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Poem: "Al and Beth," by Louis Simpson, from The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001 (BOA Editions, Ltd.).

Al and Beth

My Uncle Al worked in a drugstore
three blocks above Times Square,
dispensing pills and cosmetics.
All day long crazy people
and thieves came into the store
, but nothing seemed to faze him.

His sister, Beth, was the opposite ...
romantic. She used to sing
on ships that sailed from New York
to Central and South America.
When the tourists came trailing back
on board with their maracas,
Beth would be in the Aztec Room
singing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"
and "I Get a Kick out of You."

Once when I argued with Al
about something that America
was doing . . . "My country
right or wrong," he told me.
I suppose so, if you've come
from a village in Russia no one
ever heard of, with no drains,
and on saints' days the Cossacks
descend on you with the blessing
of the Church, to beat out your brains.

And when, after a fortnight
being seasick, there's the statue,
and buildings reaching up
to the sky. Streets full of people.
The clang of a bell, someone yelling
as you almost get run over.
More things happening every second
in New York, than Lutsk in a year.

Al lived on Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn,
all of his life, with the wife
his mother had picked out for him.
Beth never married. She was still waiting
for Mr. Right.

          Of such is the Kingdom
of Heaven. Say that I sent you.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Ann Beattie, born in Washington, D.C. (1947). She is known for her minimalist short stories about dysfunctional baby boomers in books like The Burning House (1982). Her most recent book is the novel The Doctor's House (2002). She said, "People forget years and remember moments."

It's the birthday of novelist Grace Metalious, born in Manchester, New Hampshire (1924). She wrote the scandalous novel Peyton Place (1956) about a small New England town that is filled with sex, rape, murder, and suicide. Metalious was a stay-at-home mother of three children, and she wrote the novel to help her husband pay the bills. She got the idea for the book in the middle of the night, and wrote it in 10 weeks. It was the first work of fiction she ever published. She based part of the book on a town secret about a woman who murdered her father, and when the book became a bestseller, the locals in her town were horrified. People showed up on her front lawn yelling obscenities and throwing rocks.

It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway came out with his last novel, The Old Man and the Sea. After he published his first two novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), he was considered the best living American writer, and he was probably the most famous writer in the world. But he began to write less and less fiction in the 1930s. He went on long hunting and fishing expeditions. He became an intrepid journalist, covering the civil war in Spain. He moved to Cuba and organized a private spy network to uncover Nazi sympathizers. He patrolled the Gulf of Mexico in his fishing boat, looking for Nazi submarines, though he didn't find any. He covered the invasion of Normandy on D-Day and the liberation of Paris, and he was one of the only armed journalists fighting alongside the other soldiers. After participating in the war, he had a hard time getting back to writing. He said, "[It's] as though you had heard so much loud music you couldn't hear anything played delicately." He finally published his first novel in 10 years in 1950, Across the River and Into the Trees, about World War II. It got terrible reviews. Critics said that maybe he was overrated as a writer. Journalists started contacting him, asking to write his biography, as though he were already dead. Hemingway had been working on a long novel that he called The Sea Book, about different aspects of the sea. He got the idea for it while looking for submarines in his fishing boat. The book had three sections, which he called "The Sea When Young," "The Sea When Absent," and "The Sea in Being," and it had an epilogue about an old fisherman. He wrote more than 800 pages of The Sea Book and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn't seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue about the old fisherman, which he called The Old Man and the Sea. He knew that the book was almost too short to be a novel, but he was tired of not publishing anything. The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize, and two years later Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He didn't publish another novel in his lifetime.

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Poem: "Ordinary Life," by Barbara Crooker, from Ordinary Life (By Line Press).

