Jul. 12, 2001

Songs for a Colored Singer

by Elizabeth Bishop

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Poem: "I have no Life but this," by Emily Dickinson.

"I have no Life but this"

I have no Life but this —
To lead it here —
Nor any Death — but lest
Dispelled from there —

Nor tie to Earths to come —
Nor Action new —
Except through this extent —
The Realm of you —

It's the birthday of writer Donald E. Westlake, born in New York City in 1933. He is the author of more than 70 crime novels.

It's the birthday of novelist and memoirist Doris Grumbach, born in New York City in 1918. She had published two novels when she was asked to write a biography of Mary McCarthy. Her most recent book is The Pleasure of Their Company.

It's the birthday of painter Andrew Wyeth, born in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania in 1917, son of the influential illustrator N.C. Wyeth, who was his only teacher. He was a frail child who drew for hours every day. He has spent virtually his entire life in Chadds Ford and around Port Clyde, Maine, both of which have become known as "Wyeth Country."

It's the birthday of the poet Pablo Neruda, born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in Parral, Chile, in 1904. He used a pseudonym because his father, a railroad worker, disapproved of his son's artistic leanings.

It's the birthday of soprano Kirsten Flagstad, born into a family of musicians in Hamar, Norway, in 1895. She auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera in a heavily carpeted hotel room, muffling her sound, but was hired anyway because the company needed a soprano. At the first rehearsal, she astonished everyone with the true quality of her voice. As Siegelinde in Die Walküre, which became her signature role, and as Isolde, she became the Met's biggest box-office attraction since Caruso. She once sang two Wagner heroines on successive afternoons, and three on successive evenings.

It's the birthday of architect, engineer, and visionary R. Buckminster Fuller, in Milton, Massachusetts, in 1895. He had endured the death of a young daughter, and was working hard and drinking heavily when stockholders forced him out of the construction firm he had founded with his father-in-law. He contemplated suicide, but decided instead to do great things. He didn't speak for an entire year after that, and taught himself to get by on only two hours of sleep so he could devote more time to thinking. His most famous design was the geodesic dome, a tetrahedron-based structure in which the total strength of the frame increases in logarithmic ratio to its size.

It's the birthday of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, born in New York City in 1895.

It's the birthday of artist Amedeo Modigliani, born in Livorno, Italy, in 1884.

It's the birthday of photography pioneer George Eastman, born in Waterville, New York, in 1854. He helped promote large-scale amateur photography in 1888 by inventing a camera he called the Kodak.

It's the birthday of writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, born in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1817, where he lived all his life. He was one of the original Transcendentalists, valuing emotion over reason, intuition over the senses, and the individual over the masses. His first job was teaching school, but he was fired for being a poor disciplinarian. He worked in his father's small pencil-making business, where he learned the trick of reaching into a carton of pencils and grabbing exactly twenty, the number that went into the retail box. He never married, nor did his brother, his sisters, his aunts or his cousins. His biggest book was Walden, which came out in 1854. He could be prickly with adults, but got along well with children, including the young Louisa Mae Alcott. His journals run to thousands of pages, and he became a staunch abolitionist. In Walden he wrote, "I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Henry David Thoreau once said, "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."

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