Poem: "To Helen," by Edgar Allan Poe.
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfum'd sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand!
The agate lamp within thy hand,
Ah! Psyche from the regions which
Are Holy land!
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Julian Barnes, born in Leicester, England (1946). He's the author of The History of the World in Ten-and-a-Half Chapters (1989) and Flaubert's Parrot (1984). The latter won prizes for fiction in both England and France. Both of his parents were French teachers, and they spent their vacations driving around the French countryside.
It's the birthday of Patricia Highsmith, born in Fort Worth, Texas (1921). She wrote suspense novels in which unspeakable crimes often turn out to have been committed by mild-mannered people. Although Alfred Hitchcock filmed her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), Hollywood wasn't interested in any of the others; they were too morally ambiguous. Many of the characters were homosexual, good characters weren't necessarily rewarded, and murderers weren't necessarily punished. Her work sold much better in Europe, and she spent most of the rest of her life there, living as a semi-recluse with a menagerie of cats and dogs. Finally, after her death in 1995, her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) was made into a film, 45 years after its original publication.
It's the birthday of Alexander Woollcott, born in Phalanx, New Jersey (1887). He was a critic and writer for the early New Yorker and a model for the tyrannical character Sheridan Whiteside in the play The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939).
It's the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1809). His parents died while he was still a baby, and although he was taken in by a man who eventually made a large fortune, the man disowned him after a series of bitter arguments. He continued to charm possible sponsors for the rest of his life. Rich men and women would offer to help him, but they withdrew when he got drunk at the wrong time, or refused to say what they wanted him to, or squandered the funds they had given him. He wrote pointed criticism at a time when reviews were supposed to be complimentary. When he was able to publish his own work, the writers he criticized took the opportunity to revenge themselves upon him. Nothing he published won him much attention until his poem "The Raven" appeared in the New York Evening Mirror in 1845. Children followed him down the street chanting "Nevermore, nevermore!" and he was asked to recite the poem at all sorts of gatherings. He was also a journalist, and wrote pieces about New York and Baltimore. He wrote about New York, "I have been roaming far and wide over this island of Manhattan. Some portions of its interior have a certain air of rocky sterility which may impress some imaginations as simply dreary--to me it conveys the sublime."
It's the birthday of James Watt, born in Greenock, Scotland (1736). There were steam engines before Watt became interested in them, but they couldn't do much real work; too much steam was lost when it condensed inside the chamber as it cooled, and the engines used too much coal to be worthwhile. Watt became obsessed with the problem, and spent two years making little model steam engines, one after another. He solved the condensation problem, and that's what made him famous.
Poem: "Despond," by Jim Harrison.
At midnight in his living room a man
is angry at a fly that is bothering him.
How can this be?
A man is angry at things
that never happened
and never will happen.
He's angry at the woman he'll never meet
because she refuses to meet him
because, not existing herself,
she has no idea that he exists.
He's frying potatoes that don't exist
at sunset. The frying pan is a black sun
and out the window in the gathering dark
the ocean looks so heavy that it might fall
through the earth and join another ocean.
At dawn he wakes. There's a fly in the room
but perhaps it's a miniature bird. Magnified,
the sound is the basso rumbling of the universe
the peculiar music galaxies make when they fray
against each other. He sleeps again, his hand
on his dog's heart which says don't be angry.
She senses the steps of the last dance saved for us
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Italian film director Federico Fellini, born in Rimini, Italy (1920). As a young man, he enrolled in the University of Rome Law School to avoid military service, but he never attended classes. He worked instead as a cartoonist for a satirical magazine and as a gag writer for a vaudeville troupe. In 1943, he was ordered to undergo a medical examination for the army, but his medical records were destroyed in a bombing. He spent the next two years in the slums of Rome eluding the German Occupation troops, who searched the city for men to replenish the armed forces and to work in slave labor camps. After the war, Fellini turned to filmmaking and made a string of films about beggars, gypsies, swindlers, and prostitutes. He became famous for his film La Dolce Vita (1960). He was a charming, bear-like man, who always wore a wide-brimmed black hat, and gestured with both hands, even while driving one of his favorite motorcars. He overdubbed all his actors' voices, because he believed that most people didn't have voices that matched their appearance. He once said, "You can't teach old fleas new dogs."
It's the birthday of Nathaniel P. Willis, born in Portland, Maine (1806). He worked as a writer and editor for many publications, including American Monthly Magazine and the New York Mirror. Early in his career, he negatively reviewed Edgar Allen Poe's poem "Fairyland." He and Poe later became friends, and in 1845 Willis was the first to publish Poe's most famous poem, "The Raven."
