Thursday, October 25, 2007

1954 and I

I love what the OED online has to say about "autobiography," so I will cut and paste the whole main entry:

"The writing of one's own history; the story of one's life written by himself.

1797 Monthly Review 2nd Ser. XXIV. 375 It is not very usual in English to employ hybrid words partly Saxon and partly Greek: yet autobiography would have seemed pedantic. 1809 SOUTHEY in Q. Rev. I. 283 This very amusing and unique specimen of autobiography. 1828 CARLYLE Misc. (1857) I. 154 What would we give for such an Autobiography of Shakspeare. 1859 B. POWELL Ord. Nat. 252 Geology (as Sir C. Lyell has so happily expressed it) is ‘the autobiography of the earth.’"

The complaint from 1797 about the word's combining Greek and Saxon roots is lovely. (I have a colleague who loathes words that combine Greek and Latin words.) I almost never agree with Carlyle, but I agree with him on this sentiment: oh, for an autobiography by Shakespeare. And calling geology the autobiography of the earth: inspired. Thank you, Sir C. Lyell. And finally: how surprising that the word seems to have entered English as late as the late 18th century. I wonder when the term "celebrity autobiography" was first deployed.

Here's a (non-celebrity) autobiographical poem:

1954: The Situation

On January 29, 1:06 a.m. I was made available for appointments
with the world.
Meetings occurred between me, air, light, milk, mother, father,
brothers, snow, odors, trees, fabric, belly aches, noise. Like
other newborns, I did not know who or where I was. Did I
that I was? Like some other newborns, I had the makings
of brown hair, blues eyes, and one hammer-toe.

Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
Permanent Committee on Investigaions. Korean Peninsula. Eli
Lilly designs LSD for the CIA.

Rather late in the game, I walked: May of 1955.
I was neither reluctant nor satisfied. Lore says
I walked for a beer held by my Aunt Nevada;

more is the pity.
I wouldn’t have walked just for beer or
just for Aunt Nevada,
but the beer and smiling
Nevada (nicknamed "Babe") together
were too much to resist, says the lore.
Questions persist: If your name
is Nevada, why do you need a nickname,
and if you do need a nickname, why must
it be Babe?

Emmett Till. Allan Freed coins “Rock `n Roll.”
Sun Records signs Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins,
Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. Emmett Till.

Also, I gathered (I gather) that walking
was expected of me. Okay, fine.

Distant Early Warning. The French withdraw
from Viet Nam. Good idea.

Many years later I took up dancing.
Also, I costumed myself in pajamas,
six-gun holsters, a variety of hats.

I was a humorless, earnest dancer
and had general problems with specific gravity.
Brother Sven was always quicker on the draw.
I learned to fall down dead.

Dick Nixon. Little Richard. The deaths of Henri
Matisse and Charles Ives. Emmett Till.

I took up reading and shadow-boxing.
I’ve since abandoned shadow-boxing
except in the most figurative sense.

"Friday Night Fights" on black-and-white TV.

At six I sat on slate steps, warm in
Sierra Nevada sun. My father had built them.
Mother was inside the house or sun-bathing
on the vast porch beneath a vast Sierra sky.
I thought,
“I am six, and I will remember this.”
I remember this because I willed myself
to remember this then: Memory for its own sake.

The invention of TV Dinners, advertised on TV.

Also I remember the magpie that would not
leave the woods. It let me come close and stare.
A rational bird, it was not afraid of me.
A discerning boy, I appreciated the gesture.
It seemed to want to be more than a magpie
or at least not wild. Having not been entirely
committed to walking, I understood the magpie’s
reluctance to fly, migrate, act frightened, etc.:

That is to say, “What’s the point—in what ways
will flying, migration, and fear materially
change the situation?”

It is much later now.
I have completed another sentence.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

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