“To Survive You Must Tell Stories.” –Umberto Eco

 

What a wonderful way to begin the first of March with the celebration of 3 writers born today!  Ralph Ellison, novelist and essayist, was born in 1914 in Oklahoma; poet Robert Lowell was born in Boston in 1917 and poet Richard Wilbur was born in 1921 in NYC. Ellison didn’t grow up believing he would be a writer; he was more interested in composing, but after meeting Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, his direction changed. Lucky us!  Robert Lowell had bipolar disorder and struggled with that in and out of mental institutions all of his life. Richard Wilbur started out as a journalist, but while serving in WW II, he read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe and started composing poems about the loneliness he was feeling. Wilbur wrote, “I would feel dead if I didn’t have the ability periodically to put my world in order with a poem. I think to be inarticulate is a great suffering, and is especially so to anyone who has a certain knack for poetry.”The Writer’s Almanac   

The opening line of Ralph Ellison’s most famous novel and even the very first paragraph of that novel continues to be studied throughout the world:

”I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”  Sadly, we still have too many “invisible” men, women and children throughout the world.

On a lighter note, The Who’s Roger Daltry is 70 years old today!!!!!!   I have great memories of seeing The Who several times at the Fillmore East in NYC.

 

 

 

 

 

“I Lit My Purest Candle…”-Tim Buckley

 

You see, I am a poet, and not quite right in the head, darling. It’s only that.”

-Edna St. Vincent Millay

Tim Buckley’s “Morning Glory” song is one of my favorites of all of his compositions. Another poet who used a candle in one of her most famous poems was born today in 1892 in Maine: Edna St. Vincent Millay.  Coming from an impoverished background, Millay couldn’t afford college; one day a woman heard a young Edna recite one of her poems and decided to pay Millay’s tuition for Vassar College. After graduating, Edna St. Vincent Millay made her home in Greenwich Village along with so many other writers and musicians. She was very popular during the Jazz Age.  Millay was the first female to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her poetry volume, “The Harp Weaver,” which contains a favorite childhood poem of mine, “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,” which begins with:

“SON,” said my mother,

  When I was knee-high,

“You’ve need of clothes to cover you,

  And not a rag have I.”

Speaking Clearly and Mr. Tolson

    

“Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.”Oliver Wendell Holmes

As an educator, I’ve always found it very important to enunciate each and every sound for my students as I spoke and also to be a model for how they should speak. My students came from all over the world and I would put them in situations where, even though they didn’t know English, they were supplied the words in order to make them feel comfortable, have the new words roll around their tongues, feel good about themselves and shine. The classroom was our stage and we also used the auditorium stage as well as marching into other classrooms and performing. They loved performing, even if they just entered my classroom that day!  It was always an accepting learning environment. A few years ago, the movie, “The Great Debaters” came out starring Denzel Washington as the debate team’s coach, Melvin B. Tolson. Well, today is Mr. Tolson’s birthday and he was born in 1898 in Missouri.

In 1924, Melvin Tolson accepted a position as instructor of English and speech at Wiley College. While at Wiley, he taught, wrote poetry and novels, coached football and directed plays. In 1929, Tolson coached the Wiley debate teams, which established a ten-year winning streak. The Debate Team beat the larger black schools of its day like Tuskegee, Fisk and Howard.

 After a visit to Texas, Langston Hughes  wrote that “Melvin Tolson is the most famous Negro professor in the Southwest. Students all over that part of the world speak of him, revere him, remember him and love him.”

 According to James Farmer, Tolson’s drive to win, to eliminate risk, meant that his debaters were actors more than spontaneous thinkers. Tolson wrote all the speeches and the debate team memorized them. He drilled them on every gesture and every pause. Tolson was so skilled at the art of debating that he also figured out the arguments that opponents would make and wrote rebuttals for them-before the actual debate.

 In 1930, he pursued a master’s degree in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University; met V.F. Calverton, editor of Modern Quarterly; wrote “Cabbages and Caviar” column for The Washington Tribune and organized sharecroppers in South Texas.

 In 1935, he led the Wiley Debate Team to the national championship to defeat the University of Southern California before an audience of eleven hundred people. In 1947 he was appointed poet laureate of Liberia by President V. S. Tubman. He left Wiley to become professor of English and Drama at Langston University in Oklahoma.”Wiley College

Melvin B. Tolson was also a writer and a poet. I love his ode to Louis Armstrong:

                                      Old Satchmo’s

                   gravelly voice and tapping foot and crazy notes

                                      set my soul on fire.

                                            If I climbed

                         the seventy-seven steps of the Seventh

                 Heaven, Satchmo’s high C would carry me higher!

                      Are you hip to this, Harlem?  Are you hip?

                           On Judgment Day, Gabriel will say

                                  after he blows his horn:

                    “I’d be the greatest trumpeter in the Universe,

                         if old Satchmo had never been born!”

 

 

 

“Jump At De Sun”-Zora Neale Hurston

  

“I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.”

     – Letter from Zora Neale Hurston to Countee Cullen

Jump At De Sun,” good advice from parent to child; similar to Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son” poem where the Mom orders her child, “So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.” I used to read that poem all the time in my classroom and other classrooms throughout the school building. It was part of my repertoire as a teacher.

