If I had to name the greatest songwriter of the 20th century, it would be Chuck Berry. But the second best would have to go to Hank Williams who was born on this day in 1923. Of course, I have a soft spot for people like Williams who are great artists but not so good at life. In his case, though, I think he had a lot of physical problems and pain—things that were never really diagnosed much less treated. (The same is true of Charlie Parker, whose birthday I seem to have missed!) In the end, he did not die from drugs but from bum heart. The Wikipedia page notes (without reference or argument) that this was “exacerbated by pills and alcohol.” Such is the level of thinking about drugs that everyone just “knows” that alcohol would make his heart worse. I’m curious how that would work.
Still, he left us a great songbook: “Move it on Over”; “Lovesick Blues”; “Why Don’t You Love Me”; “Cold, Cold Heart”; “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”; and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” And of course, there is “Hey Good Lookin'”:
The great novelist Ken Kesey was born in 1935. He was an interesting guy. He only left us two novels, but they were both great: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. The remaining 37 years of his life, he just fiddled around. And why not? It seems like he was having a great time. My problem with J. D. Salinger is that he was a recluse except when he was out trolling for young co-eds. And maybe it’s just a generational think, but I never engaged with The Catcher in the Rye, but I very much did with Kesey’s novels. Plus: Kesey’s novels are distinctly more filling. Of course, we know that Kesey must have been a lot of fun to hang around with—whether you were a pretty young girl or not.
Other notable birthdays: Justice Warren Burger (1907); actor Roddy McDowall (1928); actor Anne Bancroft (1931); the great comedic actor John Ritter (1948); novelist Mary Stewart (97); Justice David Souter (74); and film director Bryan Singer (48).
The day, however, belongs to the great poet William Carlos Williams who was born on this day in 1883. Unlike other great poets of that time like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Williams is joyously devoid of uncomfortable political overtones. To me, what is most important about his work is how he manages to plug into the musical nature of everyday speech. Especially in the twentieth century, there has been a tendency among poets to neglect the sound of their work. To me, it doesn’t much matter what else is going on, if it doesn’t sound interesting, it doesn’t work. For all my dislike of E. E. Cummings, he clearly enjoys playing with the sound of his words. Of course, Williams is more than just sound. He was a keen observer of life and there is a kind of stark spirituality to it that I greatly admire. But that may come out of my great interest in his earlier work.
I’m sure you know “The Red Wheelbarrow,” so I won’t bore you with it, even though I find it eternally fascinating. Instead, here is “The Dark Day,” which is from the same period (from Sour Grapes):
I never have much to say about Williams’ best work. I just feel that I enter its world. In this, I like the image of people “drawn in upon themselves.” I’ve never given it much thought, but that is how people walk the rain—especially a rain that has gone on so long that everything is soaked. There is also the great sense of being inside, watching what goes on outside. We are insulated except for the “interminable talking, talking, talking.” But I don’t pretend to understand it all. I have no idea what he means about the white poppy. I’m even unclear about the ending, except for the vague notion that with endless repetition time could as easily go backward as forward.
Happy birthday William Carlos Williams!