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Poem: "Song" by W.H. Auden, from As I Walk Out One Evening: Songs, Ballads, Lullabies, Limericks, and Other Light Verse. © Vintage Books. Reprinted with permission.


The chimney sweepers
Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;
     The lighthouse keepers
     Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck;
     The prosperous baker
Leaves the rolls in hundreds in the oven to burn;
     The undertaker
Pins a small note on the coffin saying, "Wait till I return,
     I've got a date with Love."

     And deep-sea divers
Cut their boots off and come bubbling to the top,
     And engine-drivers
Bring expresses in the tunnel to a stop;
     The village rector
Dashes down the side-aisle half-way through a psalm;
     The sanitary inspector
Runs off with the cover of the cesspool on his arm-
     To keep his date with Love.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of columnist and humorist Erma Bombeck, born in Dayton, Ohio (1927). She was a stay-at-home mother when she got a humor column at a small Ohio paper and wrote about the adventures of the average housewife. Within a few years, she was one of the most popular humor columnists in America. She went on to publish many books, including Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession (1983) and Family: The Ties That Bind... and Gag! (1987).

She said, "My theory on housework is, if the item doesn't multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?"

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer David Foster Wallace, born in Ithaca, New York (1962). Growing up, he was a nationally ranked junior tennis player, but when he got to college, his teachers singled him out as someone who might become an important philosopher. One of his teachers actually told him that he was a genius. Wallace said, "It was the happiest moment in my life. I felt like I would never have to go to the bathroom again—that I'd transcended it." He took a year off to drive a school bus in his parents' town of Urbana, Illinois, and when he got back to school he decided to write a work of fiction for his senior philosophy thesis. It became his first published novel, The Broom of the System (1987).

Wallace spent the next several years trying to live the life of a hip, successful writer, but instead he grew increasingly miserable. He said, "I was white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated, had had way more career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and was sort of adrift."

He started sitting in on Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Boston, and found them to be incredibly powerful and uplifting. They gave him an idea for a science fiction novel about a future America where everyone is addicted to something—sports, drugs, sex, or entertainment. That novel was Infinite Jest (1996), which was more than 1,000 pages long and included 100 pages of footnotes. It's about many things, including Alcoholics Anonymous, tennis, environmental catastrophe, Canadian terrorists, and a movie that's so entertaining it kills people.

His most recent book is the collection of short stories Oblivion (2003).

It's the birthday of novelist Ha Jin born in Liaoning Province, China (1956). He was a telegraph operator in China when he learned English from a radio program, and began to read American fiction. He liked it so much that he traveled to the United States to study literature. He planned to return to China as soon as he finished his degree, but in June of 1989 he watched on TV as the Chinese Army attacked students demonstrating for democratic reform in Tiananmen Square. He decided at that moment that he would never return to China.

Ha Jin had never intended to become a writer, but his dissertation didn't make him a very good candidate for teaching positions in the United States, and he couldn't thing of anything else to do. He said, "Writing in English became my means of survival, of spending or wasting my life, of retrieving losses, mine and those of others."

He published his first book of poetry, Between Silences (1990), and got a job teaching creative writing at Emory University. He began to write fiction as well, and he chose to write in English, rather than having someone else translate his work from the Chinese. He said, "I slowly began to squeeze the Chinese literary mentality out of my mind... For the initial years, it was like having a blood transfusion."

His first book of fiction was Ocean of Words (1996), and he has also written several novels, including Waiting (1999). His most recent book is War Trash, which came out last year.

And it was on this day in 1925 the first issue of the New Yorker magazine appeared on newsstands, with its famous cover illustration of an aristocrat looking at a butterfly through a magnifying glass. The magazine would go on to become one of the most influential literary institutions in the United States.

It was founded by Harold Ross, a newspaperman who'd grown up in a mining town. He'd dropped out of high school when he was sixteen and began riding the rails around the country, working at various newspapers from New Orleans to California. He said, "If I stayed anywhere more than two weeks, I thought I was in a rut."

During World War I, he became the editor of Stars and Stripes magazine, which first put the idea in his mind that he might want to start a magazine of his own. He wanted to create a magazine that was intellectual but not pretentious, smart-alecky but not scandalous, serious but also entertaining. And he wanted to make use of all kinds of print media: journalism, reviews, essays, fiction, poetry, parody, graphic cover art, offhand sketches, cartoons, and jokes.

He raised money from a friend whose father had made a fortune in baking, and on February 21, 1925, the first issue of the New Yorker hit the stands. For the first year, the magazine lost about $8,000 a week, and it didn't help that Ross kept losing his personal income in poker games. He would pace nervously around the office, and since he kept several dollars of change in his pockets for taxicabs, he always jingled.

Whenever Ross grew frustrated with some aspect of the magazine, he shouted, "God, how I pity me!" But within a few years, the New Yorker was the most popular magazine among the metropolitan upper middle class.

Ross himself never fit in with the New Yorker's audience. He was gap-toothed, his hair always stood straight up on his head, and he spoke with a Western twang. His suits never fit him. He was an avid reader, but he often pretended he'd never read a book in his life. He thought that if he acted like a hick, his writers would never get too fancy with their language.

