Aug. 24, 2013


by John Ashbery

How funny your name would be
if you could follow it back to where
the first person thought of saying it,
naming himself that, or maybe
some other persons thought of it
and named that person. It would
be like following a river to its source,
which would be impossible. Rivers have no source.
They just automatically appear at a place
where they get wider, and soon a real
river comes along, with fish and debris,
regal as you please, and someone
has already given it a name: St. Benno
(saints are popular for this purpose) or, or
some other name, the name of his
long-lost girlfriend, who comes
at long last to impersonate that river,
on a stage, her voice clanking
like its bed, her clothing of sand
and pasted paper, a piece of real technology,
while all along she is thinking, I can
do what I want to do. But I want to stay here.

"Myrtle" by John Ashbery, from Notes from the Air. © Ecco, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the baptismal day of poet Robert Herrick (1591) (books by this author). He is best known for the poem "To the Virgins, to make much of Time," and the lines, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying, / And this same flower that smiles to-day / To-morrow will be dying."

He worked as a goldsmith, went to college, and left London for the English countryside, where he stayed for many years and wrote most of his poetry. He wrote short lyric poems and songs. He wrote about seducing women and taking advantage of your youth, but he never married and most of the women in his poems were probably imaginary. His poetry was distributed among friends, and eventually reached people in higher places, making Herrick known throughout England.

It's the birthday of novelist A.S. Byatt (books by this author), born Antonia Susan Drabble in Sheffield, England (1936). She grew up in a literary family, and she was a shy girl. She said she didn't speak to anyone voluntarily until she was 16. She went to a Quaker boarding school, and in order to be alone, she made a secret workspace for herself in the school's boiler room, where she could read and write by the light of the fire.

For 25 years, she worked as a teacher and a mother, and wrote several novels on the side, none of which sold well. Finally, when she was 48 years old, she quit her job and devoted herself to her writing, and the result was Possession (1990), about a pair of literary critics falling in love as they uncover the story of two Victorian poets who fell in love more than a hundred years in the past. In order to write the book, she composed dozens of poems in the Victorian style by each of the two Victorian lovers.

Possession won the Booker Prize and became a best-seller in both Great Britain and the United States.

It's the birthday of short-story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges (books by this author), born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1899). After studying in Europe, he moved back to Argentina and got a job at a small municipal library, eventually working his way up to director of the National Library of Buenos Aires. He was able to complete his library work in one hour every morning, and he spent the rest of the day wandering the stacks, reading, or writing. It was there that he began to write the short stories for which he is remembered.

Instead of writing novels, Borges said he preferred to write about imaginary novels, and many of his short stories are literary essays about these imaginary books. One of his first stories, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" (1941), is about a man who attempted to rewrite Don Quixote, word for word. In another story, he wrote about a false encyclopedia that begins to infect reality with its fictional history. His stories were collected in books such as Garden of Forking Paths (1941) and Ficciones (1944).

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