Poem: "A History of Modern Poetry" from When a Woman Loves a Man by David Lehman © Scribner. Reprinted with permission.
A History of Modern Poetry
The idea was to have a voice of your own,
distinctive, sounding like nobody else's
The result was that everybody sounded alike
The new idea was to get rid of ideas
and substitute images especially the image
of a rock so everyone wrote a poem
with the image of a rock in it capped with snow
or unadorned this was in the early 1970s
a few years before Pet Rocks were a Christmas craze
showing that poetry was ahead of its time as usual
and poetry had moved on
the new idea was to make language the subject
because language was an interference pattern
there was no such thing as unmediated discourse
and the result was that everybody sounded alike
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the man who gave us Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie, born in Angus, Scotland (1860).
It's the birthday of the poet Mona Van Duyn, born in Waterloo, Iowa (1921).
It's the birthday of the poet Charles Simic, born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (1938). He came to this country as a child. He grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. He went to work as a proofreader at the Chicago Sun Times, then went into the U.S. Army.
He published his first book of poems What the Grass Says in 1967. It was Charles Simic, who said, "Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them. We are always at the beginning, eternal apprentices."
It was on this day in 1960 that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, approved the use of a first birth control pill. How it came about was a long story, but Margaret Sanger was a crucial character in it.
She was a woman who worked as a nurse on the lower east side of New York City. Her own mother had given birth to eleven children, suffered seven miscarriages, and Margaret Sanger came to believe that women needed the right to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
She published a pamphlet in 1914 called Family Limitation and opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in the same year in Brooklyn. It was illegal to advocate the use of contraception back then, and she was arrested. And her arrest drew attention, and it enabled her to get the laws changed.
By the 1950s, Margaret Sanger was trying to get scientists to develop a pill that might stop ovulation. She got some money from a woman named Katharine McCormick to fund a research project, and she found a scientist named Gregory Pincus who was interested in the effect of hormones on ovulation; and a gynecologist in Boston named John Rock, who agreed to do the clinical trials.
The hormone progesterone was synthesized from a wild yam. It was tested on rabbits, run through clinical trials, approved for use as a method of birth control. It was one of the first times a drug had been approved by the FDA for anything other than to cure an illness or relieve pain. The official name was Enovid-10, but it was known simply as "the pill."
Less than two years after it came on the market in 1962, 1.2 million women were using it every day. By 1968, the number had jumped to 12 million. Today it's estimated that of women born after 1945 in America, 80 percent have at one time or another taken the pill. It did not end overpopulation, as some people thought it would. It did not end unwanted pregnancies. About 50 percent of all pregnancies in the U.S. today are unplanned.
Margaret Sanger was 81 years old when the FDA approved the birth control pill in 1960. Her son and her granddaughter read about it in the paper. They went to Sanger's house. She was eating breakfast in bed. When they told her what had happened, she said, "It's certainly about time."
Poem: "Grass" by Ruth L. Schwartz from dear good naked morning © Autumn House Press. Reprinted with permission.
Yesterday, and the day before that,
the cows ate grass.
Tomorrow, and the next, and every day after that,
the cows will eat grass.
They'll eat until they can't stand up,
and even then, collapsed upon the earth in their last hours,
if they can reach it with their mouths, they'll eat grass.
They'll eat until they've eaten it all, until there are only
a few stray blades
halfway buried under bouldersthen
they'll nudge aside the boulders
with their large and knowing lips,
and eat that grass, too.
Only the smallest calves, today,
the ones no bigger than dogs, are lying down.
They gaze out onto the landscape like dreamers:
the sky marbled with fatty clouds;
the cherry trees beginning to leaf;
the first few poppies, unfurling their cadmium banners;
the fences making some things possible, and others difficult;
the shadows falling from, and following, each thing;
and the world seems so strange, so common and wondrous
at once, that the calves ask the cows eating grass,
Is this all there is?
And the answer comes back from mouths full of grass:
This is all there is.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the theologian Karl Barth, born in Basel, Switzerland (1886) who said, "Conscience is the perfect interpreter of life."