Ross was obsessed with the details of the magazine. He believed in accuracy above all else, and pioneered the use of fact checkers for everything, including fiction and cartoons. He never let a cartoonist draw a lamp without showing the cord plugged into a socket, and he never let a fictional character take off a hat unless it had been established that that character was wearing a hat. He said, "We have carried editing to a very high degree of fussiness here, probably to a point approaching the ultimate. I don't know how to get it under control."

Harold Ross said, "Magazines are about 85 percent luck. All an editor can do is have a net handy to grab any talent that comes along, and maybe cast a little bread on the waters." Ross died in 1951.

It's the birthday of poet W(ystan) H(ugh) Auden, born in York, England (1907). He grew up in an industrial area of northern England. He loved the huge mining machines designed for breaking up rocks, and he originally wanted to become a mining engineer, but then one afternoon when he was 15, a friend asked him if he ever wrote poetry. He never had, but being asked the question made him want to start. He went on to become one of the greatest poets of the English language.

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Poem: "To Capitalize Ungodly" by Matt Cook, from In The Small of My Backyard. © Manic D Press. Reprinted with permission.

To Capitalize Ungodly

In Colonial America
People would fire up the oxcart,
Go into town, and trade hay for firewood.
Then they would come home from all that, and unload the firewood.
Then they would sit around and read Virgil.

Men who could stack firewood neatly
Were considered good marriage prospects—
People would give out slaves as wedding presents.

During the wintertime, shopkeepers would scatter oyster shells
On sidewalks to improve footing.
People wondered whether or not to capitalize 'ungodly'.

For fun, people would have simple boating parties.
People would get malaria and then their ears would start ringing.

Remember that painting, that Gilbert Stuart painting of Washington?
Sure you remember that thing, everybody does, the really famous one—
Seriously, I used to like that picture a lot,
But then I realized that everything Stuart ever did looked like Washington.
I saw this self-portrait Stuart made of himself—
It looked exactly like Washington.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Gerald Stern, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1925). He wrote many collections of poetry, including Leaving Another Kingdom (1990), Bread Without Sugar (1992), and Odd Mercy (1995). He started to write poetry in college but he didn't know any other poets, so he didn't try very hard to get anything published. He later said, "I was too harsh a critic of my own work, and I couldn't focus my thoughts and feelings in a way that would satisfy me."

He only began writing poetry on a regular basis in middle age. He said, "I discovered... everything at once—voice, style, approach, and have been practically besieged by poems from that time on." He published his first poetry collection, The Pineys, in 1971, and has gone on to write many more collections.

It's the birthday of Edward Gorey, born in Chicago, Illinois (1925). He's known for writing and illustrating many morbidly funny books, including The Beastly Baby (1962), The Wuggly Ump (1963), and The Epiplectic Bicycle (1969). He said of his childhood., "I like to think of myself as a pale, pathetic, solitary child... But I wasn't at all. I was out there playing kick-the-can."

Gorey drew his first pictures when he was one and a half years old but he said, "I hasten to add they showed no talent whatsoever. They looked like irregular sausages." He taught himself to read at age three, and by the time he was five, he had read Dracula and Alice In Wonderland, which remained two of his favorite books for the rest of his life.

After high school, he served in the U.S. Army, working a desk job at a testing ground for mortars and poison gas. He studied French literature at Harvard, where people knew him as the guy who kept a tombstone in his campus apartment. He was incredibly tall, wore a black cape, and people said he looked like a Roman emperor.

He got a job drawing book covers for Doubleday, and started to produce a series of very strange, uncategorizable books of his own. These books looked like children's storybooks, but they were much too dark and violent to be read by children. The Hapless Child (1961) is about a little girl named Sophia who is picked on and abused, sold into slavery, forced to make artificial flowers, and finally run over by a car. His alphabet book The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963) teaches the ABCs by using the names of children who have been violently injured or killed. It begins, "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears."

Gorey had a hard time getting his books published, so he founded his own publishing house called Fantod Press and sold the books himself at obscure bookstores. He published under a series of pseudonyms, all anagrams of his own name, including Ogdred Weary, Wardore Edgy, Roy Grew-dead, and Drew Dogyear.

Because Gorey's books were printed in such small quantities, they became collector's items, and began to sell for up to a $1,000 each. Eventually, his early books were collected into an anthology called Amphigorey (1972), which became a best seller. By the time of his death in 2000, he had written and illustrated more than 100 books, and his work had been made into a Broadway musical.

It's the birthday of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, born in Rockland, Maine (1892). She was the most popular poet of the Jazz Age. Millay's collection A Few Figs from Thistles (1920) made her famous. When she gave readings of her poetry, she drew huge crowds of adoring fans, more like a rock star than a poet. One man who saw Millay perform her own work said, "The slender red-haired, gold-eyed Vincent Millay, dressed in a black-trimmed gown of purple silk, was now reading from a tooled leather portfolio, now reciting without aid of book or print, despite her broom-splint legs and muscles twitching in her throat and in her thin arms, in a voice that enchanted."

Many critics considered her the greatest poet of her generation. The poet Thomas Hardy famously said that America had produced only two great things: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She became the first woman poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, who wrote, "Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: / Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!"

