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Poem: "By a Swimming Pool Outside Siracusa," by Billy Collins from Nine Horses (Random House).

By a Swimming Pool Outside Siracusa

All afternoon I have been struggling
to communicate in Italian
with Roberto and Giuseppe who have begun
to resemble the two male characters
in my Italian for Beginners,
the ones always shopping, eating,
or inquiring about the times of trains.

Now I can feel my English slipping away,
like chlorinated water through my fingers.

I have made important pronouncements
in this remote limestone valley
with its trickle of a river.
I stated that it seems hotter
today even than it was yesterday
and that swimming is very good for you,
very beneficial, you might say.
I also posed burning questions
about the hours of the archaeological museum
and the location of the local necropolis.

But now I am alone in the evening light
which has softened the white cliffs,
and I have had a little gin in a glass with ice
which has softened my mood or-
how would you say in English-
has allowed my thoughts to traverse my brain
with greater gentleness, shall we say,

or, to put it less literally,
this drink has extended permission
to my mind to feel-what's the word?-
a friendship with the vast sky
which is very-give me a minute-very blue
but with much great paleness
at this special time of day, or as we say in America, now.

It's the birthday of the man who published the Los Angeles Times, the founder of a great publishing dynasty of the time, Harrison Gray Otis, born on a farm near Marietta, Ohio in 1837. He fought in the Civil War, raised Angora goats on a farm in northern California, and worked as a treasury agent on the Seal Islands off of Alaska before becoming editor of the L.A. Times. Los Angeles historian Morrow Mayo said Otis "was a large, aggressive man, with a walrus mustache, a goatee, and a warlike demeanor. He was a holy terror in his newspaper plant; his natural voice was that of a game-warden roaring at seal poachers."

It's the birthday of British poet and essayist Charles Lamb, born in London in 1775. He said, "A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog's ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins."

It's the birthday of poet, playwright, and composer Bertolt Brecht, born in Augsburg, Germany in 1898. His books were banned in Germany during the 1930s, and he went into exile, first to Denmark and then to the United States, where he spent six years working with films in Hollywood. He said, "The intellectual isolation here is enormous. Compared to Hollywood, Svendborg is a world center." He wrote plays while in Hollywood including The Life of Galileo (1943), The Good Person of Szechwan (1943) and Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) in which he said "What they could do with round here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization."

It's the birthday of the poet and novelist who wrote Doctor Zhivago (1957), Boris Pasternak, born in Moscow in 1890. In the 1930s and '40s, Pasternak felt the brunt of Russia's Stalinist regime, as Russian authorities censored most of his works. He turned to translation, selecting such authors as Shakespeare, Goethe, Verlaine, and Rilke. Pasternak finished Doctor Zhivago in 1956, but it was immediately banned in the Soviet Union. The novel is epic and partly autobiographical and follows the lives of over sixty characters through the first half of twentieth century Russian history.

It's the birthday of African-American opera singer Leontyne Price, born in Laurel, Mississippi in 1927. She said, "Art is the only thing you cannot punch a button for. You must do it the old-fashioned way. Stay up and really burn the midnight oil. There are no compromises."

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Poem: Part I of "Surreal Migrations," by Lawrence Ferlinghetti from How to Paint Sunlight (New Directions).

Part I of Surreal Migrations


My mind is racing
in the middle of the night
My mind races
through the darkness
around the world
through the darkness
of the world
Toward a tunnel of light

It races through
the night of Prague
through Staromak Square
with its Jan Hus sculpture
reading Love Each Other
And The Truth Will Triumph
It races on
through the night streets
Across the Charles Bridge
across the river
at the heart of Prague
Across the rivers of the world
Across the Rhine
Across the Rhone
Across the Seine
Across the Thames
Across Anna Livia's Liffey
Across Atlantic
Across Manhattan
Across great Hudson
into the heart of America

My heart is racing now
Across America
Across Ole Man River
rolling along

Where is the light?

My heart is racing now
Across terrific Pacific
Across the River of Yellow Light
of Sun Yat Sen
Across Gandhi's Ganges
Across Euphrates
Across the Nile
Across the Hellespont
Across Tiber
Across Arno
Across Dante's River Styx
through the medieval darkness
Into the heart of the tunnel of light
My heart and mind
are racing now
on the same beat
to the same music
It's not the music of Carmina Burana
It's the music of Don Giovanni
It's Mozart's Horn Concerto
It's the Yellow Submarine
Yellow Submarine
Yellow Submarine
There is a sign in the light
at the end of the tunnel
I am trying to read it

We are all
trying to read it

Dark figures dance in it
in the half-darkness
Light figures dance in it
in the half-light