It's the birthday of Fred Astaire, born Fred Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska (1899). He went off with his sister Adele, to dance in vaudeville. She left the act in 1932 after she had married. It was doubted by many that Fred Astaire could continue without her, but in 1933 he teamed up with Ginger Rogers in a movie called Flying Down to Rio.
It was on this day in 1940 that Winston Churchill took power as the prime minister of Great Britain. He was an English politician who had had a bumpy career. He had switched parties not once but twice. He started out conservative, became liberal, and then went conservative again.
At the start of World War I, he was one of the few to predict how enormous that war would be. He advocated an invasion of Turkey and the result was a disaster. There were hundreds of thousands of British casualties and nothing to show for it, and he had to resign his office in disgrace; whereupon, he joined the Army, went into battle, commanding a battalion in the trenches. He was the only politician of his stature to serve in the trenches in World War I.
Between the wars, he was alienated from politicians in both parties who felt that he was an extremist, a reactionary. In 1932, he made a speech about the growing danger of a second world war with Germany. Nobody took him seriously. He was considered paranoid and a warmonger.
But things changed when Hitler took over Czechoslovakia and Austria and then invaded Poland, Belgium, and France. In less than two years, almost all of Western Europe was either controlled by or allied with Nazi Germany. And then on May 10, 1940, Churchill became the prime minister. He gave his acceptance speech in which he said, "All I have to offer is blood, toil, tears, and sweat."
The situation for Great Britain was dire. The British Army was decimated in a retreat from Dunkirk. Hitler was so confident that he delayed invasion. He thought it would be a waste of resources. He expected British surrender, but Churchill set out to rally the British people by sheer force of will and his personality and his command of English.
Today he's perhaps more idolized in America than in Great Britainwhere he's seen as an important statesman but not perfecta man who did not support independence for India and who, in the 1930s, thought that Communism was more dangerous than Fascism. And many British felt that he turned Great Britain into a junior partner of the United States.
Poem: "Snowflakes" by Deborah Slicer from the white calf kicks © Autumn House Press. Reprinted with permission.
Snowflakes are fools God sweeps out of his kitchen.
Last night he emptied his dustbin all over western Montana
and we sure got a load of them
on top of everything else.
No wonder snow falls in such a light-headed mizzy,
makes us all silly,
immune, we believe, to all life's unreasonable demands
our own children
when they become strange to us,
parents when they are frighteningly familiar because we've become
who want us to be their parents and children.
I spent this morning watching the border collie on Highway 200
chasing magpies from a road-killed deer. Entitled,
that by noon when a golden eagle blew down
(that pitbull of raptors, known to airlift live lambs)
the dog hadn't yet had her first mouthful.
Had it been me I would have run home hurting for sympathy
and bit off my good husband's right ear,
kicked my own scat at my frightened children,
sung the family dirge: Injustice!
Then spent days as a field post, alone,
arm-wrestling with the winterly west wind.
At dusk the dog came home with one anvil-shaped hoof in her mouth,
seemed glad to have it.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline, in Russia (1888). He came to this country when he was five years old and settled in New York City on the lower east side.
It's the birthday of the physicist Richard Feynman, born in Queens, New York (1918).
It's the birthday of Stanley Elkin, born in New York City (1930). He was the author of many novelsincluding The Magic Kingdom, (1985) The Franchiser, The Dick Gibson Showthat didn't sell particularly well, though they were deeply admired by other writers. The Magic Kingdom is about seven terminally-ill children who are taken on a vacation to Disneyworld, escape from their chaperones, and hide out in a hotel room where they are able to come to terms with their mortality.
It's the birthday of Mari Sandoz, born in Hay Springs, Nebraska, (1896) the daughter of Swiss immigrants. She was the oldest of her siblings and spent her childhood working hard around the farm. She fell in love with Shakespeare and Hawthorne and Joseph Conrad, though her father disapproved of reading fiction. So she had to smuggle books into the house underneath her dress. She began to write in secret even though her father referred to writers as "the maggots of society."
Sandoz went to college, got a job as a journalist, but wrote under the name Marie Macumber so her father wouldn't find out what she was up to. When she heard that he was on his death bed, she went back home, and she was surprised when he asked her to write his life story. It was his last request.