It's the birthday of the first president of the United States, George Washington, born in Westmoreland County, Virginia (1732). He started out his career as a successful land surveyor and farmer, and he spent much of the rest of his life trying to get back to that. He was reluctant to advocate for armed rebellion against the British, but he eventually saw that it was inevitable. He was reluctant to serve as commander-in-chief of the revolutionary armies, but his colleagues persuaded him that he was the best man for the job.

Though he participated in the Constitutional Convention, Washington was reluctant to take any of the political positions in the new federal government. He wanted to go back to his farm. But once the Constitution was ratified, no one else seemed to be an appropriate choice for newly created office of the President. No other candidates were even considered. Washington was elected unanimously. He was the first elected president in world history.

Washington was in an awkward position as the first president, because he knew that he was helping to invent the presidency by everything he did in the office. He wrote, "Few... can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act... I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."

Washington knew the new United States needed a strong leader, but he didn't want to look too much like a king. He put up with the extraordinary inaugural parade, which stretched from Mount Vernon, Virginia to New York City. He rode past cheering crowds, underneath triumphal arches, and over barges decorated with flowers. He was celebrated in each town at night by cannons and fireworks. But once he arrived in New York, he wore a modest suit of brown cloth to his Inauguration, and he insisted on being called "Mr. President" rather than "Your Highness."

Washington did believe in a certain amount of formality. He always wore a sword in public, and he never spoke casually to anyone, including close friends, at public events. He didn't even shake hands; he just gave a formal bow. He also refused to tolerate disrespect from foreign nations. One of the first letters he received from a British official was addressed to "Mr. Washington." Washington decided that the letter had been addressed to a farmer in the State of Virginia, and he refused to open it until he had finished his term as President.

He also had to establish relationships with other branches of government. Early in his first term, he went to the Senate to ask for their advice and consent on a treaty with the Creek Indians. He sat and listened to the debate about the treaty. When the Senators decided to give the treaty documents to a committee for further study, Washington stood up angrily and said, "This defeats every purpose of my coming here." He was so frustrated with the process that he never returned to the Senate chamber to ask for advice or consent again, and no other President has done so either.

He could probably have served as President for the rest of his life, but he consciously chose to serve only two terms. It was one of the first times in history that a head of state gave up power voluntarily. Two terms became the unofficial tradition for Presidents until Franklin D. Roosevelt broke the tradition in 1940, and congress had to mandate it by an amendment to the Constitution.

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Poem: "Job" by William Baer, from Borges and Other Sonnets. © Truman State University Press. Reprinted with permission.


(Job 28:28)

Yes: wisdom begins with fear of the Lord,
which comprehends the power that made the seas,
the earth, the shimmering dawn, the unexplored
unfathomed skies, the moon, and the Pleiades.
Which also know Who comes to judge our shoddy
little failing lives, knowing full well,
we need not fear the one who kills the body,
but only He who condemns the soul to hell.
Which also knows it magnifies the Lord,
defying the demon, being the only release,
oddly enough, from fear, being its own reward,
which is also wise, is faith, is hope, is peace,
is tender mercy, over and over again,
until, at last, is love, is love. Amen.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the journalist and novelist William Shirer, born in Chicago (1904). He graduated from college in the spring of 1925, and he had a steady job waiting for him the following autumn, so he decided to spend his last summer before becoming a real adult traveling in Paris. He borrowed $200 from his father, which he figured would last about two months, and took off to the bohemian capital of the world.

Once he got there, he found that he loved European life. He became friends with writers and artists and began to think that he didn't want to go home. He tried to get a job with one of the local newspapers, but nobody would take him. So at the end of two months, he went to his own going away party, assuming he'd be leaving the following morning for America. That following morning, he got a job offer from the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune.

He had originally hoped to become a novelist, but he later wrote, "History now seemed more interesting to me, especially contemporary history... Vaguely the idea began to take root that there might be a great deal of history to write about from here for a daily newspaper back home." He went on to become one of the foremost American foreign correspondents to cover the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of World War II.

His first book was Berlin Diary (1941), which he had to smuggle out of Germany when he learned that the Gestapo was planning to arrest him for espionage. It included all kinds of daily details about the Nazi governmental figures he had covered. Of the way Hitler walked, Shirer wrote, "Very ladylike. Dainty little steps."

After the war, Shirer was labeled a communist sympathizer, and couldn't find work as a journalist. In desperation to make a living, he began writing the book that became The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (1961). It was the first historical overview of Nazi Germany for general readers, and it was published at a time when Americans who had lived through the war were ready to look back on what had happened. It became one of the best-selling non-fiction books of the decade.

He went on to write many more books, including The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940 (1984) his memoir of covering the rise the Nazi party in Europe.

William Shirer said, "I have never been bored for a minute in my life."

It's the birthday of the novelist who writes under the name John Sandford, born John Camp in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (1944). He has written many best-selling detective novels, including Rules of Prey (1989) Shadow Prey (1990) and Eyes of Prey (1991).

He started out as a crime reporter for the Miami Herald and then moved to the St. Paul Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he won a Pulitzer for a series of articles about a family farm. But even after winning a Pulitzer, he worried about making enough money to put his kids through college, so he decided to try writing detective novels. His first two books didn't do very well, but then he invented the detective Lucas Davenport for his third novel Rules of Prey (1989), and it became a best-seller.