Ordinary Life

This was a day when nothing happened,
the children went off to school
without a murmur, remembering
their books, lunches, gloves.
All morning, the baby and I built block stacks
in the squares of light on the floor.
And lunch blended into naptime,
I cleaned out kitchen cupboards,
one of those jobs that never gets done,
then sat in a circle of sunlight
and drank ginger tea,
watched the birds at the feeder
jostle over lunch's little scraps.
A pheasant strutted from the hedgerow,
preened and flashed his jeweled head.
Now a chicken roasts in the pan,
and the children return,
the murmur of their stories dappling the air.
I peel carrots and potatoes without paring my thumb.
We listen together for your wheels on the drive.
Grace before bread.
And at the table, actual conversation,
no bickering or pokes.
And then, the drift into homework.
The baby goes to his cars, drives them
along the sofa's ridges and hills.
Leaning by the counter, we steal a long slow kiss,
tasting of coffee and cream.
The chicken's diminished to skin & skeleton,
the moon to a comma, a sliver of white,
but this has been a day of grace
in the dead of winter,
the hard cold knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
order themselves
into the winter night.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of British novelist James Hilton, born in Leigh, Lancashire, England (1900). In the first decade of his writing career, he published more than 10 novels without receiving any attention. Then he wrote Goodbye Mr. Chips (1934), about an old, beloved schoolmaster whom Hilton based on his father. When the story was published in the United States it became a huge bestseller. All of his previous novels were reissued and they became bestsellers too. The most popular of the earlier novels was Lost Horizon (1933) about an imaginary Tibetan village called Shangri-La.

It's the birthday of Paul Goodman, born in Greenwich Village in New York City (1911). He's the author of Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System (1960), about the alienation of American young people. The book made him a hero among lefty beatniks.

It's the birthday of literary critic Granville Hicks, born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1901). He was one of the first literary critics to join the Communist Party during the Great Depression. He wrote several books analyzing American literature from a Marxist point of view, including The Great Tradition (1933).

It's the birthday of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, born on his family's estate in the province of Tula, near Moscow (1828). Both of his parents died when he was a boy, and he was raised by a series of aunts. As a young man, he loved to drink and gamble, but he always felt guilty about it. He started keeping a diary, and wrote his first diary entry about his fear that he had contracted a venereal disease. He wrote pages and pages wondering why he couldn't help breaking all the rules that society had made for him, and he became fascinated by the idea that people are always trying to stop themselves from doing what they really want to do. He volunteered to fight in a war against the Chechen mountain tribes, and went on to fight in the Crimean War. He wrote stories about the battles he witnessed and he described military battles as realistically as possible. He was one of the first writers to describe battles as chaotic and insane and meaningless. In the 1850s, Russia was still operating under a medieval economic system with most of the peasants enslaved as serfs. Tolstoy opened a school for peasants on his family's estate, and helped open more than 20 schools in surrounding villages. He believed in complete freedom in the classroom and let his students study whatever interested them. He also edited an educational journal, and wrote that the upper classes had as much to learn from peasants as peasants had to learn from the upper classes. Tolstoy got married in 1862, and it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He wrote, "Domestic happiness has swallowed me completely." His wife had 13 children, and she helped him copy out and edit all his manuscripts. She copied by hand the huge manuscript for War and Peace (1868) four times. During the first years of his marriage, free love was becoming fashionable among the Russian upper classes, and everyone started to think of marriage as old fashioned and silly. Tolstoy was disgusted. In 1872, he heard about a woman who had thrown herself in front of a train after the end of an affair, and it gave him an idea for a novel about a woman whose life is destroyed by adultery. That novel was Anna Karenina (1875). He wrote it as a defense of marriage as the most important foundation of society. When it was published, most critics said it was inferior to War and Peace, but it is now considered one of the greatest novels ever written. After publishing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy fell into a deep depression. He was healthy, and he had plenty of money, but he felt that life had no purpose. He noticed that the peasants on his estate wore ragged clothes, lived in leaky huts, and had no way of improving their lives, but they were happy. He came to believe that they knew the meaning of life, so he renounced all his property and became a peasant. He learned to make his own food and clothes, and lived in a hut. He started to write theology and philosophy and founded his own form of Christianity. He became a kind of prophet, and people from all over the world visited him and wrote to him, including Woodrow Wilson and Mahatma Gandhi. Leo Tolstoy said, "In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you."

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Poem: "The Size of Spokane," by Heather McHugh, from Hinge and Sign (Wesleyan University Press).

The Size of Spokane

The baby isn't cute. In fact he's
a homely little pale and headlong
stumbler. Still, he's one
of us-the human beings
stuck on flight 295 (Chicago to Spokane);
and when he passes my seat twice
at full tilt this then that direction,
I look down from Lethal Weapon 3 to see
just why. He's

running back and forth
across a sunblazed circle on
the carpet-something brilliant, fallen
from a porthole. So! it's light
amazing him, it's only light, despite
some three and one
half hundred
people, propped in rows
for him to wonder at; it's light
he can't get over, light he can't
investigate enough, however many
zones he runs across it,
flickering himself.

