Oct. 26, 2013

i thank You God for most this amazing

by E. E. Cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

"i thank You God for most this amazing" by E.E. Cummings, from 100 Selected Poems. © Grove Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Beryl Markham (books by this author), born Beryl Clutterbuck on this day in 1902 in Leicester, England. She wrote just one book in her life; her 1942 memoir, West with the Night, prompted the following letter from Ernest Hemingway to his editor that same year: "... she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer ... this girl ... can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers."

Hemingway, who typically savaged other writers rather than praising them, had known Markham from a safari he'd taken in Kenya, where she had grown up. Markham's family had moved to colonial East Africa when she was three. Markham learned to speak several African languages and how to hunt wild game with a spear, was once attacked by a friend's pet lion, and fought and killed a deadly black mamba snake.

Markham married a wealthy young Englishman named Mansfield Markham in 1927; the couple moved to England and Beryl gave birth to a son, but her marriage soon ended and she returned to Africa alone.

Back in Africa, Markham took her first plane ride, with a friend who was a big-game hunter and a pilot, and it so thrilled her that she immediately decided she would learn to fly. Within months she earned her pilot's license, bought a plane, and began a career as a bush pilot, delivering supplies and passengers to remote areas, rescuing miners and hunters from the bush, finding elephants and game for wealthy hunters, and learning to land her plane in whatever forest clearing or field was at hand. After less than a year in the cockpit, Markham undertook a daring solo flight from Africa to England and from there determined she would complete a flight no one else had yet dared — a solo, nonstop transatlantic flight from London west to New York City, flying the entire way against the prevailing winds of the jet stream.

On the evening of September 4, 1936, Markham departed from London in a borrowed single-engine Vega Gull capable of flying up to 163 miles per hour and fitted with enough extra fuel tanks to go almost 4,000 miles without stopping. Two hours later, she was seen passing Ireland, then spied by a ship at sea, and then spotted the following day over the tip of Newfoundland. And then she disappeared.

Markham's flight had almost ended earlier, in the Atlantic, when a fuel line froze in the high, thin, cold air, causing the engine to fail and the Vega to nosedive toward the ocean. Just above the water, the line warmed enough to allow gas through and Markham was able to pull her plane back to safety. The same thing happened again just off the edge of Nova Scotia, but this time Markham crash landed nose-first into a peat bog. With her plane now stuck in the mud, she climbed out and hailed a couple of fisherman, calling out, "I'm Mrs. Markham. I've just flown from England."

Markham was certain her flight would be considered a failure — she'd meant to land in New York, after all — but she was picked up by a U.S. Coast Guard plane, which she copiloted back to the city, and was driven in a motorcade through New York City in a flurry of confetti and ticker tape. She returned to England a celebrity and did not take up flying again.

Beryl Markham said, "If a man has any greatness in him, it comes to light, not in one flamboyant hour, but in the ledger of his daily work."

It was on this day in 1900 that Henry James (books by this author) wrote his first letter to the budding novelist Edith Wharton (books by this author), beginning a long friendship. Wharton was an admirer of James's work, and she sent him one of the first short stories she ever wrote. He wrote back to say that he liked the story but that she shouldn't write about Europe if she didn't live there. He said, "Be tethered in native pastures, even if it reduces [you] to a back-yard in New York." His advice inspired her to write about the New York society she'd grown up in, and the result was The House of Mirth (1905), which became her first big success.

They remained friends for the rest of James's life, but while Wharton became more successful, James's novels sold less and less well. When he learned that she'd used the proceeds from a recent book to buy herself a new car, he joked that he hoped his next book would provide enough money for him to buy a new wheelbarrow. But he always appreciated her friendship, and once wrote to her, "Your letters come into my damp desert here even as the odour of promiscuous spices ... might be wafted to some compromised oasis from a caravan of the Arabian nights."

It was on this day in 1825 that the Erie Canal opened. The canal was 363 miles long, linking Buffalo on Lake Erie in western New York to Albany on the Hudson River. The Erie Canal was such an impressive feat of engineering that it was called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

For decades, there had been talk of a canal that would cross the Appalachian Mountains and make it easier to transport cargo to New York City. The project finally found a champion in Dewitt Clinton, the governor of New York, and construction began in 1817. The canal cost $7 million to build, a huge amount for a public works project, and many taxpayers were unsure whether the result would be worth the cost. One opponent claimed: "In the big ditch will be buried the treasury of the state to be watered by the tears of posterity." Skeptics referred to the canal as "Clinton's Ditch" or "Clinton's Folly."

The construction took eight years. The workers were local laborers and Irish immigrants. Their work days could last up to 14 hours, often in miserable conditions, for which they were paid 80 cents a day plus a ration of whiskey. They had the help of oxen, but they did much of the excavating work by hand, from felling trees to using hand drills on rocks. The canal went through swamps, forests, and rocky cliffs; it had a series of aqueducts to cross rivers, and lift locks to compensate for the 675 feet of elevation change. There were no civil engineering schools in America, so the team of engineers made it up as they went along.

On this day, the official opening was celebrated. The ceremony began in Buffalo, New York, with marching bands. Governor Clinton left the shores of Lake Erie in his boat, Seneca Chief, transporting two beautifully carved wooden barrels of Lake Erie water, which he planned to pour into the Atlantic. As his boat left the shore, a cannon shot was fired. Cannons had been placed strategically all the way along the canal, so that as soon as someone at the next cannon heard the shot from the first, they fired off their cannon, and continued like this all the way to New York City. The last gunshot was fired on the Atlantic Ocean exactly an hour and 25 minutes after the first shot had gone off on the shores of Lake Erie. Governor Clinton continued his journey down the canal, joined by more and more boats as he went — including a boat called Noah's Ark, which carried a bear, two fawns, two eagles, two Native American boys, and a lot of fish. A week after their departure, Governor Clinton and his flotilla reached Albany on the Hudson River, where tables were set up on a bridge at the end of the canal, and 600 diners raised their glasses to celebrate the accomplishment. From there, the boats were towed down the Hudson River by steamboats, and arrived in New York City on November 4th. Clinton poured the water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean, and then joined 7,000 other marchers in a giant parade that had been going on all day. The parade consisted of marching bands, firemen, and workers representing New York's professions: hatters, tanners, shipwrights, curriers, combmakers, potters, leather dressers, and more. Each profession tried to outdo the next with their parade floats. The coppersmiths and tinplate workers crafted a float with a working metal model of the locks system, including canal boats ascending and descending in water — all pulled by horses. Three hundred printers set up printing presses on their float, distributing copies of a new poem called "Ode for the Canal Celebration," which began: "'Tis done! 'Tis done! — The mighty chain / Which joins bright Erie to the Main, / For ages, shall perpetuate / The glory of our native State." The festivities continued for three days, culminating in a grand ball. The star attraction was a miniature model, made perfectly to scale, of a passenger boat floating in water; the water was from Lake Erie, and the boat was made entirely from maple sugar.

The Erie Canal opened up western New York, and much of the Midwest, to settlement and trade. Before the canal, it cost between $90 and $125 to ship a ton of cargo from Buffalo to New York City; after the canal's completion, that same ton cost just $4. Within the first year, 2,000 boats, 9,000 horses, and 8,000 men were working to transport cargo on the canal.

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 »