Sanford had once written a series of articles about the prisoners in a local Minnesota prison, and he drew on that experience to create the villains for his novels. Most of his books are set in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and he believes Minnesota breeds a particular kind of criminal. He once said, "When people kill up here, it's not the chaotic street crime [they have] in Miami. We have these elaborate, cold-blooded murders that incubate in the winters. My first week in St. Paul, some guy killed his wife and fed her body down the garbage disposal. That's Minnesotan."

He's always been an incredibly prolific writer. When he was a journalist he would compete with fellow reporters to see who has produced the most copy. Since becoming a novelist, he has published at least one book every year since 1989.

When asked about his ability to write so many novels so quickly, John Sandford said, "Music people have music running through their heads. Journalists have words going through their heads. It's almost like my head is tuned into some sort of news radio. The stories that you write are things that you pull out of the air, and I don't know how to stop it. Sometimes, when I sleep, there's so much going on that I just lie there and twitch."

His next novel, Broken Prey, will come out this May.

John Sandford said, "What writers do is create the skeleton of a dream, which is dreamt in full by the readers."

It's the birthday of one of the greatest diarists in the English language, Samuel Pepys, born in London (1633). He managed to work his way up from poverty when it was almost impossible to do so in England. His parents were a tailor and a washerwoman, but he had an upper-class cousin who helped him get into good schools and got him government jobs.

His constant fear of losing his position made him an extremely hard worker, and he eventually worked his way up to the top of society. He later wrote, "For myself, chance without merit brought me in, and that diligence only keeps me so, and will, living as I do among so many lazy people, that the diligent man becomes necessary, that they cannot do anything without him."

Pepys began his diary in 1659, and he would keep it for almost 10 years. No one knows what inspired him to start it, but he was a great collector of ship models, scientific instruments, portraits, ballads, money, and women, and some critics see his diary as an attempt to collect his whole experience of the world.

It wasn't uncommon at the time for well-educated men to keep a journal, but most of these men wrote dry descriptions of their travels, politics and public affairs. As far as we know, Pepys was the first Englishman to fill his diary with descriptions of his most personal and ordinary experiences: his daily aches and pains, what he liked to eat, going to the bathroom, having sex with his wife, and having affairs, graphic details which novelists wouldn't start incorporating into their work for more than two hundred years.

Pepys was brutally honest about himself, and often wrote about his failed attempts to seduce servant girls and bar maids. In August 1667, he wrote, "[At church I] stood by a pretty modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me, and at last I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again; which seeing, I did forbear."

He also wrote about the historical events of his time, including the Great Fire in 1666, and he took note of even the smallest details of that fire. He wrote, "Among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down."

Pepys also wrote extensively about King Charles II, whom he worked for, and he was fascinated by the fact that the king was just an ordinary person. About a trip he took on a boat with the king, Pepys wrote, "I went... with a dog that the King loved, which [defecated] in the boat, which made us laugh and me think that a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are." Once, after meeting the king and his brother, Pepys wrote, "God forgive me, though I adore them with all the duty possible, yet the more a man considers and observes them, the less he finds of difference between them and other men."

After going to a wedding, he once wrote, "It was strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition."

Pepys wrote the diary in shorthand and kept it secret during his lifetime, but near the end of his life he bound it in six volumes and gave it to a College in Cambridge. The first edition of it was published in 1825, and it kept being republished again and again, with more and more of the explicit entries included. The complete diary was finally published in 1970.

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Poem: "In the Apartments of the Divorced Men" by Sue Ellen Thompson, from The Leaving: New and Selected Poems. © Autumn House Press. Reprinted with permission.

In the Apartments of the Divorced Men

The apartments of the divorced men are small,
you can stand in the doorway
and see their whole lives as through a convex lens,

the way a fish sees all the ocean. Or
they are large, one room opening into another
until it seems the whole white winter sky

has settled on the walls. The apartments
are not what you'd expect, they are neat
as pins, and to enter them

is to endure that brief, accidental pain.
They are proud of everything, the divorced men,
proud of the clean white microwave,

the CD player with its growing audience of disks,
the futon that bears the furrow of their sleep
upon its back. They will show you

the photographs of their children when they were young,
stepping from the doors of miniature cars,
pajama bottoms on backwards, or give you

a full tour of the kitchen cabinets, each of which holds
an item or two of use. And when it is time
for you to leave, they will follow you

to the top of the stairs, the door,
and stand there while you drive away,
their faces behind the wood, the glass—

looking like the faces that you've seen
in all the papers: the proud, pained soldiers torn
from their homes and sent out into the world
for a reason you must read on and on to understand.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Wilhelm Karl Grimm, born in Hanau, Germany (1786). He's famous for collecting and translating children's stories and folktales, along with his brother Jakob, and these were put together in Children's and Household Tales (1812), and would come to be known as the Grimm's Fairy Tales.

All volumes published after 1819 were handled only by Wilhelm Grimm, and the books were the most widely read in the world next to the Bible. The brothers collected the stories by listening to storytellers and trying to write down the tales using the same techniques and words as the speakers. The tales they recorded included "Little Red Riding Hood," "Sleeping Beauty," "Snow White," and "Hansel and Gretel." Their recording methods also established a scientific approach to documenting folklore.