It's the feast day of St. Caedmon, who lived during the seventh century and is said to be the first poet to write in the English language. He was a servant at a monastery before becoming a monk. One night, all of the servants were eating dinner, and a harp was passed around the table as each person recited poetry. The others at the table recited elegant verses, but Caedmon knew nothing about poetry and left the table in shame. It was his job to take care of the cattle that night, and so he retired to the stable and soon went to sleep. In his sleep a voice said to him, "Sing to me, Caedmon, sing of the Creation." And so he sang. When he awoke he remembered the verses he had sung and recited them to the monks in the monastery. They were amazed, but they doubted his talent and ordered him to transpose other biblical stories into verse. He returned the next morning with the stories transformed into beautiful poetry, and all the monks agreed that he had been touched by God. He quit his job as a servant and became a monk, and he continued to write poetry the rest of his life.

It's the birthday of Lydia Maria Child, born in Medford, Massachusetts in 1802. We know her as the woman who wrote "Over the River and Through the Woods," but she wrote much more than that. Not only did she write several anti-slavery tracts, appeals on behalf of Native American rights, and essays on the status of women in society, she also published novels, short stories, and poetry. When David Lee Child proposed to her, she had him sit at the bottom of her staircase for four hours while she considered the question of marriage while David pleaded his case. She went on to write the first historical novel published in the United States, Hobomok: A Tale of Early Ties (1824), among many other books.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Roy Fuller, born in Oldham, Lancashire, England in 1912. He wrote over thirty volumes of poetry, including two books inspired by his time as a lieutenant with the Royal Navy in World War II, The Middle of a War (1944) and A Lost Season (1944).

It's the birthday of Thomas Alva Edison, born in Milan, Ohio in 1847, who invented the phonograph.

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Poem: "For Laurel and Hardy on My Workroom Wall," by David Wagoner from The House of Song (University of Illinois Press).

For Laurel and Hardy on My Workroom Wall

They're tipping their battered derbies and striding forward
In step for a change, chipper, self-assured,
Their cardboard suitcases labeled
Guest of Steerage. They've just arrived at the boot camp
Of the good old French Foreign Legion
Which they've chosen as their slice of life
Instead of drowning themselves. Once again
They're about to become their own mothers and fathers
And their own unknowable children
Who will rehearse sad laughter and mock tears,
Will frown with completely unsuccessful
Concentration, and will practice the amazement
Of suddenly understanding everything
That baffles them and will go on baffling them
While they pretend they're only one reel away
From belonging in the world. Their arrival
Will mark a new beginning of meaningless
Hostilities with a slaphappy ending. In a moment,
They'll hear music, and as if they'd known all along
This was what they'd come for, they'll put down
The mops and buckets given them as charms
With which to cleanse the Sahara and move their feet
With a calm, sure, delicate disregard
For all close-order drill and begin dancing.


It's the birthday of Charles Darwin, born in Shrewsbury, England in 1809. When he was only twenty-two years old he set sail for Patagonia on a surveying expedition of the HMS Beagle, working as a janitor and assistant to the captain. During the five-year trip, Darwin collected all the evidence that he would need to construct his theories of evolution. It was the only time he ever left England. He was sick most of his adult life. On the Origin of Species came out in 1859, the year before Abraham Lincoln was elected President.

It's the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky in 1809. When he was seven, his family moved to Indiana. He was largely self-educated, and spent much of his childhood chopping wood and doing other chores on the property. As a young man, he moved to New Salem, Illinois, where he practiced law and was elected to the state legislature four times. He also operated a small store, worked as a surveyor and postmaster, entertained his friends and neighbors with frequent stories, and was a captain in the Black Hawk War. His law partner said of him, "His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest." He was elected president in 1860 even though he won only 40 percent of the popular vote, and soon found himself in the throes of the Civil War. His collected speeches and correspondence make up a great classic of American letters. His second inaugural address was given less than a month before his assassination in 1865, in which he said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

It's the birthday of writer Judy Blume, born in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1938. She has written over twenty books for young adults.

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Poem: "This Year's Valentine" by Philip Appleman.

This Year's Valentine

They could
pump frenzy into air ducts
and rage into reservoirs,
dynamite dams
and drown the cities,
cry fire in theaters
as the victims are burning,
I will find my way through blackened streets
and kneel down at your side.
They could
jump the median, head-on,
and obliterate the future,
fit .45's to the hands of kids
and skate them off to school,
flip live butts into tinderbox forests
and hellfire half the heavens,
in the rubble of smoking cottages
I will hold you in my arms.