It's the birthday of filmmaker David Lynch, born in Missoula, Montana (1946). He originally wanted to be a painter, but as a student at the Philadelphia School of Fine Art he started to experiment with film, which he has called "moving paintings." Ten years later, he finished his first full-length movie, Eraserhead (1977), and it was a tremendous critical success. He went on to direct Blue Velvet (1986), which many consider his masterpiece.
It's the birthday of actor and comedian George Burns, born Nathan Burnbaum in New York City (1896). He lived to be 100 years old. He said, "The most important thing in acting is honesty. If you can fake that, you've got it made."
It's the birthday of wildlife conservationist and author Joy Adamson, born in what is now Opava, Czechoslovakia (1910). She's the author of Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds (1960), about a lion named Elsa, which she and her husband raised from a cub and then returned to the wild.
On this day in 1961, an 87-year-old Robert Frost recited his poem "The Gift Outright" at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Although Frost had written a new poem for the occasion, entitled "Dedication," faint ink in his typewriter and the bright sun made the words difficult to read, so instead he recited his poem "The Gift Outright" from memory.
Poem: "Birches," by Robert Frost, from The Poetry of Robert Frost (Henry Holt and Co.).
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter of fact about the ice storm,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of singer-songwriter Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, born in Mooringsport, Louisiana, 1888 (sometimes given as January 20 or January 29). He is known for his versions of "Goodnight Irene" and "Rock Island Line." He was an inmate at Angola Prison in Louisiana when a man named Alan Lomax arrived, asking to record any songs the prisoners knew. Lomax was traveling across the South making field recordings for the Library of Congress. He helped Lead Belly obtain a pardon and took him to New York, where he was a big hit.
It was on this day in 1952 that William Shawn succeeded Harold Ross as the editor of The New Yorker.
It's the birthday of literary critic Richard P. Blackmur, born in Springfield, Massachusetts (1904). He was expelled from high school in 1918 after a dispute with the headmaster, and he never completed a formal education. He read the classics at the local library, but always felt uneasy about his homemade education and did his best to conceal its shortcomings. He went on to become a leading American literary critic at Princeton University.
Poem: "Bloody Men," by Wendy Cope, from Serious Concerns (Faber & Faber).
Bloody men are like bloody buses
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.
You look at them flashing their indicators,
Offering you a ride.
You're trying to read the destinations,
You haven't much time to decide.
If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you'll stand there and gaze
While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of romantic poet Lord Byron, born George Gordon Noel in Aberdeen, Scotland (1788). Byron was the product of his father's second marriage. His father, nicknamed "Mad Jack," struggled with debt, made his living by seducing rich women, and may have killed his first wife, though he was never charged with the crime. Byron was a poorly behaved child, and his nursemaids hated him. In 1809 he traveled to the eastern Mediterranean and kept a diary of his adventures and exploits. While traveling in Albania, he let a friend read the diary, and his friend persuaded him to burn it. He rewrote the story of his travels as a partially fictionalized book-length poem called Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812). The book made Byron one of the most popular poets of his time.
He was also an outspoken politician in the House of Lords. In 1812, workers in the weaving industry in Nottinghamshire were rioting and destroying machinery because of poor wages and working conditions. The Tories introduced a bill to punish the destruction of weaving machinery by death. Byron fiercely opposed the bill, speaking on behalf of workers' rights, and he published a poem on the topic that said, in part, "Some folks for certain have thought it was shocking, / When Famine appeals, and when Poverty groans, / That life should be valued at less than a stocking, / And breaking of frames lead to breaking of bones." Byron wrote many more books of poetry, including Don Juan (1819). When he died at age 36, several interested parties burned his unpublished memoirs before he'd even been buried.
It's the birthday of English essayist, philosopher, poet, historian, and statesman Sir Francis Bacon, born in London, England (1561). He spent much of his intellectual life challenging Aristotle's view that knowledge should begin with universal truths. He said, "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties." In Novum Organum (1620), Bacon wrote that scholars should build their knowledge of the world from specific, observable details. His idea is now known as the scientific method, and it's the basis of all experimental science. His scientific method eventually killed him. When driving in the country one day, he got the idea to test the effect of cold on the decay of meat, bought a fowl, and stuffed it with snow. Later that day he came down with a cold, and it ended up killing him.
It's the birthday of crime writer Joseph Wambaugh, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1937). He is the author of The Onion Field (1973), The Choir Boys (1975), The New Centurions (1970), and many other books.
It's the birthday of poet Howard Moss, born in New York City (1922). A quiet, unassuming man, he served as poetry editor of The New Yorker for almost four decades.