Their personal libraries held over 7,000 books and papers from all different kinds of subjects. The brothers had been working on a huge historical dictionary, but Wilhelm died in 1859 before finishing his entries for the letter D. His brother Jakob died four years after him, and he only got as far as the letter F. The dictionary was eventually finished many years later by other researchers.

It is the birthday of poet and short story writer Weldon Kees, born in Beatrice, Nebraska (1914). He was also a painter, and he had one-man exhibits in New York City. He's best known for his Collected Poems (1960), which was put together and edited by the poet Donald Justice, and which came out five years after Kees's mysterious disappearance and presumed death.

Kees disappeared on July 18, 1955. His car was found abandoned on a road that went on to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. He had divorced his wife, Ann Swan, in 1952, and what would end up being his final book, Poems 1947-1954 (1954), had just been published. Right before his disappearance, he had told some of his friends that he wanted to start a new life in Mexico, but he also suggested that he was thinking of killing himself. The car was the only sign of him, and no one ever saw him again.

Kees's collection of fiction, Ceremony and Other Stories, came out in 1983, almost 30 years after he disappeared. But he published more than thirty short stories between 1934 and 1945 in many midwestern literary magazines. Many of these came out while he was still in college. He turned to writing mainly poetry in 1937, after his first published poem came out in Signatures.

He ended up in San Francisco in 1951, where he became a jazz pianist and composer. He wrote the music for an experimental film called The Adventures of Johnny, and he made some films himself. He also illustrated a book called Non-Verbal Communication (1956) with hundreds of his own still photographs. Donald Justice has called Kees "one of the bitterest poets in history."

It's the birthday of poet, novelist, and short story writer Maxine Chernoff, born in Chicago, Illinois (1952). Her best-known work includes the short story collection Signs of Devotion (1993), and the novels American Heaven (1996) and Boy in Winter (1999).

When Maxine Chernoff was growing up, her mother was repeatedly hospitalized for clinical depression and sometimes given shock therapy, and Chernoff turned to books to escape from her mother's absence. She writes, "I would often come home from school and read whatever books were available to me. I read everything from politics to spy novels to popular condensations of novels that my parents ordered from Readers Digest. Reading was a comfort and an escape, and I was a serious reader years before I became a writer."

She grew up in a bilingual home, and her grandmother lived with them. Her grandmother had gone deaf when she was a child in Russia, and so she only spoke Yiddish. Chernoff's grandmother was also a poet, and several of her poems had been published in the Jewish Daily Forward.

Chernoff graduated early from high school and started college at 16. She entered as a political science major, but she never took one political science class. She switched to English after taking an Introduction to Literature course in fiction and drama. She started working on her own poems her junior year of college. She says, "I would even pull over in my car to write a poem in my first few years of writing poetry."

Chernoff and her husband, the poet Paul Hoover, edit New American Writing, a literary journal. She started off as an assistant editor, and the magazine was originally called Oink!. After a while the other editors dropped out, and they changed the name to New American Writing. The name change made their circulation go up to 6,000 copies.

It's the birthday of Irish novelist George Augustus Moore, born Ballyglass, Ireland (1852). He's known for introducing Realist fiction to England with his book Esther Waters (1894). He also wrote confessions and memoirs, such as the Hail and Farewell trilogy (1911-14) and Confessions of a Young Man (1888).

His father was a member of Parliament and owned racehorses. He had wanted Moore to become a military man, but after his father died in 1870, Moore inherited some money and was free to move to Paris and live out his life as an artist. Moore said growing up he was "the boy that no schoolmaster wants." He said, "A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it."

Up until 1876, Moore had planned on being a painter, and he studied at French art academies. He was good, but not good enough. He once said, "The lot of critics is to be remembered by what they failed to understand." Moore decided to educate himself by reading as much as he could, especially philosophy, while sitting in Paris cafés. He had to leave Paris for Ireland when his father's estate went into financial ruin, but the money problems taught him a lot about business and politics.

He would eventually become very anti-British in his views and he became more active in the Irish Revival. He worked with Yeats and the early days of the Abbey Theater. He also focused on bringing back the popularity of the Gaelic language.

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Poem: "Snowbanks North of the House" by Robert Bly, from Selected Poems. © Harper Collins. Reprinted with permission.

Snowbanks North of the House

Those great sweeps of snow that stop suddenly six feet
     from the house...
Thoughts that go so far.
The boy gets out of high school and reads no more books;
the son stops calling home.
The mother puts down her rolling pin and makes no more
And the wife looks at her husband one night at a party
     and loves him no more.
The energy leaves the wine, and the minister falls leaving
     the church.
It will not come closer—
the one inside moves back, and the hands touch nothing,
     and are safe.

And the father grieves for his son, and will not leave the
     room where the coffin stands;
he turns away from his wife, and she sleeps alone.

And the sea lifts and falls all night; the moon goes on
     through the unattached heavens alone.
And the toe of the shoe pivots
in the dust...
The man in the black coat turns, and goes back down the
No one knows why he came, or why he turned away, and
     did not climb the hill.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of painter Pierre (Auguste) Renoir, born in Limoges, France (1841). He began painting when he was 13 years old, first on porcelain, then later painting on fans. He went on to form the style of painting known as Impressionism, along with the painters Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley. Renoir became severely disabled by arthritis starting in 1902, but he continued to paint. By 1913 he was completely crippled, and he instructed his assistants in creating several of his last sculptures. Renoir said, "The pain passes, but the beauty remains."

