Just for fun: we’re celebrating the lives of three poets that were changed this week in history, many years ago, and examining the curious ways one turn of events can change a legacy. Here are three world-altering events from three years in poetic history…
“The Raven” Is Born
On this day in 1845, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” one of the best-known poems in the English language, was first published. But it was no easy feat getting it into print. Poe first submitted the poem his friend and owner of Graham’s Magazine George Rex Graham, who declined. He did, however, give Poe $15 out of what could best be described as pity. The poem was eventually bought by The American Review, for $9. Still, Poe was not yet to become the household name he would shortly be; the magazine printed it under the pseudonym “Quarles.”
It was in the Evening Mirror that the poem first appeared with Poe’s name beneath it. Thanks to this publication, Edgar Allen Poe and his “Raven” achieved Read the rest of this entry »
Did you ever suspect the runaway best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey was written by robots? Well, somebody check E.L. James for vital signs because she might actually be an algorithm. Check this out:
Surely a human being would die of boredom before biting a lip in print forty-three times in one novel.
Actually, I’m skewing things a bit. But it is true that “[s]cientists have developed an algorithm which can analyse a book and predict with 84 per cent accuracy whether or not it will be a commercial success.” (Source)
By downloading books in public domain from Project Gutenberg , scientists from Stony Brook University in New York developed a program called “statistical stylometry, which mathematically examines the use of words and grammar” to determine the popularity of a book, matching the programs results to the sales of works from the past. The experiment involved a wide range of literary styles, from science fiction, to novels, to poetry. Factors in determining sales and popularity included the “style” of writing as well as novelty in plot and character (they do acknowledge that “luck” plays a role as well.)
The program accurately predicted success, or failure, of those works an astonishing 84% of the time.
So what factors seemed to indicate, in a more concrete way, what you should do to increase your odds of becoming a best-selling writer?
Is your Kindle finger itching? Do you have a yearning to go to the bookstore or library but don’t know what sounds good? Well, maybe this will help. Last night, this year’s National Book Awards were announced. Here is the complete list of winners and finalists.
James McBride took the fiction prize for his novel The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead Books/Penguin Group USA):
Abolitionist John Brown calls her “Little Onion,” but her real name is Henry. A slave in Kansas mistaken for a girl due to the sackcloth smock he was wearing when Brown shot his master, the light-skinned, curly-haired 12-year-old ends up living as a young woman, most often encamped with Brown’s renegade band of freedom warriors as they traverse the country, raising arms and ammunition for their battle against slavery. Though they travel to Rochester, New York, to meet with Frederick Douglass and Canada to enlist the help of Harriet Tubman, Brown and his ragtag army fail to muster sufficient support for their mission to liberate African Americans, heading inexorably to the infamously bloody and pathetic raid on Harpers Ferry. Starred Review, Booklist –Carol Haggas
Finalists for the prize included:
The winner for non-fiction is George Packer for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In 1972, poet Joseph Brodsky angered government officials in his native Russia and was expelled from the country. With the help of fellow poet W.H. Auden, Brodsky settled in the United States, found a position at Yale and taught classes at Mount Holyoke as well. Later, he accepted professorships at both Cambridge and the University of Michigan. (Not bad for an autodidact!)
Of the many opinions Brodsky espoused to his students was that they could not carry on intelligent conversations unless they had done fundamental reading in what he considered influential texts. He passed out a list of these works to everyone in his classes.
Monica Partridge, a former student at Mount Holyoke recalls an early class meeting with Brodsky. On the Brodsky Reading Group blog, Partridge wrote that
“Shortly after the class began, he passed out a handwritten list of books that he said every person should have read in order to have a basic conversation. At the time I was thinking, ‘Conversation about what?’ I knew I’d never be able to have a conversation with him, because I never thought I’d ever get through the list. Now that I’ve had a little living, I understand what he was talking about. Intelligent conversation is good. In fact, maybe we all need a little more.”
Here are the books or works on that list. I’m proud to say that unless the conversation turns to “Icelandic Sagas” I could pretty well hold my own at a Brodsky cocktail party…
Today would have been Albert Camus‘s 100th birthday.
I have had a crush on Albert Camus for a long time. C’mon… he’s hot, rebellious, an intellectual, and like most artists I’m madly in love with, dead… the ultimate unattainable.
Although he is often called an existentialist, Camus rejected that label (“Sartre and I are often surprised to see our names linked,” he once remarked.) Some critics and readers have instead called him an “absurdist,” which is sometimes thought of as the philosophy of the absurdity of the individual experience. However, Camus rejected this label as well. Camus’s philosophy is often called the “Paradox of Absurdity“:
The essential paradox arising in Camus’s philosophy concerns his central notion of absurdity. Accepting the Aristotelian idea that philosophy begins in wonder, Camus argues that human beings cannot escape asking the question, “What is the meaning of existence?” Camus, however, denies that there is an answer to this question, and rejects every scientific, teleological, metaphysical, or human-created end that would provide an adequate answer. Thus, while accepting that human beings inevitably seek to understand life’s purpose, Camus takes the skeptical position that the natural world, the universe, and the human enterprise remain silent about any such purpose. Since existence itself has no meaning, we must learn to bear an irresolvable emptiness. This paradoxical situation, then, between our impulse to ask ultimate questions and the impossibility of achieving any adequate answer, is what Camus calls the absurd. Camus’s philosophy of the absurd explores the consequences arising from this basic paradox.
Camus’s intellect is even more impressive when you know his background. His father died when he was very little. His mother worked as a washer woman and was deaf. Mother and son lived in Algiers (the setting of one of my favorite short stories, “The Guest“) where Albert was eventually accepted into the University of Algiers. His first and most famous novel L’Etranger (The Stranger) was published in 1942.