May 18, 2009


by Jo McDougall

From a wood beyond the fields,
something dark has not yet advanced
toward the yellow light
of the kitchen.
A woman puts away the dishes.
A man goes through the mail.
A child leans over the table,
saying her homework.

The dog looks up once and growls
as if not meaning to, a sound
almost inaudible.
He clicks across the floor, nosing for crumbs.

"Evening" by Jo McDougall, from Dirt. © Autumn House Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission (buy now)

It's the birthday of comedian Tina Fey, born in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania (1970). She worked with The Second City improve troupe, then as an actor and writer on Saturday Night Live,and went on to create her own TV series, 30 Rock.But she returned to SNL during the 2008 election to do a series of extremely popular impersonations of Governor Sarah Palin.

It's the birthday of Frank Capra, born in Bisacquino, Sicily (1897). He directed some of the most popular films of the 1930s and '40s, including It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). He said the moral of his movies was: "A simple honest man, driven into a corner by predatory sophisticates, can, if he will, reach down into his God-given resources and come up with the necessary handfuls of courage, wit, and love to triumph over his environment."

It's the birthday of Omar Khayyám, born in Nishapur, Iran (1048). During his lifetime, he was known as a scientist and a mathematician, and his treatise on algebra is considered one of the greatest mathematical works of the Middle Ages. But today we know him for his Rubáiyát — which means, simply, "quatrains," four-lined stanzas with a rhyming pattern.

In 1859, E.B. Cowell, a scholar of Persian at Oxford University, stumbled on a manuscript copy of 158 of Khayyám's quatrains at Oxford's Bodleian Library. He passed it on to one of his students, Edward FitzGerald, and FitzGerald translated 75 of the quatrains. He thought some of the quatrains were too sensual or made Khayyám seem too much like an atheist, so those he left in Persian, and he made liberal changes to the verses he did translate. FitzGerald self-published the Rubáiyát, and sold it in a local bookstore for a shilling, about 12 cents. But he didn't sell a single copy, so he moved it to the penny bin on the street, where it was picked up by Whitley Stokes, the editor of the famous weekly paper The Saturday Review.Stokes passed it on to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who passed it to Algernon Charles Swinburne, who gave it to George Meredith, and so on, and soon it was all the rage of the English and American literati. It became one of the most reproduced works of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Rubáiyát has been translated by many translators since then, some of them much more faithful to the original text, but it is FitzGerald's translation that remains the most popular in English. Here is his translation of one of Khayyám's quatrains:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow.

It was on this day in 1980 that Mount St. Helens erupted. There had been earthquakes and smaller steam eruptions in the volcano for two months, but on the morning of May 18, 1980, an earthquake caused the entire north side of the mountain to collapse. This caused the largest landslide in recorded history and a volcanic eruption that was as powerful as 500 atomic bombs. No one expected the eruption to be so large, but they did know it was coming, so the Forest Service had worked to keep visitors away, although 57 people still died. The blast destroyed 230 square miles of old-growth forest, and the ash was deposited in 11 states.

The volcano became active again in the fall of 2004. Lava flowed for a few years, but there were no major eruptions, and in January of 2008 the mountain went back into a dormant state. Today, more than 500,000 people visit Mount St. Helens each year.

It's the birthday of philosopher Bertrand Russell, born in Trellech, Wales (1872), into one of Britain's most prominent families. His parents were radical thinkers, and his father was an atheist, but both his parents died by the time he was four. They left their son under the care of radical friends, hoping he would be brought up as an agnostic, but his grandparents stepped in, discarded the will, and raised Bertrand and his brother in a strict Christian household.

As a teenager, Bertrand kept a diary, in which he described his doubts about God and his ideas about free will. He kept his diary in Greek letters so that his conservative family couldn't read it. Then he went to Cambridge and was amazed that there were other people who thought the way he did and who wanted to discuss philosophical ideas. He emerged as an important philosopher with The Principles of Mathematics (1903), which argued that the foundations of mathematics could be deduced from a few logical ideas. And he went on to become one of the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century. His History of Western Philosophy (1946) was a big best seller, and he was able to live off its royalties for the rest of his life.

He said, "The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »