I looked into the room a moment ago,
and this is what I saw —
my chair in its place by the window,
the book turned facedown on the table.
And on the sill, the cigarette
left burning in its ashtray.
Malingerer! my uncle yelled at me
so long ago. He was right.
I’ve set aside time today,
same as every day,
for doing nothing at all.
“Loafing” by Raymond Carver from All of Us: The Collected Poems of Raymond Carver. Copyright (1996 by Tess Gallagher, used by her permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of philosopher, poet, and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author). He was born in Boston in 1803, and his father’s unmarried sister, Mary Moody Emerson, was a great influence on him. She wasn’t formally educated, but she was sharp, and she was widely read. She introduced young Waldo, as he was called, to a wide variety of philosophies and spiritual beliefs, including the Hindu scriptures that he would return to in later years, and it was from her that he got many of the aphorisms he passed on to his children, like “Always do what you are afraid to do,” and “Despise trifles,” and “Oh, blessed, blessed poverty.” He entered Harvard at 14, and began keeping journals, which he called his “savings bank;” when he became friends with Thoreau in 1837, he suggested that Thoreau, too, might benefit from keeping a journal.
In his book Nature (1836), Emerson first introduced the concept of Transcendentalism — the idea that spiritual truth could be gained by intuition rather than by established doctrine or text — and he would become a leader of that movement. He was a popular public speaker, and gave more than 1,500 speeches in his lifetime.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
And, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”
Today is the birthday of short-story writer and novelist Raymond Carver (books by this author), born in Clatskanie, Oregon (1938). He grew up in Yakima, Washington, and when he was a little boy, he was prone to running off when the family would go to town. “Well, of course I had to keep him on a leash,” his mother said of her son. His nickname was “Frog,” and this would end up being prophetic: he spent nearly all of his adult life hopping from city to city, mostly in California.
He got married right out of high school, to his 16-year-old girlfriend, Maryann Burk. They had a couple of kids, and he took a series of low-paying jobs. A creative writing class he took at Chico State College in California sparked his interest in fiction. He went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and, later, working as a night janitor in a hospital, he began writing stories about the working poor: people who lived paycheck to paycheck and whose livelihoods depended on whether their old cars would start so they could get to work. “I’m a paid-in-full member of the working poor,” he said. “I have a great deal of sympathy with them. They’re my people.” He was an alcoholic, like his father before him, but got sober in 1977. The following year, he met poet and novelist Tess Gallagher. They fell in love, and he left Maryann for her. They were together for 10 years, and eventually married in 1988; six weeks later, Carver died of lung cancer. His epitaph comes from his poem “Late Fragment.” It reads:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
It’s the birthday of American poet Theodore Roethke (books by this author) born in Saginaw, Michigan (1908), perhaps best known for his poem “My Papa’s Waltz,” which features two famous opening lines: “The whiskey on your breath / could make a small boy dizzy.” As a boy in Michigan, Roethke spent hours playing in the 25-yard greenhouse and lawns on his father’s farm. His father was a German immigrant and a market gardener.
Roethke loved to weed the greenhouse beds and gather moss outside. He said: “I had several worlds to live in, which I felt were mine. One favorite place was a swampy corner of the same sanctuary where herons always nested.” He once said, “The greenhouse is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.”
When he was 14, his uncle committed suicide and his father later died of cancer, two events that profoundly affected him for the rest of his life.
Roethke studied English in college. In one undergraduate paper, he wrote, “When I get alone under an open sky where man isn’t too evident — then I’m tremendously exalted and a thousand vivid ideas and sweet visions flood my consciousness.” He had a nervous breakdown in 1935, which he later called “a mystical experience.” He was treated for a time at Ann Arbor’s Mercywood Sanitarium, where he began working on what would become his first collection of poetry, Open House. He worked on the book for 10 years, and it was finally published in 1941.
Theodore Roethke was six foot three, an excellent tennis player, and a big drinker. He favored wearing a raccoon coat and even owned a jalopy. He tried law school, but quit after one semester to devote himself to poetry. His books include The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948) and The Far Field (1964). He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for his collection The Waking.
He liked to refer to himself as “"the oldest younger poet in the U.S.A."
It’s the birthday of novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid (books by this author) (1949), who first came to fame as a writer for The New Yorker’s popular “Talk of the Town” column. She worked there for more than 20 years before devoting herself full time to writing novels. Kincaid is the author of Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), and Autobiography of My Mother (1996).
Kincaid was born Elaine Richardson in Antigua. Girls weren’t as valued as boys, so most of her mother’s affection, and financial hopes, went to Kincaid’s two brothers. Kincaid was reading by three and soon found a haven in books and became a voracious reader. One of her early favorites was Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. She said, “I read every sentence twice because I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.”
When she was a teenager, her mother shipped her off to New York, where she worked as a nanny on the Upper East Side. She was so hurt by being sent away that she didn’t speak to her mother for several years, and refused to send money home. Most of her books have strong autobiographical elements, like See Now Then (2013), a novel about a woman writer married to a famous magazine editor who has an affair. Kincaid herself was married for many years to Allen Shawn, the son of William Shawn, Kincaid’s former boss at The New Yorker. When asked how much of her fiction is from real life, Kincaid said, “People tend to blame a writer for writing something they’re too stupid to understand.”
On the joys of being a writer, Kincaid said: “When I start to write something, I suppose I want it to change me, to make me into something not myself. And while I’m doing it, I really have the feeling that this time, at the end of it, I will be other than myself. Of course, every time I end a book, I look down at myself and I’m just the same. I’m always disappointed that I’m just the same, but not enough to never do it again! I get right back up and I start something else, and I think this time — this time — I really will be transformed into something other than this tawdry, ordinary thing, sitting on the bed and drinking cold coffee. When I write a book, I hope to be beyond mortal by the time I’m finished.”