It's the birthday of novelist and composer Anthony Burgess, born in Manchester, England (1917). He's best known for his book, A Clockwork Orange (1962), but he also wrote many musical compositions, as well as over 50 other books.

Burgess said, "I call myself a professional writer in that I must write in order to eat... But primarily I call myself a serious novelist who is attempting to extend the range of subject-matter available to fiction, as also a practitioner who is anxious to exploit words as much as a poet does."

It's the birthday of English art critic and nun Sister Wendy Beckett, born in South Africa (1930) and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland. She's been a nun for over 50 years, an art critic for almost 20. She's famous for books on art and her television shows on the BBC and PBS where she talks about art in museums around the world in plain, understandable language.

Sister Wendy said, "Many people feel I am not really equipped to understand art, that I am not educated enough to speak to people in elitist languages, but don't you see—that's the point!" Her first book was Contemporary Women Artists (1988).

Sister Wendy surprises her audience with the way she openly talks about sex and nudity in paintings without any embarrassment. She says, "I use the words that come naturally [...] I'm absolutely astonished and bewildered to find people commenting on my delight in a naked body. Never, ever, has anyone suggested that parts of the body were not quite right, that God made a mistake, that they should be passed over. It's appropriate to comment on everything in the painting. I'm not going to deny God's glory by pandering to narrow-mindedness."

Sister Wendy negotiated in her contract that no matter where she is filming, she must go to mass every day. When not filming, she lives in solitude and prayer in a trailer on the property of the convent. All the money she makes from her book sales and her shows go to the Carmelite convent and its hospice for children. Sister Wendy says, "When you are talking about art, you are talking about God indirectly; all experience of art is an indirect experience of God."

It was on this day in 1956 that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes met in London, beginning one of the most famous literary relationships in modern history. Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts (1932), and had studied at Smith College, but she was in England studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship.

Sylvia Plath met Hughes at a party in a bar, and the next morning she wrote about the encounter in her journal. She spent most of the evening talking to someone else, who she described as, "some ugly, gat-toothed squat grinning guy named Meeson trying to be devastatingly clever." She said the party was "very bohemian, with boys in turtleneck sweaters and girls being blue-eye-lidded or elegant in black." Plath had been drinking a little, and she wrote, "The jazz was beginning to get under my skin, and I started dancing with Luke and knew I was very bad, having crossed the river and banged into the trees..."

Plath said, "Then the worst thing happened, that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, who had been hunching around over women, and whose name I had asked the minute I had come into the room, but no one told me, came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes."

Plath quoted one of his poems to him, and he guided her to a side room of the bar. She wrote of that moment, "And then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair band off, my lovely red hair band scarf which had weathered the sun and much love, and whose like I shall never again find, and my favorite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face."

Plath composed a poem over the next few days after meeting Hughes. Called "Pursuit," it was a poem about a woman being hunted by a panther and was a response to a Hughes poem called "The Jaguar." Plath spent the night with Hughes and his friend in their London flat right before going on a spring vacation in Europe. When she returned, they spent even more time together, and after seeing so much of each other for a couple of months, they started thinking about marriage.

They got married on June 16th, four months after that first meeting, but it was a secret wedding because they didn't want to jeopardize Plath's fellowship or academic career. The ceremony was in the Church of Saint George the Martyr in London. Plath wore a pink suit, and Hughes gave her a pink rose to hold as she walked down the aisle.

Plath and Hughes spent the rest of that summer in Paris, Madrid, and the small town of Benindorm in Spain. They passed their days swimming, studying, and writing. Plath wrote the poems "Dream with Clam Diggers," Fiesta Melons," and "The Goring" as well as many others while on this honeymoon. Plath told a friend many years later that Hughes had gotten very angry with her during that trip and tried to choke her while they sat on a hill. She said she had resigned herself to die while it was happening, and she worried she had made the wrong decision in getting married so soon after meeting him.

Plath and Hughes decided to separate in 1962, right after they had moved back to England and had a second child. Plath discovered that Hughes was having an affair. She said in an interview that year, "I much prefer doctors, midwives, lawyers, anything but writers. I think writers and artists are the most narcissistic people [...] I'm fascinated by this mastery of the practical. As a poet, one lives a bit on air. I always like someone who can teach me something practical."

Plath committed suicide in 1963 by sticking her head in an oven. Hughes's mistress would also kill herself years later using the same method. Hughes was left in control of Plath's estate, and he edited her poems and controlled what of hers was published and what was not. He once was met on a trip to Australia by protestors holding signs that accused him of murdering Plath. Plath fans trying to chip away the word "Hughes" from her name on the tombstone have repeatedly vandalized her grave in Yorkshire, England.

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Poem: "Beauty or Flight" by Denver Butson, from Triptych. © The Commoner Press, New York, 1999. Reprinted with permission.

