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Photo of Alice Walker.

February 9, 2018 – Writers’ & Poets’ Birthdays & Other Literary History

Today is Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. It’s the birthday of writers Alice Walker and J. M. Coetzee. It’s also the birthday of poet Amy Lowell and playwright Brendan Behan. Just a quick ask before we begin. This blog relies on our readers sharing it with others. If you enjoy Bidwell Hollow, please take a moment to share this blog on social media or by emailing it to someone you think may enjoy it. We Thank you for your support.

Alice Walker

Today is the birthday of Alice Walker (affiliate link). She was born in Eatonton, GA in 1944.

Walker was a child when one of her brothers shot her right eye with a BB gun. Her parents were sharecroppers who didn’t have much money or a car. Days passed before they could get Walker to a doctor.

By that time, Walker had lost the ability to see out of the damaged eye.

Instead of making her daughter help with chores, Walker’s mom gave her a typewriter. Thus Walker spent much of her childhood writing and observing others.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1965, Walker headed to Mississippi. She taught, lent a hand to the civil rights movement, and wrote.

Walker published a volume of poetry, “Once,” in 1968. Her first novel came out in 1970 (“The Third Life of Grange Copeland”). And, after moving to New York City, she published a second novel, “Meridian,” in 1976.

But it was Walker’s 1982 novel, “The Color Purple,” that grabbed the most attention. Written as a series of letters, the book is about an African-American woman’s awakening in a small Georgian town in the first-half of the 20th century.

“The Color Purple” won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Steven Spielberg turned the book into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey.

Walker continued to write after “The Color Purple.” She’s published novels, poetry, short story collections, and essays. Her work focuses on African-American culture and experiences, particularly those of black women.

Another contribution Walker’s made to literature is the rediscovery of writer Zora Neale Hurston.

Hurston was part of the Harlem Renaissance but had slipped into obscurity by the time she died in 1960.

In 1975, Walker lauded Hurston in an essay in Ms. magazine. She encouraged people to read Hurston’s work.

They did, and many continue to read Hurston still today.

Brendan Behan

Cover of Brendan Behan's "Confessions of an Irish Rebel."

Affiliate link

Also born today, in Dublin in 1923, was playwright and writer Brendan Behan (affiliate link).

Behan’s family was involved in Ireland’s struggle against British rule. His father was in a British prison when Behan was born. And an uncle, Peader Kearney, wrote what is now Ireland’s national anthem. Thus Behan got involved with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) early in life.

This led to many stints in jail and prison for Behan. He used one such experience as inspiration for a play, “The Quare Fellow.” It’s a tragicomedy about prisoners and jailers dealing with a man who’s sentenced to hang.

The play opened in Dublin in 1954 to instant success. It debuted in London two years later and made the jump to Broadway in 1958.

That same year, Behan’s “The Hostage” premiered in Dublin. The play satirizes the IRA holding a British soldier captive to prevent one of their own from being executed. Like “The Quare Fellow,” the production went from Dublin to London and then New York in 1960.

But by this time, Behan’s health began to fail due to a lifelong battle with alcohol. He’d done bouts in jail and hospitals over the years due to alcoholism.

Brendan Behan passed away in 1964 at 41 years of age.

J. M. Coetzee

Cover of J. M. Coetzee's "Disgrace."

Affiliate link

It’s the birthday of J. M. Coetzee (affiliate link), born in 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa.

Coetzee’s published several novels and a few nonfiction books. He’s the first author to win two Man Booker Prizes, first for 1983’s “Life & Times of Michael K” and again in 1999 for “Disgrace.”

It’s the latter novel that created an uproar, though, in Coetzee’s native South Africa. The book attempts to illustrate changes occurring in post-apartheid South Africa.

But some South Africans claimed the book didn’t represent their country. They criticized Coetzee’s treatment of the book’s black characters and culture. Some called Coetzee a racist.

In 2002, Coetzee left South Africa for Australia. A year later, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Amy Lowell

And today is the birthday of poet Amy Lowell (affiliate link), born in Brookline, MA in 1874.Photo of Amy Lowell seated in a chair reading a book.

At 28 Lowell decided to become a poet. She spent eight years studying technique and reading from each school of poetry.

Then in 1910, she published her first poem, “Fixed Idea,” in The Atlantic Monthly. Two years later Lowell released her first collection, “A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass.”

And in 1913 Lowell visited England. She had a letter of introduction to poet Ezra Pound, written by Poetry magazine editor Harriet Monroe. Pound and Lowell became friends, with Lowell drawn to Pound’s Imagist movement.

Back in the States, Lowell worked to make Imagist poetry popular in America. She edited and contributed to an anthology of Imagist poetry in 1916. And she added a second volume the following year.

True to Imagism, Lowell’s own poetry focused on the visual world. Her poems avoided emotions and instead described things, places, and physical spaces.

Lowell published about 650 poems in her lifetime, including a volume published after her death in 1925. That collection, “What’s O’Clock,” won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

“Pathological Empathy”

It irritates us

& what might that be


as in

it drives me crazy


something nearly nothing

& really irrelevant


something almost nothing

something from one’s childhood


that changes you forever

so much so


it’s unforgettable

like Fellini


the first time

or some song


I like how people like to think

of the end of the world


from time to time

how small we let ourselves be


to be able to say

beginning with everything beginning


to be never-ending

because we can imagine that


because our minds do that to us

without fail


drilling down paradox directly into us

as sure as sure can be


right from the beginning

and what is that anyway


something to be sad to lose

to be knowing


if not now eventually

something to be crying over


when anyone complains

how poems are hard to understand


for instance

aren’t they really complaining


that life is impossible

to understand


and that we spend most of it

keeping ourselves distracted


from the unanswerable

and therefore, what,


idiotic line of questioning

as it turns out


most comparisons are,

as if


the love of one’s life’s death

can be compared


to the worst breakup of all time

or as if some of what


you miss

you never knew to miss it


or anyone who knows

the feeling of waiting


through the night

for a loved one to appear


and to be put away

for safekeeping


or how it is when

a fever subsides


or a cough is codeine quelled

or a fever breaks


and one no longer stands

on the edge of panic

– “Pathological Empathy” from In the Still of the Night. Copyright 2017 by Dara Wier. Used with permission of the author and Wave Books.

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