It's the birthday of the man who brought us Conan the Barbarian, science fiction author Robert E. Howard, born in Peaster, Texas (1906).
Poem: "Casabianca," by Felicia Dorothea Hemans.
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though childlike form.
The flames roll'd on — he would not go
Without his father's word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.
He call'd aloud: — "Say, Father, say
If yet my task is done!"
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.
"Speak, Father!" once again he cried
"If I may yet be gone!"
And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames roll'd on.
Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And look'd from that lone post of death,
In still, yet brave despair.
And shouted but one more aloud,
"My Father! must I stay?"
While o'er him fast, through sail and shroud
The wreathing fires made way.
They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And stream'd above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.
There came a burst of thunder sound —
The boy — oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strew'd the sea! —
With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part,
But the noblest thing which perish'd there
Was that young faithful heart.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of French novelist and essayist Stendhal, born Marie-Henri Beyle in Grenoble, France (1783). He hated his father, called his hometown "the capital of pettiness", and fled to Paris as soon as he could. He was disappointed in Paris, though. The streets were muddy and he caught a sickness that made his hair fall out. He wore a toupee for the rest of his life. To get out of Paris, he enlisted in Napoleon's army and participated in the invasion of Italy and later the failed invasion of Russia. After leaving military service, he contributed to journals and periodicals using dozens of pseudonyms, including William Crocodile, Old Hummums, and Stendhal. He was obsessed with the idea of secret identities, and even signed personal letters with false names. In 1818, he fell in love with the wife of a Polish officer. After she had rebuffed his advances, he trailed her for days across Italy, disguising himself by wearing a pair of green spectacles. When she finally caught him and accused him of following her, he said it was fate that had brought them together. She didn't believe him, and left Italy soon after. In despair, he moved back to Paris and produced the book-length essay On Love (1822). He published his first novel, Armance (1827) five years later, when he was 44. He went on to write his masterpieces—The Red and the Black (1830), about the social classes, professions, politics, and manners of early 19th century France; and The Charterhouse of Parma (1839). He said, "It is better to have a prosaic husband and to take a romantic lover."
It's the birthday of poet Louis Zukofsky, born on the Lower East Side of New York City (1904). He said, "Everything should be as simple as it can be . . . not simpler."
It's the birthday of jazz guitarist Django Reinhard, born Jean Baptiste Reinhardt, in Liberchies, Belgium (1910). He formed the Quintet of the Hot Club of France with violinist Stephane Grappelli and quickly became internationally known as one of the very few major European jazz musicians.
It's the birthday of painter Edouard Manet, born in Paris (1832). He's known for his controversial paintings such as "Luncheon on the Grass", which shows two clothed men and a nude woman sitting on the grass by a stream. His work was harshly received by the critics of his day, but the younger painters who were strongly influenced by his work started the movement that became known as Impressionism.
It's the birthday of French actress Jeanne Moreau, born in Paris (1928). She's best known for the roles she played in French New Wave movies like Jules and Jim (1962) and The Bride Wore Black (1968).
It's the birthday of actor Humphrey Bogart, born in New York City (1899). He was expelled from Massachusetts' Phillips Academy and immediately joined the Navy to fight in World War I, serving as a ship's gunner. One day, while roughhousing on the ship's wooden stairway, he tripped and fell, and a splinter became lodged in his upper lip; the result was a scar, as well as partial paralysis of the lip, resulting in the tight-set mouth and lisp that became one of his most distinctive onscreen qualities.
Poem: "Street Moths," by X.J. Kennedy, from The Lords of Misrule (Johns Hopkins University Press).
Mature enough to smoke but not to drink,
Grown boys at night before the games arcade
Wearing tattoos that wash off in the sink
Accelerate vain efforts to get laid.
Parading in formation past them, short
Skirts and tight jeans pretending not to see
This pack of starving wolves who pay them court
Turn noses up at cries of agony—
Baby, let's do it! Each suggestion falls
Dead to the gutter to be swept aside
Like some presumptuous bug that hits brick walls,
Rating a mere Get lost and death-ray eyes.
Still, they keep launching blundering campaigns,
Trying their wings once more in hopeless flight:
Blind moths against the wires of window screens.