They could
send kidnappers to kindergartens
and pedophiles to playgrounds,
wrap themselves in Old Glory
and gut the Bill of Rights,
pound at the door with holy screed
and put an end to reason,
I will cut through their curtains of cunning
and find you somewhere in moonlight

Whatever they do with their anthrax or chainsaws,
however they strip-search or brainwash or blackmail,
they cannot prevent me from sending you robins,
all of them singing: I'll be there.


On this day in 1945, allied planes bombed Dresden, Germany, a city with no military importance, killing tens of thousands of people and destroying virtually the entire city. While the bombing destroyed the cultural center of the city in a violent firestorm, the only possible military or economic targets -- the barracks in the city's north and the train station -- were left unscathed. Many of the buildings that were partially destroyed have been rebuilt today, including the Zwinger Palace and the Dresden State Opera House, though traces of soot can be still made out on the facades of both buildings.

It's the birthday of Belgian novelist Georges Simenon, born in Liège in 1903, best known as the creator of Parisian police detective Inspector Maigret, who was modeled on his great-grandfather. He was an amazingly prolific writer, producing 84 Maigret mysteries and over 300 other books that have been translated into over 50 languages. As an old man, he lived in a tiny one-room apartment with his wife, despite becoming rich through the sales of his novels. He spent most of his day at his desk, writing, or smoking a pipe and gazing out on his small garden, at the center of which was an old cedar tree and a green bench for two. He said, "What you have not absorbed by the time you reach the age of eighteen you will never absorb. It is finished. You will be able to develop what you have absorbed. You will be able to make something or nothing at all of it, but your time for absorption is over and for the rest of your life you will be branded by your childhood." He also said, "Writing is not a profession, but a vocation of unhappiness."

It's the birthday of writer Ricardo Guiraldes, born on a ranch in rural Argentina in 1886, author of many novels set among the South American cowboys, the gauchos, including Don Segundo Sombra or Shadows in the Pampas (1926, 1935 trans.).

It's the birthday of Russian writer of fables, Ivan Krylov, born into a poor family in a provincial town near St. Petersburg.

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"Meeting at Night," by Robert Browning from The Poems of Robert Browing (Oxford University Press) and "The Love Cook," by Ron Padgett from You Never Know (Coffee House Press).

Meeting at Night


The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i'the slushy sand.


Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

The Love Cook

Let me cook you some dinner.
Sit down and take off your shoes
and socks and in fact the rest
of your clothes, have a daiquiri,
turn on some music and dance
around the house, inside and out,
it's night and the neighbors
are sleeping, those dolts, and
the stars are shining bright,
and I've got the burners lit
for you, you hungry thing.

Today is Valentine's Day, which is derived from the ancient Romans' holiday honoring Juno, the goddess of women and marriage, on the night before the Feast of Lupercalia. On this day, Roman girls would put slips of paper with their names on them into a clay jar, and the boys would choose their partner for the festival by taking a slip from the jar. This was one of the few times girls and boys were allowed to socialize, and the dancing and games often evolved into courtship and marriage.

On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest opened in London. He said the moral of the play is "That we should treat all trivial things very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality."

On this day in 1921, the literary journal The Little Review faced obscenity charges in New York City for publishing parts of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap edited The Little Review. The poet Ezra Pound sent them the first three chapters of Ulysses for publication. Upon reading the chapters Anderson said, "This is the most beautiful thing we'll ever have. We'll print it if it's the last effort of our lives." They were convicted of publishing obscenity and fined one hundred dollars.

It's the birthday of British writer Frank Harris, born in Galway, Ireland in 1856. He wrote many stories, poems, and essays, but is best known for his huge, five-volume autobiography My Life and Loves (1923-1927), which is full of exaggeration and self-praise.

It's the birthday of Carl Bernstein, the journalist of Woodward and Bernstein, authors of All the President's Men (1974), born in Washington, D.C. in 1944. He said, "The lowest form of popular culture-lack of information, misinformation, disinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people's lives-has overrun real journalism. Today, ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage."

It's the birthday of the inventor of the typewriter, Christopher Latham Sholes, born in Mooresburg, Pennsylvania in 1819. He designed the keyboard so that all of the letters in the word "typewriter" would be on the top row, thinking that this would impress skeptical customers.

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Poem: "Guest of Honor," by Philip Dacey.

Guest of Honor

Every day, I drive by the grave
of my fiancee's father.
She lost him when she was one.
He's our intimate stranger,
our guardian angel,
floating a la Chagall
just above our heads.
I go to him for love-lessons.
He touches my hand
with that tenderness
the dead have for the living.
When I touch her hand so,
she knows where I've been.
At the wedding,
he'll give her away to me.
And the glass he'll raise to toast us
will be a chalice brimful of sun,
his words heard all the more clearly
for their absence, as stone
is cut away to form dates.