Beauty or Flight

The man who jumped from the highway bridge one afternoon
who drove his car along in rush hour traffic
then carefully pulled it over, fussed with something briefly on the dash,
so casually that another driver passing
thought he was looking for a map, or a cassette tape,
that had slid during the last turn before the bridge-that's all—
and then stepped out of the car, standing, stretching,
and closing the door routinely, a man in need of a break
on a long drive, a man untroubled by his next appointment,
a man who felt himself growing tired and thought
he needed some air, looked up the highway once
and then down at the almost frozen rows of traffic
under the haze that lingered above the bridge
and then broke simply and suddenly into a run, a dead run,
one motorist called it, crossing in front of his car
and not even stopping at the railing between the bridge
and the empty space beside the bridge, entering that space
and opening his mouth in what one driver called a scream,
though she heard no sound above the drone of traffic, and
other drivers saw as a gasp for breath, not unlike a child takes
when diving into a backyard pool, and he executed then
a nearly perfect, if a little rushed, swan dive out across the space
next to the bridge and into the water ninety-five feet below.

One fisherman in a boat a little upstream
saw the man who jumped from the highway bridge,
the moment he left the bridge and entered his dive, and the fisherman
swore he saw not a man but a large bird, a falcon or an eagle,
shot mid-flight by an angry driver, a large bird
who was trying to regain some sense of beauty, some sense of flight,
in its final dying seconds.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man we call Buffalo Bill, born William Frederick Cody in LeClair, Iowa (1846).

Cody's father died when the boy was only 13, and Cody responded by leaving the family home in Kansas to seek his fortune out west. He first worked for supply trains and a freighting company, and in 1859 he worked in the Colorado gold fields. The next year, Cody rode for the Pony Express. Then, Buffalo Bill began the work for which he became famous: scouting for the Army, and hunting buffalos for railroad construction camps across the Great Plains.

The novelist Ned Buntline persuaded Cody to appear on stage on December 17, 1872, as the character Buffalo Bill, and Cody was connected with show business almost completely from that time forward. The next year, Cody formed the Buffalo Bill Combination, which included his friend Wild Bill Hickok. He organized Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1883, and toured all over America and Europe for many years. The state of Wyoming gave Cody a stock ranch, and it was here that the future city of Cody was first conceived.

Buffalo Bill's adventures and exploits were written about in dime store novels by Prentice Ingraham—and many of the adventures written there were true, or based in truth.

It's the birthday of Victor Hugo, the French poet, novelist and dramatist, born in Besancon, France (1802). He is best known for his epic novels, like Les Misérables (1862) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), but he published dozens of works in his lifetime.

Hugo's father was an army general, and the father taught his young son to admire Napoleon as a national hero. Hugo also traveled widely as a boy, living in Spain and Italy before his parents separated, when Hugo moved to Paris with his mother. It was in Paris that the young Hugo began to make a name for himself, as a writer of promise. He published his first play at age 14, and earned praise from the prestigious Académie Française a year later. Hugo published his early novels, Han d'Islande and Bug-Jargal, in his early twenties. Hugo had been translating the poetry of Virgil since adolescence, and in 1822 he published his first translations. Hugo earned a large financial reward from Louis XVII for these translations, and he married the daughter of the minister of defense.

Hugo earned widespread fame for his play Hernani (1830) and for the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), which tells the now-famous story of a gypsy girl named Esmeralda and the deformed bell ringer who loves her, named Quasimodo. Much later, Hugo wrote the epic Les Misérables, about the life of Jean Valjean, who is imprisoned for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread.

Hugo became increasingly involved in French politics later in life, particularly after the death of his daughter and her husband, which caused him much sadness and kept him from publishing a book for 10 years. In particular, Hugo was an advocate for social justice. In 1848, after a revolution helped form the Second Republic, Hugo was elected to the Constitutional Assembly and the Legislative Assembly. Just a few years later, Hugo fled France after a coup d'etat by Napoleon III put his life in danger. Hugo first went to Brussels, then he moved on to Jersey and Guernsey in the English Channel. He would be away from France for 20 years. It was during this time that Hugo wrote Les Misérables.

Hugo returned to France when the Third Republic came into power, but he left again during the time of the Paris Commune, which ruled Paris for a brief time in 1871. Hugo again took up residence in Brussels, but he was expelled for sheltering defeated revolutionaries. Hugo moved on to Luxembourg, and when the Paris Commune finally collapsed, he returned to Paris and was elected a senator.

Like so many French writers before and since, Hugo's death was a national event. He was given a national funeral attended by two million people.

Nobody is certain what day Christopher Marlowe was born, but he was christened on this day, in Canterbury, England (1564). Marlowe is often considered the greatest dramatist before Shakespeare, even though the two were born in the same year. Probably this is because of Marlowe's early death at age 29.

Marlowe attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge on a scholarship usually given to students studying for the ministry. He held the scholarship for the full six years he was allowed, but he began to write plays rather than take holy orders. Marlowe encountered difficulty as he completed his master's degree in 1587. The university nearly denied him the degree, because they suspected that Marlowe intended to go to Reims, the center of Catholic dissidence and movements against Queen Elizabeth. He was finally granted the degree, because the Privy Council intervened on the queen's behalf, and they said Marlowe had proven his loyalty by acting as some kind of government agent.

Marlowe wrote his play Tamburlaine before leaving Cambridge, and in 1587 it was produced on the stage in London. A sequel soon followed. Marlowe also wrote Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward II and The Massacre at Paris, all well known today. Except for the Tamburlaine plays, Marlowe's other works were published and produced only after he died.

