Every poem has been written before
at least fifteen times.
The Neanderthals discovered caves
already painted with the story of their lives.
They invented fire
over and over again.
And you & I
whisper the same sweet nothings
we were born with.
“History” by Andrew Gent from Explicit Lyrics. © The University of Arkansas Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It's the birthday of writer John Updike (books by this author), born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1932). As a child, he loved cartoons. He said: “I can't remember the moment when I fell in love with cartoons, I was so young. [...] It was the intense stylization of those images [...] that drew me in, into a world where I, child though I was, loomed as a king, and where my parents and other grownups were strangers.” When he was 12, his aunt bought his family a subscription to The New Yorker. As a teenager, he wrote fan letters to all of his favorite cartoonists — from Harold Gray, the creator of “Little Orphan Annie,” to Saul Steinberg and James Thurber, who drew for The New Yorker — and asked them for original cartoons. Most of them obliged the enthusiastic young man. Updike had ambitions to make his career as a cartoonist. In high school he sold a dairy magazine a cartoon of a milk truck with a running cow on it (instead of a greyhound). When he went to Harvard, it was his cartoons — not his writing — that got him elected to the university’s humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon. During his stint there, he also published some poetry and prose, and found that he liked writing as well. He said: “By the time I graduated in 1954 I was 85 percent bent upon becoming a writer; it took fewer ideas, and I seemed to be better at it. There is less danger of smearing the ink. Also, one can continue to cartoon, in a way, with words; for whatever crispness and animation my writing has I give some credit to the cartoonist manqué."
Still undecided on his career, Updike spent a year studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford. But an offer to join the staff of The New Yorker brought him back to America, where he spent two years writing the “Talk of the Town” columns. In 1957, Updike and his wife had a second child and decided they needed more room. He gave up his position as a New Yorker staff writer — although he continued to write for the magazine — and the family moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts. Soon after, he published his first book of poetry, The Carpentered Hen (1958), and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959). He said of leaving New York City: “I did leave without regret the literary demimonde of agents and would-be’s and with-it non-participants; this world seemed unnutritious and interfering. [...] In 1957, I was full of a Pennsylvania thing I wanted to say, and Ipswich gave me the space in which to say it, and in which to live modestly, raise my children, and have friends on the basis of what I did in person rather than what I did in print.”
Updike secured a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, and that allowed him to work on a longer novel: Rabbit, Run (1960). The “Pennsylvania thing” he wanted to say was the story of an everyman named Rabbit Angstrom, a 26-year-old former high school basketball star from suburban Pennsylvania. Rabbit works in a department store, is bored with his wife, and already feels like his best days are behind him. Rabbit, Run was such a success that Updike went on to write the novels Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990), and a novella, Rabbit Remembered (2001).
In 1968, Updike published Couples, a novel about sexual relationships within a group of young suburban couples. Couples brought Updike national attention, and even landed him on the cover of Time magazine. He said of the sex scenes: “They were no harder than landscapes and a little more interesting. It's wonderful the way people in bed talk, the sense of voices and the sense of warmth.”
His other books include Bech, a Book (1970), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), and Terrorist (2006).
He said: “To condense from one’s memories and fantasies and small discoveries dark marks on paper which become handsomely reproducible many times over still seems to me [...] a magical act, and a delightful technical process. To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another.”
Today is the birthday of George Plimpton (books by this author), born in New York City (1927). He’s the author of more than 30 books. He was also the original editor in chief of the literary journal The Paris Review, famous for its quality fiction and poetry, and its in-depth interviews — but never a huge moneymaker. He served as editor for the journal for 50 years, often supporting it out of his own pocket, and he conducted one of only two interviews Ernest Hemingway ever gave in his life. Plimpton was also one of the inventors of what he called “participatory journalism,” immersing himself in whatever his subject may be — usually sports — and recounting his experiences from his viewpoint as an amateur insider. He often fell flat on his face, but he did so with such charm and good humor that no one really minded. Hemingway read Plimpton’s 1961 baseball adventure Out of My League, and declared it “beautifully observed and incredibly conceived, his account of a self-imposed ordeal that has the chilling quality of a true nightmare.” He added, “It is the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty.” Plimpton’s habit of trying on different careers was often satirized in cartoons in The New Yorker.
Plimpton died in 2003. In 2008, his ex-wife and his widow approved the publication of George, Being George, an oral biography whose lengthy subtitle reads George Plimpton’s Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, and Rivals — and a Few Unappreciative Observers. His son, Taylor, reviewed the biography and called it “an invasive, gossipy, judgmental book” that, in spite of itself, portrays Plimpton in a favorable light.
Today is the birthday of French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (books by this author), born in Paris (1842). He supported himself — and, once he married, his wife and family — by working as a schoolteacher, though he didn’t enjoy the work. He took on side jobs like writing and translating school textbooks, and editing a magazine, to supplement his income. He found reality lacking, and longed for a way to escape; this desire often found its way into his poetry. He began publishing his poems in magazines in 1862, when he was 20 years old. He also hosted salons at his home, where writers met to discuss literature and philosophy. Regular attendees included W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Verlaine, and Paul Valéry.
He began to develop a sort of artistic philosophy about a dimension beyond the limits of reality, where ideal versions of flawed “real” things reside. He believed that it was the province of poets to perceive and translate these ideal essences for readers, to attempt to depict that which can’t be depicted. His poems are particularly hard to translate, both because he plays with double meanings, and because he plays with the sound of the French language. When his poems are read aloud, the effect is almost musical, and his work inspired composers like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.
He wrote, “It is the job of poetry to clean up our word-clogged reality by creating silences around things.”
It’s the birthday of Wilfred Owen (books by this author), born in Shropshire, England (1893). His family lived in his grandfather’s large and comfortable house in the country, but when the grandfather died in 1897, the family found out that he was really broke. They were forced to sell the house and move to working-class lodgings in the industrial city of Birkenhead. Owen was interested in the arts, especially poetry, as a schoolboy, but he didn’t do well enough on his exams to get into university. So he went to work instead, first as a lay assistant to a vicar, and then as a tutor of English and French at a Berlitz language school in France.
In 1915, he enlisted to fight in World War I. He was wounded in 1917 and sent to Edinburgh to recover from his wounds and shell shock; it was there that he met another poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon encouraged him to keep writing, and introduced him to other writers like Robert Graves and H.G. Wells. It was during his convalescence that he wrote his most famous poems about the war, including “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est.” He returned to combat in the summer of 1918 and was killed on November 4, just a week before the end of the war. His parents received the news of his death on November 11, Armistice Day. He was just 25 years old.