The umpteenth time
I see him coming, I've had
just about enough; but then
he notices me noticing and stops-
one fat hand on my armrest-to
inspect the oddities of me.

Some people cannot hear.
Some people cannot walk.
But everyone was
sunstruck once, and set adrift.
Have we forgotten how
astonishing this is? so practiced all our senses
we cannot imagine them? foreseen instead of seeing
all the all there is? Each spectral port,
each human eye

is shot through with a hole, and everything we know
goes in there, where it feeds a blaze. In a flash

the baby's old; Mel Gibson's hundredth comeback seems
less clever; all his chases and embraces
narrow down, while we
fly on (in our
plain radiance of vehicle)

toward what cannot stay small forever.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet who wrote under the initials H.D., Hilda Doolittle, born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1886). She met Ezra Pound when she was a teenager and they fell in love, but her father forced her to break off the relationship. They stayed friends, and Pound brought her armfuls of books to read every day. She followed him to Europe and when she showed him some of her poems, he loved them and sent them to Poetry magazine, signing them for her, "H.D. Imagist." He invented a new school of poetry based on her work that he called Imagism, which broke from formal metered verse and used clear, simple language to describe the world. She went on to publish many collections of poetry, including Sea Garden (1916) and Red Roses for Bronze (1929).

It's the birthday of Lutheran minister and publisher Isaac Kauffman Funk, born in Clifton, Ohio (1839). After serving as a minister, he founded a publishing house and began to publish anti-alcohol pamphlets and religious journals. In 1877, he partnered with a former classmate named Adam Willis Wagnalls, and they published many books together, including Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of the English Language. It was the first English dictionary that gave definitions of words with the most current definition first and the oldest definition last, rather than the other way around. At the time, dictionaries were thought of as historical records of the language. Funk & Wagnall made dictionaries practical.

It's the birthday of Czech poet and novelist Franz Werfel, born in Prague (1890). He was one of the most important members of the German Expressionists, who wrote about inward emotions instead of outward reality. In 1934 he came out with his most famous novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. It was the first novel about the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks, and it was published around the world. Werfel was living in France when the Nazis came to power. He had to go underground and burn all the manuscripts he had been working on because they were too dangerous to carry. He was hiding out for several weeks in Lourdes, France, where he heard the story of St. Bernadette, the 14-year-old girl who had seen visions of the Virgin Mary. Werfel vowed that if he escaped the Nazis, he would write his next novel about the girl. When he reached the United States he wrote The Song of Bernadette (1941), and it became a bestseller.

It's the birthday of editor and essayist Cyril Connolly, born in Whitley, England (1903). He was one of the most important English literary critics and edited the literary journal Horizon from 1940 to 1950, publishing authors like W.H. Auden and George Orwell. Connolly said that he drifted into being a literary critic through unemployability. Even though he became one of the best book reviewers in England, he always hated it. He said, "I review novels to make money, because it is easier for a sluggard to write an article a fortnight than a book a year." He published one novel, The Rock Pool (1936), but he thought it was so bad that he decided never to write fiction again. Instead, he wrote two great books about the misery of not being able to write great books, The Enemies of Promise (1938) and The Unquiet Grave (1944).

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Poem: "To a Terrorist," by Stephen Dunn, from Between Angels (Norton).

To a Terrorist

For the historical ache, the ache passed down
which finds its circumstance and becomes
the present ache, I offer this poem

without hope, knowing there's nothing,
not even revenge, which alleviates
a life like yours. I offer it as one

might offer his father's ashes
to the wind, a gesture
when there's nothing else to do.

Still, I must say to you:
I hate your good reasons.
I hate the hatefulness that makes you fall

in love with death, your own included.
Perhaps you're hating me now,
I who own my own house

and live in a country so muscular,
so smug, it thinks its terror is meant
only to mean well, and to protect.

Christ turned his singular cheek,
one man's holiness another's absurdity.
Like you, the rest of us obey the sting,

the surge. I'm just speaking out loud
to cancel my silence. Consider it an old impulse,
doomed to become mere words.

The first poet probably spoke to thunder
and, for a while, believed
thunder had an ear and a choice.