Anything. Anything for a fix of light.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Edith Wharton, born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City (1862). She belonged to an aristocratic ship-owning and real estate family, connected to the high society of New York City. Wharton wrote her first novel when she was 11 years old. She wrote: "It was on a bright day of midwinter, in New York. The little girl who eventually became me, but as yet was neither me nor anybody else in particular, but merely a soft anonymous morsel of humanity—this little girl, who bore my name, was going for a walk with her father. ... I date the birth of her identity from that day. ... It was always an event in the little girl's life to take a walk with her father, and more particularly so today, because she had on her new winter bonnet. ... The little girl and her father walked up Fifth Avenue. ... On Sundays after church the fashionable of various denominations paraded there on foot, in gathered satin bonnets and tall hats." She never got along with her mother, who taught Wharton that lying was a sin, but who often punished her for telling the truth. Wharton puzzled over this contradiction for most of her life, and wrote about characters who cannot reveal the truth about themselves because of the society in which they live. She married young, enduring a proper but loveless marriage to banker Edward Robbins Wharton for 28 years. He suffered from mental illness, and it's said she was in love with another man named Walter Berry, whose large photo she kept on her mantelpiece next to the photo of her husband. The novels she is most remembered for are about frustrated love—Ethan Frome (1911) and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.
In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald she wrote, "To your generation, I must represent the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers." She invited Fitzgerald to a tea party in Paris soon after The Great Gatsby (1925) was published. The meeting of the two has become a literary legend. In one version of the story, Fitzgerald arrived drunk, and after a few minutes of sipping tea he stood and told a story about an American couple who mistakenly stayed at a Paris bordello, thinking it was a hotel. He stopped in the middle of the story, expecting his hostess to be shocked. Edith Wharton refilled his teacup and said, "But Mr. Fitzgerald, you haven't told us what they did in the bordello."
It's the birthday of British zoologist and writer Desmond Morris, born in Wiltshire, England (1928). He got his Doctorate of Philosophy degree at Oxford University, writing his doctoral thesis on the reproductive behavior of the ten-spined stickleback. Morris said, "We may prefer to think of ourselves as fallen angels, but in reality we are risen apes."
Poem: Excerpt from "The
Broken Home," by James
Merrill from Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf).
Poem: "Coda," by Mark Perlberg, from The Impossible Toystore (Louisiana State University Press). Coda
for my mother
When I was six or seven
you stopped singing
as you moved about the house
as you dressed for evening
I'll see you again whenever
spring breaks through again
Time will lie heavy between
Remember the night
You played the piano
a piece with vivid Spanish
I recall the fringed peach shall
on the polished mahogany
When did you learn to play
you must have spent hours practicing
Why did you stop singing
If I had thought to ask
these questions when I was older
could you have found a way
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Virginia Woolf, born Virginia Steven in London (1882). Her father was the editor of a popular series of reference books, The Dictionary of National Biography, and Woolf later said that she had been cramped in the womb by the weight of those heavy volumes. From an early age, her father gave her access to his extensive library. He taught her "to read what one liked because one liked it, never to pretend to admire what one did not." After the death of both her parents, she moved with her siblings into the unfashionable but cheap neighborhood of Bloomsbury, which soon became the literary and intellectual center of England. Woolf's brother hosted evening meetings that came to include D. H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and others. Woolf suffered most of her life from bouts of depression, and one doctor prescribed long walks as a remedy. It was on these walks that she conceived many of her novels, including Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). These novels employed a new brand of stream of consciousness, distinct from James Joyce's and others'. She said, "On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points."
It's the birthday of poet Robert Burns, born in Alloway, Scotland (1759). The son of a poor farmer, he followed his father's example and spent the first half of his life engaged in the back-breaking labor of pre-modern farming. People in his village thought he was odd because he always carried a book, and they disapproved when they saw him reading as he drove his wagon slowly along the road. He got into trouble with the family of a girl named Jean Armour, who had become pregnant. He'd left another woman after she had become pregnant, but he loved Armour and didn't want her to suffer the indignities of being an unwed mother.
Burns pursued a career as a poet and became known for his conversational poems about Scottish life in books such as Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786). He and his wife had nine children, the last one born on the day of Burns's funeral.
It's the birthday of novelist Gloria Naylor, born in Queens, New York (1950). She began her first book, The Women of Brewster Place, while attending Brooklyn College and working as a switchboard operator. The book, which focuses on the stories of several women who have come to live on a dead-end street called Brewster Place, won the American Book Award for best first novel in 1983.
It's the birthday of filmmaker Tobe Hooper, born in Austin, Texas (1943). In 1974 he co-wrote and directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Many critics either condemned the film or refused to review it, but the London Film Festival named it outstanding film of the year. He went on to direct Poltergeist (1982) and Salem's Lot (1979).
It's the birthday of author William Somerset Maugham, born in Paris, France (1874). He wrote the novels The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and Of Human Bondage (1915), the latter about Philip Carey, a sensitive, orphaned boy born with a clubfoot, who is raised by a religious aunt and uncle, and eventually falls into a doomed love affair with a lady named Mildred. Maugham wrote, "Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother."