the trees in Washington and sent them back to Tokyo. Years later, some of the Washington trees died, and Tokyo sent cuttings back across the Pacific.

It’s the birthday of poet Louis Simpson (books by this author), born in Kingston, Jamaica (1923). He moved to New York City as a teenager. He loved writing, and studied at Columbia University, but while he was still a student he was drafted into the Army during World War II. He served as a combat infantryman in some of the most intense fighting of the war — at Normandy, Arnhem, and the Battle of the Bulge. When he returned home, he had two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He spent six months in a psychiatric hospital. He said: “I did not intend to be a poetI wanted to tell stories. I wanted to use words that would bring other people under a spell and win their admiration.” But he could no longer hold an entire novel, or even stories, in his head — poetry was the only format that felt possible.

He went back to Columbia, and a year after he graduated he published his first book of poems, The Arrivistes (1949). He worked as an editor and a professor, and published 18 more books of poems, including Adventures of the Letter I (1971), People Live Here (1983), The Owner of the House (2003), and Voices in the Distance (2010), and two autobiographies, North of Jamaica (1972) and The King My Father’s Wreck (1995). He also published poetry criticism; he said, “Descriptions of poetry written by men who are not poets are usually ridiculous, for they describe rational thought processes.”

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

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