Apr. 25, 2011


by Ted Kooser

What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

"Tattoo" by Ted Kooser, from Delights & Shadows. © Copper Canyon Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, born in Bologna, Italy, in 1874. He wasn't a very good student, but he was interested in electricity and the work of Heinrich Hertz, who had pioneered the production and detection of electromagnetic or "radio" waves.

Marconi began building his own equipment in the attic and conducting experiments when he was 20 years old. He wanted to improve on wireless telegraph technology, to make it more practical and able to transmit over longer distances. In 1895, he moved his equipment outdoors and was able to transmit over a hill, at a distance of just under a mile. Six years later, he sent and received a signal across the Atlantic Ocean. The two radio operators aboard the Titanic were employees of Marconi's corporation, and the British Postmaster General praised the new technology's role in the rescue of survivors, saying, "Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi ... and his marvelous invention."

Credit for the invention of radio comes down to a series of patent battles, and Nikola Tesla was Marconi's chief competitor. Tesla was ready to transmit a signal over 50 miles in 1895, but a fire destroyed his lab and all his work before he could carry out the test. Much of Marconi's work was performed using 17 components patented by Tesla, but Marconi's company had a higher profile, due in part to his family connections to the English aristocracy, and Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie were his backers. Tesla's patents were overturned in favor of Marconi's in 1904, and Marconi received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1911, but in 1943, the Supreme Court upheld Tesla's original patent.

Today is the birthday of poet Ted Kooser (books by this author), born in Ames, Iowa, in 1939. He flunked out of the University of Nebraska's graduate writing program and then, like Wallace Stevens before him, took a job in the insurance business, where he worked for many years. He would get up early and write poems for an hour and a half before he went to work. In 1999, he was diagnosed with cancer, so he retired from the writing as well as the insurance business. He went back to the writing eventually, pasting daily poems on the back of postcards and mailing them to his friend and fellow writer Jim Harrison.

He served as U.S. poet laureate from 2004 to 2006, the first poet laureate to be selected from the Great Plains, and during that time, he began a weekly newspaper column called "American Life in Poetry." His goal was to introduce simple poems about ordinary subjects to people who might not otherwise read poetry. He lives on a 62-acre spread near Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Kathleen Rutledge.

In 2006, an interviewer from Guernica Magazine asked him how success had changed his life, and he answered: "The image is this feeling like one of those telephone poles you see on the street on which a lot of notices have been stapled and then torn away, and they leave little triangles of paper, held by staples. On those notices were things lost and things found and the photos of people missing, and now even the photos are missing as a metaphor for what happens in life. All this experience is tacked upon us and then torn away, and we become a residue of all this experience."

On this day in 1953, in the journal Nature, James Watson and Francis Crick published a paper that first described the structure of DNA. They didn't discover DNA, as is popularly thought; that credit goes to a little-known Swiss chemist, Friedrich Miecher, all the way back in the late 1860s. But they did describe the DNA molecule as a three-dimensional double helix, and they did conclude, accurately, that this structure "suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."

And on this day 50 years later, in 2003, the Human Genome Project announced that it had finished identifying and mapping the genes in human DNA. The project began in 1989; it's the largest single investigation in modern science, and it was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. A parallel project in the private sector, run by Craig Venter and his company Celera Genomics, was undertaken in 1998. The company intended to patent 100 to 300 genes, but President Clinton declared in 2000 that the genome sequences could not be patented, and that the research should be given freely to the scientific community. Celera's stock plummeted and the biotechnology sector was sent reeling.

The project yielded some surprising findings. Scientists expected to find that humans had more than 100,000 genes; it turns out we have only around 30,000 — about the same as mice. The genes themselves are mostly similar to mice and other mammals too, with only a few exceptions. The gene sequence is published on the Internet and available to the public. The next phase of the research, the International HapMap Project, aims to establish a list of common genetic variants, since everyone's DNA — with the exception of identical twins and clones — is unique to them.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the poet and journalist James Fenton (books by this author), born in Lincoln, England (1949). His poetry collections include Put Thou Thy Tears Into My Bottle, 1969; A German Requiem, 1981; Dead Soldiers, 1981; The Memory of War and Children in Exile and Manila Envelope, 1989. Some of his journalism has been collected in All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of Asia, 1989.

He only decided to become a poet in college after he had dropped English literature as his major. He had decided he was more interested in anthropology, but then he happened to pick up a book of poems by W.H. Auden, and he was totally blown away. He later said, "I read Auden, and Auden was the hero, and for me in all sorts of different ways [he] still is."

James Fenton said, "The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation."

And, "The lullaby is the spell whereby the mother attempts to transform herself back from an ogre to a saint."

It's the birthday of fiction writer Howard Garis (books by this author), born in Binghamton, New York (1873). He's the creator of the pink-nosed elderly rabbit named Uncle Wiggily. He published an Uncle Wiggily story in the Newark News six days a week for 37 years, introducing the world to such characters as Baby Bunny, Skiller Scaller, and Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy. He also wrote hundreds of books for young adults.

It's the birthday of the "First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald, born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1917. She is widely considered to be the greatest jazz singer ever, and one of the best singers in all of 20th-century music.

Ella Fitzgerald loved to sing and dance as a child, and when she was 16, she entered a contest at the Apollo Theater, at that time no more than a hip local club in Harlem. She had a dance routine worked out and walked on stage wearing ragged clothes and men's boots, but she froze up. Later she said: "I got out there and I saw all the people and I just lost my nerve. And the man said, 'well, you're out here, do something!' So I tried to sing." She sang Connee Boswell's "Judy" and received such an ovation that she stayed on to sing "The Object of My Affection." She won the contest and soon became a celebrity across all of New York. She joined Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington as the only performers who could draw audiences at the Apollo from south of 125th Street.

She rose to international stardom in the '40s, joining the Philharmonic tour and working with such musicians as Louis Armstrong, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. Ira Gershwin once said, "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them."

Ella Fitzgerald said: "I know I'm no glamour girl, and it's not easy for me to get up in front of a crowd of people. It used to bother me a lot, but now I've got it figured out that God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing."

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
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