Nov. 18, 2013

The Painters

by Jane Kenyon

A hot dry day in early fall....
The men have cut the vines
from the shutters, and scraped
the clapboards clean, and now
their heads appear all day
in all the windows ...
their arms or shirtless torsos,
or a rainbow-speckled rag
swinging from a belt.

They work in earnest—
these are the last warm days.
Flies bump and buzz
between the screens and panes,
torpid from last night's frost:
the brittle months advance ...
ruts frozen in the icy drive,
and the deeply black and soundless
nights. But now the painters

lean out from their ladders, squint
against the light, and lay on
the thick white paint.
From the lawn their radio predicts rain,
then cold Canadian air ....
One of them works way up
on the dormer peak,
where a few wasps levitate
near the vestige of a nest.

"The Painters" by Jane Kenyon, from Collected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1883, standard time zones were established in the United States and Canada. The railroad was the driving force behind the establishment of consistent time zones, and it was called Standard Railway Time (SRT). Prior to the use of SRT, all towns set their own time, and east- and west-bound trains in particular found it impossible to publish and maintain a consistent schedule.

The SRT established four continental time zones; boundaries were based on geography, economics, the location of major cities, and the habits of the local populations. The zones progressed in one-hour increments, and the times were determined in relation to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. Each 15 degrees of longitude corresponds to one hour of solar time. Going around the globe, there are 24 meridians of 15 degrees each, and the meridian at Greenwich was set as the "prime meridian," or starting point. Each North American zone's time was determined by the solar time of the closest meridian that was evenly divisible by 15. The decision to establish standardized time was great news to astronomers and geophysicists, who had long advocated the need for a consistent system.

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Margaret Atwood (books by this author), born in Ottawa, Ontario (1939). During her childhood, her family spent every April through November in the Quebec wilderness, where her father, an entomologist, did research for the government. She was 11 years old before she completed a full year of school. When she was about six, she began to write morality plays, comic books, poems, and a novel about an ant that she never finished. While in high school, she wrote poetry and thought about a career in home economics. But, influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, at 16, she committed herself to a writing career. She said, "It was suddenly the only thing I wanted to do."

Atwood studied English at the University of Toronto. She reviewed books and wrote articles for the college literary magazine. Her first volume of poetry, Double Persephone, was published in 1961, the year she graduated. She went to Radcliffe and then Harvard, where she studied Victorian literature and worked as a waitress and market researcher and wrote in her free time.

While at Harvard, Atwood realized that no one had ever published a critical study of Canadian literature. She later read all she could and wrote Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972). She claimed that Canadian literature reflects a tendency of Canadians to be both victims and survivalists. The book sparked a debate and the book sold 85,000 copies within 10 years, an impressive sales record for a critical study.

With the book's success, Atwood craved privacy and moved to a 100-acre farm in Ontario to write. She published several collections of poems, including You Are Happy (1974), along with the novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985), which was a bestseller.

It's the birthday of the man who helped invent the art of photography, Louis Daguerre, born just outside of Paris, France (1789), who started out as a theater designer, using hand-painted translucent screens and elaborate lighting effects to create the illusion of a sunrise or a sudden storm onstage. But in 1829, he learned about a new technology that made it possible to use light to capture an image on a metal plate, though the quality of the image was poor. Daguerre set out to improve the process, and he came up with a combination of copper plate coated with silver salts that could be developed with the application of mercury vapor and table salt.

He first used this process to capture a series of images of Paris, including pictures of the Louvre and Notre Dame. The camera needed about 15 minutes exposure time to capture an image, so most of Daguerre's early pictures don't show any people. The one exception is a picture of a boulevard that shows a man in the foreground who has stopped to shine his shoes. He was the first human being ever caught on film. Daguerre announced his invention in 1839, and the images he produced became known as daguerreotypes.

It was on this day in 1928 that Mickey Mouse was born when the first sound-synchronized cartoon to attract widespread public notice, Walt Disney's "Steamboat Willie," premiered in New York at the Colony Theater. The black and white cartoon featured Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and Pegleg Pete and lasted seven minutes. With Walt Disney as the voice of Mickey, the cartoon met with great success.

It's the birthday of American statistician George Gallup (1901), born in Jefferson, Iowa. He was a pioneer in scientific polling techniques, and his name became a household word synonymous with the opinion poll.

Gallup enrolled in the University of Iowa in 1918, played football and became the editor of the Daily Iowan. While editor in the early 1920s, he conducted what is widely considered the first poll in human history. He took a survey to find the prettiest girl on the campus. The winner was Ophelia Smith, whom Gallup later married.

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 »