Sep 30, 2011

The Writer's Almanac for September 29, 2011

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Sep. 29, 2011

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Living Things

by Anne Porter

Our poems
Are like the wart-hogs
In the zoo
It's hard to say
Why there should be such creatures

But once our life gets into them
As sometimes happens
Our poems
Turn into living things
And there's no arguing
With living things
They are
The way they are

Our poems
May be rough
Or delicate
Or great

But always
They have inside them
A confluence of cries
And secret languages

And always
They are improvident
And free
They keep
A kind of Sabbath

"Living Things" by Anne Porter, from An Altogether Different Language. © Zoland Books, 1994. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

In the Christian world, today is Michaelmas, feast day of the archangel Michael, which was a very important day in times past, falling near the equinox and so marking the fast darkening of the days in the northern world, theboundary of what was and what is to be. Today was the end of the harvest and the time for farm folk to calculate how many animals they could afford to feed through the winter and which would be sold or slaughtered. It was the end of the fishing season, the beginning of hunting, the time to pickapples and make cider.

Today was a day for settling rents and accounts, which farmers often paid for with a brace of birds from the flocks hatched that spring. Geese were given to the poor and their plucked down sold for the filling of mattresses and pillows.

Michaelmas was the time of the traditional printer's celebration, the wayzgoose, the day on which printers broke from their work to form the last of their pulp into paper with which to cover their open windows against the coming cold — the original solution for those who could notafford glass yet had more than nothing — and the advent of days spent working by candlelight.

In the past, the traditional Michaelmas meal would have been a roast stubble goose — the large gray geese that many of us only get to admire at our local state and county fairs. Today, when most poultry comes from the grocery store in parts and wrapped in plastic, a roast goose can be adifficult luxury to obtain, but any homey, unfussy meal is a fine substitute — especially with a posy of Michaelmas daisies or purple asters on the table.

In folklore, it is said that when Michael cast the Devil from Heaven, the fallen angel landed on a patch of blackberry brambles and so returns this day every year to spit upon the plant that tortured him. For this reason, blackberries would not be eaten after today, and so folks would gatherthem in masses on Michaelmas to put into pies and crumbles and preserves. And they would bake St. Michael's bannocks, a large, flat scone of oats and barley and rye, baked on a hot griddle and then eaten with butter or honey or a pot of blackberry preserves.

Whether you recognize Michaelmas or not, you can still greet what comes with the symbols of today: gloves, for open-handedness and generosity; and ginger to keep you warm and well in the coming cold.

Because today is the feast of Saint Michael, it is the day deemed to have been the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (books by this author), author of Don Quixote and Spain's greatest literary figure. Cervantes's exact date of birth is unknown, although it was the custom in Spain to name a baby for the feastday on which he was born, and given that Cervantes was baptized just 10 days later, on October 9th, it is probable that today was his birthday.

Cervantes was born in a small university town near Madrid, the fourth of seven children. Miguel's father was an itinerant surgeon — a profession with no exact analogue in modern medicine — who struggled to maintain his practice and family as they traveled the length and breadth ofSpain. The boy received some formal education, and he made his first literary efforts in the form of four poems written in 1568 on the death of the Queen of Spain, but little more than this is known of his early life.

A soldier by his early 20s, Cervantes sustained three gunshot wounds during a major naval battle and his left hand was rendered useless — an injury he would bear with pride. After six months in a hospital in Messina, Cervantes returned to active duty until, in 1575, the galley on which hewas sailing was captured by corsairs and he was carried off to Algiers as their prisoner. Despite numerous escape attempts fueled by his belief that "one should risk one's life for honor and liberty," Cervantes was held prisoner for five years until his ransom was paid and he was finally liberatedin September 1580.

Back in Spain, with little or no prospects and deeply in debt for the ransom that was paid for him, Cervantes was obliged to earn a living as a tax collector. It was an indigent and wandering lifestyle, a vocation for which he had little aptitude and a situation that led to variousmisadventures, including excommunication for excessive zeal in collecting wheat, and at least three imprisonments for charges as varied as accounting irregularities and suspicion of murder.

Although all of Cervantes's important works belong to his later years, he began his literary career almost upon returning to Spain, beginning as a dramatist with 20 to 30 relatively successful plays in a six-year span, and his first novel, La Galatea, in 1585. It seems that Cervantes'sgreatest unrealized dream was to be a poet, although one of his contemporaries once stated that among the new poets there was none so bad as Cervantes, and even Cervantes himself recognized that he did not seem to possess the gift.