Literary Notes:

On this day in 2001, it was a clear, crisp, sunny morning in New York City. Students were in their second week of school. People were getting to work in cars, buses, and trains. Alessandra Fremura had planned on leaving for work at 8:00, but her babysitter was 20 minutes late. Virginia DiChiara couldn't get her golden retrievers to come in from the backyard, so she decided to have another cup of coffee. Kenneth Merlo was supposed to go in the office, but he decided to spend the morning helping a friend hook up her computer instead of going to his office. Michael Lomonaco stopped in the lobby of the World Trade Center to order some reading glasses from the one-hour eyeglass store. Michael Jacobs was running late when he reached the Trade Center lobby. He rushed to make the elevator, but the doors slid shut in his face. A musician named Michelle Wiley was at home in her apartment. She sat down at her piano in her nightgown and shower shoes, and stared out her window at the Twin Towers before beginning to play.

It's the birthday of the man who wrote under the name O. Henry, William Sydney Porter, born in Greensboro, North Carolina (1862). He is famous for inventing a particular kind of short story with a neat plot and a surprise twist at the end. In his most famous story, "The Gift of the Magi" (1905), a woman sells her hair to buy her husband a watch chain, and her husband sells his watch to buy her a set of expensive hairbrushes.

It's the birthday of D(avid) H(erbert) Lawrence, born in Eastwood, England (1885). He wrote poetry and plays and literary criticism, but he's best known for his novels Sons and Lovers (1913), Women in Love (1920), and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). He had an incredibly difficult life. He was a teacher, but he caught tuberculosis as a young man and eventually became too sick to teach. During World War I the British government suspected he was a German spy, because his wife was German and he opposed the war. He and his wife were forced to stay in England, living in renovated cowsheds and run-down cottages on the edge of poverty. Most of all, he struggled against censorship. More than almost any other writer at the time, he believed that in order to write about human experience, novelists had to write explicitly about sex. When he published his first important novel, Sons and Lovers (1913), he found that his editor had deleted numerous erotic passages without his permission. When he published his novel The Rainbow in 1915, Scotland Yard seized most of the printed copies under charges of obscenity. He was blacklisted as an obscene writer and none of the magazines in England would publish anything he wrote. He finished Women in Love in 1916, but couldn't get it published until 1920, and even then he could only publish it privately. D.H. Lawrence said, "Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot."

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Poem: "September Twelfth, 2001," by X.J. Kennedy, from The Lords of Misrule (Johns Hopkins University Press).

September Twelfth, 2001

Two caught on film who hurtle
from the eighty-second floor,
choosing between a fireball
and to jump holding hands,

aren't us. I wake beside you,
stretch, scratch, taste the air,
the incredible joy of coffee
and the morning light.

Alive, we open eyelids
on our pitiful share of time,
we bubbles rising and bursting
in a boiling pot.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, born in Lviv, Poland (now Ukraine) (1921). He studied to be a doctor, but he had to go undercover and hide his Jewish identity when the Nazis invaded Poland. During World War II, he pretended to be a Christian mechanic and sabotaged as much Nazi machinery as he could without getting caught. After the war, he began to write fiction. He decided that regular realistic fiction wasn't sufficient to describe the world anymore, so he wrote fiction that took place thousands of years in the future. He's best known for his novel Solaris (1961), about a scientist who travels to a space station near a strange planet and meets the ghost of his wife. His most recent novel is Peace on Earth (1987), about a future where all wars are fought on the moon by machines, so that humans don't get hurt.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje, born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) (1943). He's the author of many poetry collections, including The Cinnamon Peeler (1989), and novels such as The English Patient (1992) and Anil's Ghost (2000). His parents got a divorce when he was a boy, and his mother took him to England and eventually to Canada. He didn't return to Sri Lanka until almost 30 years after he left. When he did go back, he wrote a memoir about the experience called Running In the Family (1982). He said, "The past is still, for us, a place that is not safely settled."

It's the birthday of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, born in New York City (1892). He went to college to become a lawyer, but he fell in love with literature and decided to devote his life to it. At the time, the publishing world was a kind of gentlemen's club and Knopf had a hard time fitting in because he was Jewish. He was the first Jewish employee at Doubleday. One of his first projects was to republish all of Joseph Conrad's books in a set, which he did with the help of H.L. Mencken. At the time that Knopf got into the publishing business, before television and widespread radio, people said that Americans didn't read books—they just read the newspapers. Knopf thought that Americans might be more likely to read good books if books were beautiful to look at. He used beautiful, easy to read type and high quality paper, and he was the first publisher to cover his books with brightly colored jackets. When Knopf founded his own publishing company, he didn't have enough money to publish big-name American authors, so he published European authors instead. Most American publishers didn't care about European literature, so Knopf was able to cheaply publish writers like Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus. When several of his authors won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. became known as one of the best literary publishing houses.