It's the birthday of prolific English mystery writer, the man who invented the master criminal Dr. Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer, born Arthur Henry Ward in Birmingham, England to Irish parents in 1886.

It's the birthday of Hungarian writer and humorist George Mikes, born in the country village Siklos in 1912. He said, "When in doubt, I take everything for a compliment and this rule does a great deal of good to my self-esteem." His most famous book is How to Be an Alien (1946).

It's the birthday of publisher Ian Ballantine, born in 1916. He was the founder of Ballantine Books and Bantam Books and we can thank him for the "paperback revolution" that made classic books available to the masses at affordable prices.

It's the birthday of songwriter Harold Arlen, born Hyman Arluck in Buffalo, New York in 1905. He wrote over 400 songs, including It's Only a Paper Moon, Stormy Weather, I've Got the World on a String, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which came to him on a rainy day as he was driving down Sunset Boulevard in his convertible.

It's the birthday of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, born in Pisa in 1564. While still a student at the University of Pisa, he developed the idea for the pendulum clock, realizing that the period of a pendulum (the time it takes for the pendulum to swing back and forth) does not depend on the length of its arc. Around the same time, he challenged 2000 years worth of wisdom by discovering that all objects, regardless of their density, fall at the same rate through a vacuum. Though many doubted this discovery, he proved it by dropping objects of different densities from the same height. By the time he graduated from the university, Galileo had already made his mark on the European scientific community -- but he was just getting started. By the time he moved to Florence in 1609 he had invented the pump and the hydrostatic balance, which weighed precious metals in both air and water. But his greatest invention was the refracting telescope. Though the telescope had already been invented, Galileo's was more than 20 times more powerful than the strongest to date. With his new invention, he studied the earth's moon, verified the existence of the four moons of Jupiter, observed a supernova, and discovered sun spots--all within two months, December 1609 and January 1610. Most importantly though, he provided evidence for Copernicus' theory that the earth revolves around the sun, which had been declared heresy by the Inquisition. Pope Urban VII told him that he could write about it as long as he treated it as merely a mathematical theory. But Galileo continued to openly support the theory and in 1634, his book Dialogue Concerning the two Chief World Systems was banned and burned by the Church, and he was forced to renounce his beliefs. As he signed his prepared declaration that the earth was stationary, he whispered, "And yet it moves." From 1633 until his death, he lived under house arrest in his home in Florence. He said, "In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual."

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Poem: "Obituaries," by Billy Collins from Nine Horses (Random House).


These are no pages for the young,
who are better off in one another's arms,

nor for those who just need to know
about the price of gold,
or a hurricane that is ripping up the Keys.

But eventually you may join
the crowd who turn here first to see
who has fallen in the night,
who has left a shape of air walking in their place.

Here is where the final cards are shown,
the age, the cause, the plaque of deeds,
and sometimes an odd scrap of news-
that she collected sugar bowls,
that he played solitaire without any clothes.

And all the survivors huddle at the end
under the roof of a paragraph
as if they had sidestepped the flame of death.

What better way to place a thin black frame
around the things of the morning-
the hand-painted cup,
the hemispheres of a cut orange,
the slant of sunlight on the table?

And sometimes a most peculiar pair turns up,
strange roommates lying there
side by side upon the page-
Arthur Godfrey next to Man Ray,
Ken Kesey by the side of Dale Evans.

It is enough to bring to mind an ark of death,
not the couples of the animal kingdom,
but rather pairs of men and women
ascending the gangplank two by two,

surgeon and model,
balloonist and metalworker,
an archaeologist and an authority on pain.

Arm in arm, they get on board
then join the others leaning on the rails,
all saved at last from the awful flood of life-

so many of them every day
there would have to be many arks,
an armada to ferry the dead
over the heavy waters that roll beyond the world,

and many Noahs too,
bearded and fiercely browed, vigilant up there at every prow.

On this day in the year 600, Pope Gregory the Great declared "God bless you" to be the correct response to a sneeze. It was once thought that sneezing was an omen of death, since many dying people fell into sneezing fits. The Pope introduced the response of "God bless you" when the plague was at its height in Europe, hoping that the quick prayer would protect the sneezer from sickness and death.

On this day in 1741, the first true magazine in the United States, General Magazine, was published by Benjamin Franklin, complete with the first printed advertisement in American history. The ad was for a ferry service over the Potomac River.

It's the birthday of novelist Richard Ford, born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1944. Ford has written five novels, including Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1996). He said, "I write stories so people will read them. I know the reader will have his own history, preoccupations, priorities, obsessions, thoughts -- I know that. But at the point of contact with my story, I want everybody to be mine."

It's the birthday of writer Iain Banks, born in Scotland in 1954. He is best known for his popular science fiction books like The Wasp Factory (1984).

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