Wednesday Dec. 10, 2014

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Carry her over the water

Carry her over the water,
      And set her down under the tree,
Where the culvers white all day and all night,
      And the winds from every quarter,
Sing agreeably, agreeably, agreeably of love.

Put a gold ring on her finger,
      And press her close to your heart,
While the fish in the lake their snapshots take,
      And the frog, that sanguine singer,
Sings agreeably, agreeably, agreeably of love.

The streets shall all flock to your marriage,
      The houses turn round to look,
The tables and chairs say suitable prayers,
      And the horses drawing your carriage
Sing agreeably, agreeably, agreeably of love.

"Carry her over the water" by W.H. Auden, from Collected Poems. © Vintage, 1991. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of "the Belle of Amherst": Emily Dickinson (books by this author), born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on this date (1830). She spent most of her adult life in her corner bedroom in her father's house. The room contained a writing table, a dresser, a Franklin stove, a clock, a ruby decanter, and pictures on the wall of three writers: George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Thomas Carlyle. Her favorite author was Shakespeare. She eventually wrote more than 1,700 poems. In the year 1862 alone, she wrote 366 poems — about one per day.

Most people think of Emily Dickinson as a slightly odd recluse, but she was in fact very outgoing in her younger years. As she became more passionate about writing poetry, she went out less and devoted her life to her verses. Over the years, scholars have come up with a lot of theories for her growing reclusiveness. Some believe it was because she was nursing a mysteriously broken heart, others think she was a closeted lesbian, and still others think she suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder. One biographer speculates that she may have suffered from epilepsy.

Emily Dickinson said: "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

It's the birthday of Melvil Dewey, born in Adams Center, New York (1851). He put himself through college by working in the library, and he felt it was appallingly disorganized. There was no consistent system across libraries. Some numbered shelves, some arranged books by size just to look nice, and some libraries tried to alphabetize the whole library, which meant that every time they got a new book they had to redo the entire system. He knew there had to be a better way, so he worked on a system of categories and sub-categories, assigning each a system of numbers. And he came up with the Dewey Decimal System, which is still used today in many libraries, a series of classifications divided and subdivided into subjects and a decimal number assigned to each book.

Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published on this date in 1884 (books by this author). Twain had the idea to write a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, one that would follow Tom's friend Huck all the way into adulthood. He toyed with the idea for a long time, starting and stopping, and eventually setting it aside for years. When he took up the project again, Twain changed his approach, and instead of writing in a formal literary style, Huck narrated his story in a dialect. The book opens with the line, "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter."

Later writers, like T.S. Eliot and Ralph Ellison, were great admirers of Huckleberry Finn. Ernest Hemingway was a big fan of the book, famously stating: "All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain. It's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing since."

This date marks the anniversary of the book's publication in Canada and England. It wouldn't be published in the United States for two more months.

Theodore Roosevelt became the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize on this date in 1906. He was awarded the prize because he had helped to broker a peace agreement between Russia and Japan the previous year.

Today is the birthday of Carolyn Kizer (books by this author), born in Spokane, Washington (1925). Her mother encouraged her to write poems from an early age, and by the time Kizer was 17, she had published a poem in The New Yorker. But she felt suffocated by her mother's encouragement, and after her mother's death, Kizer said, "At last I could write, without pressure, without blackmail, without bargains, without the hot breath of her expectations." She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1985, for her collection Yin.

Kizer is unapologetically proud of her ability to perform her own poems, something she has worked very hard at. "Dylan Thomas was a success not because he was a great poet, but because he read magnificently. There are only a couple of women who read well, and I'm one of them. I'm modest about my poetry, but I'm not modest about my reading. I've worked hard to be good at it, and I'm proud of it."

It's the birthday of Thomas Lux (books by this author), born in Northampton, Massachusetts (1946). He's known for his surreal, funny poems with titles like "Commercial Leech Farming Today," "Traveling Exhibition of Torture Instruments," "The Oxymoron Sisters," and "Walt Whitman's Brain Dropped on Laboratory Floor." His books of poetry include Memory's Handgrenade (1972), The Blind Swimmer: Selected Early Poems 1970-1975 (1996), God Particles (2008), and most recently Child Made of Sand (2012).

He describes contemporary American poetry as "Burgeoning, chaotic, many, many good poets, a growing cultural profile, a healthy, squawking, boisterous, fractious, inclusive, tradition and (true) innovation marrying or colliding."

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