It's the birthday of the essayist and editor H(enry) L(ouis) Mencken, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1880). One of the most influential journalists of the 20th century, he became a journalist at a time when most educated Americans tried to speak and write like Europeans. Mencken hated Europe. He was one of the first journalists to write serious essays in conversational American English. But he was also critical of America. He invented a character that he called "Boobus Americanus," the average, ignorant American. He believed that it was his job to wake up the boobs of America by writing about all the shams and con artists in the world. He attacked chiropractors and the Ku Klux Klan, politicians and other journalists. Most of all, he attacked Puritan morality. He called Puritanism, "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Mencken lived with his mother in the Baltimore house where he had grown up until her death when he was 45 years old. She brought him plates of sandwiches as he wrote non-stop in his study. At the height of his career, he edited and wrote for American Mercury magazine and the Baltimore Sun newspaper, wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column for the Chicago Tribune, and published two or three books every year. He said, "There is always a sheet of paper. There is always a pen. There is always a way out." He published dozens of books, most of them about things he hated. He called his essays "prejudices." But lots of people think his masterpiece is a book he wrote about something he loved, a book called The American Language (1919). The book is about the evolution of the American vernacular speech, and it includes long lists of slang terms for things like strong drink: "panther-sweat, nose-paint, red-eye, corn-juice, forty-rod, mountain-dew, coffin-varnish, bust-head, stagger-soup, tonsil-paint, squirrel-whiskey." When asked what he would like for an epitaph, he wrote, "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."

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Poem: "Bearhug," by Michael Ondaatje, from The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (Knopf).


Griffin calls to come and kiss him goodnight
I yell ok. Finish something I'm doing,
then something else, walk slowly round
the corner to my son's room.
He is standing arms outstretched
waiting for a bearhug. Grinning.

Why do I give my emotion an animal's name,
give it that dark squeeze of death?
This is the hug which collects
all his small bones and his warm neck against me.
The thin tough body under the pyjamas
locks to me like a magnet of blood.

How long was he standing there
like that, before I came?

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of English man of letters J(ohn) B(oynton) Priestley, born in Bradford, England (1894). He wrote more than a hundred books of fiction, essays, and drama. His most popular novel is The Good Companions (1929), about a group of touring performers who know that the movies are going to put them out of business. He served in World War I, and it was the defining experience of his life. Most of his friends were killed, and he believed that England was never the same afterwards. He never wrote fiction about the war, because he thought it would be disrespectful. His favorite of his own novels was Bright Day (1946), about his hometown before the war. He said, "I belong at heart to the pre-1914 North Country."

It's the birthday of Roald Dahl, born in Llandaff, South Wales (1916). He's known for children's books such as James and the Giant Peach (1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964). His parents were Norwegian, but they lived in Great Britain so he could attend British schools, which his father believed were the best schools in the world. Dahl hated school. He was always terrified of being beaten by the teachers, and he got terrible grades. As soon as he finished high school, he took a job with the Shell Oil Company to get as far away from England as possible. He went to live in Africa and loved it. When World War II broke out, he quit his job, drove to a British base in Kenya, and signed up with the Royal Air Force. He served as a fighter pilot until he was shot down over Egypt, and he barely crawled out of the plane before the gas tanks exploded. He started writing stories when a journalist asked him to write down the most exciting thing that had happened to him during the war. The journalist sent the story to a magazine without his knowledge, and it was published. He decided that if writing was that easy, he'd try to do more of it. Dahl made his name as a writer of short stories for adults. He specialized in dark stories with a twist at the end. In one story, a woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then feeds the lamb to the police when they come looking for the murder weapon. His stories were published in collections such as Someone Like You (1953) and Kiss, Kiss (1959). When he got married and had children, he started telling them stories every night before they went to bed. He found that their favorite stories were those in which wicked adults met terrible ends. He wrote his first children's book, James and the Giant Peach (1961), about a boy who escapes from his wicked aunts by squashing them in a giant peach. He went on to write many more children's books, and he said that the secret to his success was that he conspired with children against adults.