But Cervantes's gift for prose was another matter. When in 1605 he published his magnum opus, Don Quixote — the tale of an elderly but absurd knight-errant and his squire, it was an immediate success and went through six editions that year alone. Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevskyexplained something of the workings of the book in an 1868 letter to his niece, saying: "All writers, not just ours, but European writers, too, have always failed whenever they attempted a portrait of the positively beautiful ... There is only one positively beautiful person in the world,Christ, and the phenomenon of this limitlessly, infinitely beautiful person in an infinite miracle in itself ... But I am going too far. I'd only mention that of all the beautiful individuals in Christian literature, one stands out as the most perfect, Don Quixote ... Whenever compassion towardridiculed and ingenious beauty is presented, the reader's sympathy is aroused. The mystery of humor lies in this excitation of compassion." William Shakespeare most certainly read the most perfect Don Quixote (and wrote the now-lost play Cardenio based on a scene from the book),but it is doubtful that Cervantes ever heard of Shakespeare.

Don Quixote has come to be considered the first modern novel, and is considered to be among the best works of fiction ever written. It is a lush and satirical invective against its contemporary chivalrous novels, but it is the book's immense panorama of individuals and adventure, andthe humor, understanding of and compassion for the human condition that have made Don Quixote so profoundly influential over to so many over so great a span. If, in Cervantes's words from Don Quixote, "the proof of the pudding is in the eating," then the proof of his book is inthe countless readers that have devoured it with pleasure for more than 400 years.

Of Cervantes's burial place, nothing is known except that he requested in his will to be laid to rest at a neighboring convent. A few years after Cervantes died, the convent moved and, in their tradition, carried their dead along. Whether or not the remains of the author were among these isunknown, and any clue to their final resting place has been lost.

Colin Dexter (books by this author),critically acclaimed and award-winning English mystery writer, was born today in Lincolnshire in 1930. He is best known for his Inspector Morse series — mysteries centered on two policemen who investigate crime in Oxford University and the city itself, touching on the long-standing rivalrybetween the ancient academy and the town that has grown around it — and the numerous episodes of the BBC show, Mystery!, that these stories have inspired.

Dexter's parents had both been forced by circumstance to leave school when they were 12, and were therefore eager that their own two sons take advantage of every opportunity available to them, exhorting the boys to work diligently in all things. In an autobiographical statement for WorldAuthors, Dexter recalls that his schooldays "were largely conditioned by a kind of benign emotional blackmail," he and his brother freed from making beds, cleaning shoes, emptying chamber pots, or any of the other "household duties which have so often been the cause of family strife." The boys'primary job was with "the books."

Dexter was a clever child, won a school scholarship and a good many school prizes, spent his time happily in the company of Greek and Latin authors, and discovered that he could "write English reasonably well." As a young man, he was conscripted into the army and spent most of his time inGermany receiving high-speed Morse code messages. He returned to England and a place at Cambridge, coming to think somewhat snootily of himself for having attended one of the world's great universities. Dexter became a schoolmaster until he began to go deaf and then spent the rest of hisprofessional academic career pushing papers and "licking envelopes." He retired at 58, determined that if he should "return to the human scene in some future reincarnation, I shall become a Quaker, and take up bird watching."

As a schoolmaster, Dexter had co-authored a few textbooks and therefore had some small experience with writing, so in 1973, on a dank and drizzly Sunday afternoon during a family holiday in North Wales, he covered one page of an exercise book with what would become the first few paragraphs ofhis first Inspector Morse whodunit, Last Bus to Woodstock.

Dexter's number-one writing rule, as he explained in a 2000 interview in The Guardian, is to get something, no matter how bad, onto paper, because even doing two or three dreadful pages a day soon leads to a book. He writes his mysteries from beginning to end, although it's "prettydreadful stuff, really" when he starts, and when he gets to the end he starts back at the beginning and goes over it all again. Dexter is more focused on plot than character, and considers himself primarily a storyteller, feeling that the central purpose of art is to delight — not todisregard art as a means to instruct, persuade, or delight — asking of his own readers only that they keep turning his pages with enjoyment.

In many ways, Inspector Morse is something of a semi-autobiographical character, he and Dexter sharing a passion for booze, opera, classical music, and words. They have even shared an illness — diabetes — and the somewhat bizarre experience of trying to offer their mortal remains tomedical research, only to find it a more torturous process than expected. But Dexter has set out to make his Inspector more complex and human by giving him some deliberately irritating foibles: a bit of selfishness and snobbery, rudeness and stinginess, and a penchant for falling in love withfemale crooks.

Inspector Morse and his sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, have thrilled readers for more than 30 years, but in 1999 Dexter killed off Morse in the final book of the series, The Remorseful Day, when the detective finally succumbed to the complications of his long-neglected diabetes. In the sameGuardian interview, Dexter admitted that he missed "the old boy more than most people," but that, between his age and encroaching ill health, turning out a book every two years was taking too much out of him.

The London Times includes Dexter as one of its "50 Greatest Crime Writers," and in 2002 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his services to literature. But Dexter considers his success to be more a product of luck than anything else, saying that "luck plays a far biggerpart in the scheme of things than is generally conceded," and that his own life has been beset by good fortune. The greatest of these, he adds, was having met Dorothy Dexter, his wife of 40 years, with whom he currently resides in Oxford.

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