What is asked of one is not what is asked of another.
A sweater takes on the shape of its wearer,
a coffee cup sits to the left or the right of the workspace,
making its pale Saturn rings of now and before.
Lucky the one who rises to sit at a table,
day after day spilling coffee sweet with sugar, whitened with milk.
Lucky the one who writes in a book of spiral-bound mornings
a future in ink, who writes hand unshaking, warmed by thick wool.
Lucky still, the one who writes later, shaking. Acrobatic at last, the
elastic as breath that enters what shape it is asked to.
Patient the table; unjudging, the ample, refillable cup.
Irrefusable, the shape the sweater is given,
stretched in the shoulders, sleeves lengthened by unmetaphysical
“Sweater” by Jane Hirshfield from Come, Thief. © Knopf, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of Wilhelm Karl Grimm (books by this author), born in Hanau, Germany (1786). He and Jacob, his older brother, published Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812), the first collection of folklore in modern publishing history. Wilhelm was more romantic and literary, and Jacob was more intellectual. For the most part, Wilhelm found the stories, and Jacob theorized about them.
It is the birthday of Weldon Kees (books by this author), born in Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1914. Kees first poetry collection was published in 1943, the first of three collections to be released in his lifetime. He wrote a handful of poems about a character named Robinson. Robinson, “in a Glen plaid jacket, Scotch-grain shoes … his sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf.” He moved to New York City and began attending parties with literary critics like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling. But he never felt comfortable in that society.
To supplement his poetry income he became a film critic. At some point Kees took up painting and did well. His name was listed beside the greats of his time, his work hanging beside that of Picasso, Mondrian, and de Kooning. He also collaborated with musicians on the San Francisco jazz scene for a number of years.
In 1955, Kees made a phone call to a friend. At the end of their conversation he asked her, “What keeps you going?” Later that day, Kees packed a sleeping bag and his savings account book and disappeared. His car was discovered abandoned on the Golden Gate Bridge, and to this day no one knows for certain whether he killed himself or went to Mexico.
It’s the birthday of educator and writer Mary Ellen Chase (books by this author), born in Blue Hill, Maine (1887), a seacoast village founded in 1762 by her ancestors. She wrote A Goodly Heritage (1932), Silas Crockett (1935), and Windswept (1941), about the seafaring life of people living in rural Maine. She taught at Smith College for almost 30 years, influencing students such as Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Sylvia Plath, and Betty Friedan. She said: “Most readers think that a novel is, first of all, a story. Well, it really isn’t … A novel is an evolution of life. Its story is merely a means to an end.”
It’s the birthday of novelist George Augustus Moore (books by this author), born in County Mayo, Ireland (1852), who was, he later said, “the boy that no schoolmaster wanted.” He read whatever novels and poetry he wanted rather than the assigned work, and in 1867 he was expelled for (as he described) “idleness and general worthlessness.”
His father wanted him to go into the military, but George wanted to be a painter. His father died, and George took his inheritance and moved to Paris to study art, and spent his time sitting in Parisian cafés reading philosophy. He had to return to Mayo, however, because his tenants had quit paying rent and the affairs of his estate were in financial disaster.
He decided to become a writer and moved to London. There he published his first novel, A Modern Lover, which was banned by libraries for its sexually explicit passages — which helped sales — and he began a lifelong crusade against censorship.
His other realist novels include A Mummer’s Wife (1885), A Drama in Muslin (1886), and Esther Waters (1894). He wrote a memoir, Confessions of a Young Man (1888), and some books of art criticism. In 1901, Moore returned to Ireland, and along with W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, he was a leader of the Irish Literary Revival.
He wrote, “A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”
Today is the birthday of Jane Hirshfield (books by this author), born in New York City (1953). She started writing poems as soon as she could write, and she bought her first book of poetry — a one-dollar book of Japanese haiku — when she was eight. “I don’t know what drew me so strongly to those poems,” she said, “or what I could have seen in them at that age, but I recognized something that I absolutely knew I had to have in my life.” At Princeton, where she was a member of the first graduating class to include women, she began studying classical-era Japanese and Chinese literature. She published her first poem in 1973, and her first book of poems, Alaya, in 1982. Her other poetry collections include The Beauty (2015); After (2006); and Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001).
She was born to Jewish parents who weren’t particularly observant; she received no religious education, but they did hold a Passover Seder each year. She enjoyed customs like the bitter herbs and the salted hard-boiled egg, but never really felt that the Jewish tradition belonged to her and vice versa. At one point, when she was very small, she wished her family were Catholic so that she could be a nun when she grew up. Now she is an ordained lay practitioner of Zen Buddhism. “I came to California in 1974,” she said, “in a red Dodge van with yellow tied-dyed curtains, looking for a place to live and for what I thought might be a waitressing job that could support me while I wrote. But on the way, I took a detour. I was curious about Zen and knew there was a monastery, Tassajara, in the Ventana Wilderness inland from Big Sur. Because it was the summer guest season rather than the stricter winter practice period time, I was able to drive in over the rather perilous 14-mile dirt road and stay for a week as a ‘guest student.’ […] I decided to stay a few months, until I understood what Buddhism was all about. After a few months, what you understand is that you know nothing about what Buddhism is all about. […] I think of this time as the diamond at the center of my life. Whoever I now am came out of that experience.” She practiced Zen Buddhism full time for eight years, and wrote only one haiku during that period. When she left the monastery, she returned to poetry. “The ability to stay in the moment, to investigate it through my own body and mind, was what I most needed to learn at that point in my life,” she says. “To stay within my own experience more fearlessly. I think that’s why I needed to practice Zen, rather than go to graduate school. You cannot write until you know how to inhabit your own experience.”
In addition to her eight books of poetry, Hirshfield has also published two collections of essays. Her first was Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997). She wrote the essays over a span of 10 years. Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World came out in 2015. She’s translated a volume of Japanese poetry (The Ink Dark Moon, 1990), and has assembled an anthology of women’s spiritual writing (Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, 1994).