It's the birthday of Sherwood Anderson, born in Camden, Ohio (1876). He's best known for a book of short stories about small town life, Winesburg, Ohio (1919). His father was a veteran of the Civil War and liked telling Civil War stories better than working. Anderson grew up resenting his father's laziness. He sympathized with his mother, who was miserable for most of his childhood. She died when he was a teenager, and he was so disgusted at his father's lack of grief that he left home and never saw his father again. He worked at a warehouse in Chicago and took business classes at night. He eventually got a job managing a mail-order paint company in Elyria, Ohio. He started writing fiction in 1909. One day at work, he stood up and walked out of the office and wandered off, ignoring everyone who asked where he was going. He was found four days later, wandering around in nearby Cleveland. He said later that he had pretended to be crazy so that the paint company wouldn't take him back. He moved to Chicago and became friends with writers like Carl Sandburg and Theodore Dreiser. He wrote every day at a desk watching people walk by his window. He said, "Sometimes it seemed to me ... that each person who passed along the street below, under the light, shouted his secret up to me." He was struggling to write what he called "a story of another human being, quite outside myself, truly told." One rainy night, Anderson got out of bed without any clothes on, and began to write. He said, "It was there ... sitting near an open window, the rain occasionally blowing in and wetting my bare back, that I wrote the first of the stories, afterwards to be known as the Winesburg stories." Anderson was 43 years old when he published Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and it made him famous. The book is a collection of short stories about people in a small town, and it was revolutionary, because he wrote about misery and sexual frustration and violent desires in a very simple prose style. He dedicated the book to his mother, saying, "[Her] keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives." Though he never wrote anything else as good as Winesburg, Ohio, the book was very influential for many writers, including Ernest Hemingway.

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Poem: "Another Boring Story," by Louis Simpson, from The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001 (BOA Editions, Ltd.).

Another Boring Story

Chekhov has "A Boring Story"
about a professor. The old man's wife and children
don't understand him and don't care.

His wife's only concern is
to marry off their daughter
to this blockhead, a nonentity.
So the old man goes on a journey
to investigate, find out what he can
about their future son-in-law ...
and finds himself in a hotel room
in a strange town, wondering
how on earth life brought him there.

He has a friend, a young woman.
They're not lovers ... loving friends.
She had an affair that turned sour
and now she's at loose ends.
She asks him what to do, what to live for,
and he has nothing to say to her,
not a word. That's the end of the story.

Here's another boring story about a professor.
Years ago he embarked on an affair
with a young woman. It became a scandal.
His wife threw him out,
then she took him back. They young woman
tried to kill herself, I'm told.

I see them fairly often.
He and I talk about literature
and what's wrong with the country
while his wife knits or does some ironing.

I find myself looking out the window
or at the walls. Some surrealist
recommends staring at a wall
till something unusual happens ...
an arm protruding from the wall.
He mixes drinks, she lays out cheese-dip.
Then the children come running in,
streaked with dirt from wherever they've been.
They make for the cheese-dip,
stick their fingers in and dabble.

I've seen them at the table.
They snatch the meat from the plate
with their hands.

She smiles at her little savages.
One thing's sure: she's not raising her children
to be members of any faculty.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of philosopher and educator Allan Bloom, born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1930). He's best known as the author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), about what he believed was the decline of higher education in the United States. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and at Cornell, and he witnessed the student protests in the 1960s that drove universities to stop teaching their required western civilization classes. Bloom argued that by giving up on the Western canon of literature, Americans had given up on wisdom. He wrote, "We are like ignorant shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished. [We] play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part." He called the book "a meditation on the state of our souls." Even though it was filled with difficult philosophical writing, the book became a bestseller. Allan Bloom said, "The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency—the belief that the here and now is all there is."

It's the birthday of essayist Barbara Harrison, born Barbara Grizzuti in Brooklyn, New York (1934). She grew up with an abusive father, but when she was nine years old, she and her mother became Jehovah's Witnesses, and she spent the rest of her childhood evangelizing. When she was 19, she went to live in the giant Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. She gave up the faith three years later and got a job as a secretary. She started writing journalism on the side, and in 1978, more than 20 years later, she came out with Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses. In the book, she described how she struggled with her memories of the Witnesses, because they had been controlling and oppressive but also tremendously kind and courageous. She went on to write several more books of essays, including Off Center (1980) and The Astonishing World (1992).

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