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Poems: "The Marsh in Winter" by Timothy Walsh, from Wild Apples. © Parallel Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. And "Outside of Richmond, Virginia, Sunday" by Deborah Slicer, from the white calf kicks. © Autumn House Press. Reprinted with permission.

The Marsh in Winter

If you stand and listen,
you will hear the voice.
Reeds sharp as rapiers rasp the wind.
Frost creaks in the trees.
Sunlight, ice-bright, falls from the sky.
Scattered cedars and junipers loom like shadows.
Sheathed in ice, a willow droops heavily
     Across the path.
Driven snow packs the creviced bark of cottonwoods.
Once-hidden bird nests now plainly marked
     by a white cap of snow...

Out on the marsh, blue water shows through shifting ice.
Tall brown reeds, slim as dancers, bend in the breeze.
A hundred thousand cattails, each one lit
     by the low-angled light of a westering sun,
each brown seed head blazing
     like the head of a saint.

Outside of Richmond, Virginia, Sunday

It's the kind of mid-January afternoon—
the sky as calm as an empty bed,
fields indulgent,
black Angus finally sitting down to her chew—
that makes a girl ride her bike up and down the same muddy track of road
between the gray barn and the state highway
all afternoon, the black mutt
with the white patch like a slap on his rump
loping after the rear tire, so happy.
Right after Sunday dinner
until she can see the headlights out on the dark highway,
she rides as though she has an understanding with the track she's opened up in
     the road,
with the two wheels that slide and stutter in the red mud
but don't run off from under her,
with the dog who knows to stay out of the way but to stay.
And even after the winter cold draws tears,
makes her nose run,
even after both sleeves are used up,
she thinks a life couldn't be any better than this.
And hers won't be,
and it will be very good.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, born in Portland, Maine (1807). He was a student at Bowdoin College at the same time as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and went on to teach at Harvard where he became friends with James Russell Lowell. Longfellow wrote many long, narrative poems that are still well known to this day, including Evangeline (1847) and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858). He also translated Dante's Divine Comedy.

It's the birthday of Lawrence Durrell, born in India of English parents (1912). Durrell traveled widely during his life, living in Cairo, Belgrade, and on many small islands in the Mediterranean Sea. He worked as a diplomat and information officer for the British government, and also he lectured at universities.

Durrell is best known for The Alexandria Quartet (1957), four linked novels set in Alexandria, Egypt, around the time of World War II.

It's the birthday of Irwin Shaw, born in the Bronx, New York City (1913).

Shaw was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, and they changed their family name from Shamforoff when they moved to Brooklyn when Shaw was a boy. Shaw attended Brooklyn College but was expelled after his first year, for failing calculus. And so, Shaw worked in New York City, in a cosmetics factory, a furniture house, and a department store. Then he returned to Brooklyn College, where he became the quarterback of the football team.

Shaw played football professionally for a short time, but he needed to support his family, and so he began to write radio scripts for programs like "Dick Tracy" and "The Gumps." Of this, Shaw said, "Even when I was writing the junk, I knew it was junk; but I did it the best way I could [...] and I make no excuses for eating. Or feeding a family. Or fighting for the freedom to write all these short stories, all these plays, all these novels."

Shaw wrote his play Bury the Dead (1936) for a contest for new playwrights held by the New Theatre League. Shaw missed the deadline, but he impressed them anyway, and they gave his play two off-Broadway performances. During this time, Shaw also began publishing his short stories in the Paris Review and the New Yorker.

Shaw enlisted in the military during World War II, and he worked with a camera crew. His crew traveled to Normandy two weeks after D-Day, and Shaw helped photograph battles for the liberation of French cities and towns, and this gave him the idea for his novel The Young Lions (1948). After the war, Shaw was blacklisted for a time, because he was mistakenly accused of being a Communist. Shaw claimed the blacklist "only glancingly bruised" his career. Still, he moved to Paris in 1951, and would remain abroad for 25 years, writing many stories, novels and plays.

Irwin Shaw said, "If you organize chaos, you organize as much as you can to show that it's chaos. It's the way I do it. To pretend it's not chaotic is a lie."

It's the birthday of John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California (1902). He is the author of the epic novel The Grapes Of Wrath (1939), and also Of Mice and Men (1937).

Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford in 1919, but he did so only to please his parents. He dropped in and out of the university for six years, only taking classes he thought were interesting, and he never finished a degree. Then he worked construction and tried to make it as a reporter in New York City, but he disliked that job and returned to California. Then, Steinbeck became a caretaker for an estate near Lake Tahoe. The job lasted for three years, and it was during this time that he wrote many drafts of what would become his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929).

Steinbeck's most productive period as a writer was the 1930s. He wrote several books, including the two for which he is most famous today, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. His wife edited his prose, typed his manuscripts and suggested titles, which may explain why Steinbeck was so productive and successful. When The Grapes of Wrath was first published, the first printing of nearly 20,000 copies sold out quickly, and by May the book was selling 10,000 copies per week. Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel the following year.

As he grew older, Steinbeck became increasingly jaded by what he saw as American greed and waste. So he traveled across the country in a camper truck and then wrote the book Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), where he celebrated what he found so admirable about his country: its individuals.

John Steinbeck said, "A book is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun."



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