When I was a young woman, about 30, I read everything I could about and by Zora Neale Hurston. I fell in love with “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and that propelled me to learn more about her. She was a very intriguing individual to say the least. Hurston was part of the Harlem Renaissance and she spent many, many years traveling the South, getting to know people, listening carefully to their stories and how they expressed them in their varied dialects and then used those experiences as inspiration for her stories. 

“In Their Eyes Were Watching God, talk is a character in its own right. Janie Starks is, as was Zora Neale Hurston growing up in Eatonville, Fla., immersed in the speech of people who speak freely in towns that are populated and governed almost exclusively by black Americans. In the fictional town created by Hurston, talk is made of “Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.”[2]”-PBS

She went to Howard University; was offered a scholarship to Barnard (Class of 1928) and like so many of the Harlem Renaissance writers, had her share of benefactors that helped support her. It’s so sad that she died in poverty and no marker on her grave. The writer Alice Walker paid to have a headstone placed on Ms Hurston’s grave in 1973 with the epitaph: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”

Rev. W.A. Jennings, who delivered the eulogy at Zora’s funeral, disagreed with the press in its statement that Miss Hurston died penniless. “Oh, no! She died rich, as her various contributions will live on after she is gone.”-St. Lucie County Online

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What Does Not Change/Is the Will to Change”-Charles Olson (from his poem, The Kingfishers)

    

“Knowledge is the Harvest of Attention.”Charles Olson

During the 30s, 40s, 50s, there was a college set up in North Carolina called Black Mountain College, which truly stressed a liberal arts education with plenty of arts.  “Black Mountain College was born out of a desire to create a new type of college based on John Dewey’s principles of progressive education.”-blackmountaincollege.org American poet, Charles Olson was born today in 1910 and taught at Black Mountain College in the 40s and 50s. “The founders of the College believed that the study and practice of art were indispensable aspects of a student’s general liberal arts education, and they hired Josef Albers to be the first art teacher. Speaking not a word of English, he and his wife Anni left the turmoil in Hitler’s Germany and crossed the Atlantic Ocean by boat to teach art at this small, rebellious college in the mountains of North Carolina.”blackmountaincollege.org

As a teenager and young woman, I was very taken with Black Mountain Press and the whole history of Black Mountain College and the Black Mountain collective of writers, dancers, artists and thinkers that held the teaching of the Arts to a very high standard and knew its importance for a well-rounded education and for transmitting humanity and culture. Black Mountain College was a collective that left the running of the school and the curriculum to the experts: the teachers. Some of the luminaries that taught at Black Mountain College include: choreographer Merce Cunningham, artists Jacob Lawrence and Wilem de Kooning, and so many more. The school closed in 1957.

THESE DAYS by Charles Olson

whatever you have to say, leave

the roots on, let them

dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear

where they come from

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Universe is Made of Stories, Not Atoms.”-Muriel Rukeyser

         

“I remember mother saying   :    Inventors are like poets, a trashy lot-Muriel Rukeyser, “Waiting for Icarus”

Several years ago, when my son was obtaining his graduate degree at one of the fine colleges of the CUNY (City University of NY) system, he took a course focused on the Jewish American poet, Muriel Ruykeyser. His professor was a Rukeyser scholar. I had read her poetry as a teenager and young woman, but lost track. His course and a little help here and there as he had to do papers, refreshed my memory of this courageous poet who opened doors for other female poets in the 20th Century. Today, 12-15-13 is the Centennial Birthday of Muriel Rukeyser and her words reverberate just as strongly as they did when she put pen to paper.

beautiful Muriel, mother of Everyone.”-Anne Sexton, Poet

“Muriel Rukeyser loved poetry more than anyone I’ve ever known. She also believed it could change us, move the world.”Alice Walker (Muriel Rukeyser was her mentor!),

Here are sites to read brief bios of Rukeyser:

A Poet You May Want to Know Better

Jewish Women’s Archive

And to read some of her poems and prose:

MR: Muriel Rukeyser, A Living Archive

Poem by Muriel Rukeyser from “The Speed of Darkness,” 1968

I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

I would call my friends on other devices;

They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,

Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,

Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,

Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.

As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,

We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,

To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile

Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,

Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means

To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,

To let go the means, to wake.

 

I lived in the first century of these wars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Those Winter Sundays”-Robert Hayden

 “Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”-W.H. Auden

It’s 23 degrees and a cold blustery Sunday on the East Coast. The heat is coming up and I just finished my morning coffee. I revisited Robert Hayden’s poem this morning, Those Winter Sundays, and it brought to mind how we or how I do not say “Thank you” nearly enough to those who have loved us and helped us along the way. You can tell from the poem that Hayden endured a difficult childhood and/or relationship with his father and possibly other family members; yet regrets not expressing appreciation for the little things that his Dad did. I think it’s a beautiful poem. Happy Sunday Dear Readers and I hope you’re warm!

Oh…learned this morning that while Hayden was pursuing his graduate degree, he studied under W.H.Auden, another favorite poet of mine!

 Those Winter Sundays

 Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze.  No one ever thanked him.

 

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

 

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?