Mari Sandoz spent five years researching, writing about her father, writing about his hard work, his love of history, his friendship with the Indians, his bitterness, his anger, and his frequent violence toward his wife and children. She called the book Old Jules and sent it out to 14 different publishers. It was rejected by everybody. She burned the manuscript, but a year later she got word that one of the publishers had reconsidered and decided to publish the book.
It came out in 1935. It was a Book-of-the-Month club selection, it was a best-seller, and it allowed Mari Sandoz to go on to write many more books about frontier life, including Crazy Horse, a biography of the Sioux Indian chief. It came out in 1942. It was one of the first books by a white author that tried to see the Indian Wars from the Indians' point of view.
Poem: "The Table and the Chair" by Edward Lear from The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense © Penguin Books. Reprinted with permission.
The Table and The Chair
Said the Table to the Chair,
'You can hardly be aware,
How I suffer from the heat,
And from chilblains on my feet!
If we took a little walk,
We might have a little talk!
Pray let us take the air!'
Said the Table to the Chair.
Said the Chair to the table,
'Now you know we are not able!
How foolishly you talk,
When you know we cannot walk!'
Said the Table with a sigh,
'It can do no harm to try,
I've as many legs as you,
Why can't we walk on two?'
So they both went slowly down,
And walked about the town
With a cheerful bumpy sound,
As they toddled round and round.
And everybody cried,
As they hastened to their side,
'See! the Table and the Chair
Have come out to take the air!'
But in going down an alley,
To a castle in a valley,
They completely lost their way,
And wandered all the day,
Till, to see them safely back,
They paid a Ducky-quack,
And a Beetle, and a Mouse,
Who took them to their house.
Then they whispered to each other,
'O delightful little brother!
What a lovely walk we've taken!
Let us dine on Beans and Bacon!'
So the Ducky and the leetle
Browny-Mousy and the Beetle
Dined and danced upon their heads
Till they toddled to their beds.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist and poet Rosellen Brown, born in Philadelphia (1939). Her novels include Tender Mercies, Before and After, and Half a Heart.
Her family moved around a lot when she was a child, and Brown began reading Turgenev and Dostoevsky. She said, "I was nine when words began to serve their extraordinary purposes for me. I was lonely and they kept me company. They materialized whenever I called on them without an argument or a competitive leer."
She said, "I still write for the same reason I wrote when I was nine years old, to speak more perfectly than I really can to a listener more perfect than any I know."
It's the birthday of Farley Mowat, born in Belleville, Ontario (1921). He is best known for his books about the Canadian arctic, including Never Cry Wolf, (1963) a best-seller, and The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, in which he wrote, "I suspect that at some early moment of his existence he concluded there was no future in being a dog. And so, with the tenacity that marked his every act, he set himself to become something else.
It's the birthday of the man who wrote,
"There was an old man who supposed That the street door was partially closed, But some very large rats ate his coats and his hats While that futile old gentleman dozed."That was Edward Lear, born in London (1812). He was the 20th of 21 childrenalmost half of whom had died in infancy. He was raised by his sister who taught him to paint birds and flowers.
There was a market for illustrated books about birds, so Edward Lear got into that business and became a successful bird illustrator. He always painted from life. He painted the specimens that Charles Darwin brought back from his trip on the H.M.S. Beagle.
He suffered from depression, epilepsy, and terrible eyesight. He felt like an outcast in British society.
In 1832 came a turning point in his life. The Earl of Darby invited Edward Lear to come and paint all the animals in his private zoo, and Lear did and arrived at the estate and wound up spending most of his free time with the Earl's grandchildren. Edward Lear had never spent any time with children before. He found that he loved them. He became a clown. He sang songs for them, he drew cartoons, and he made up humorous poems.
And he wrote down those poems and they became his Book of Nonsense, which came out in 1846, the poem about the owl and the pussycat who went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat and the poem about the jumblies and others.
Poem: "The Perfect Day" by Alice N. Persons from Never Say Never © Moon Pie Press. Reprinted with permission.
The Perfect Day
You wake with
in the arms
of your beloved
to the smell of fresh coffee
you eat a giant breakfast
with no thought
there is time to read
with a purring cat on your lap
later you walk by the ocean
with your dog
on this cut crystal day
your favorite music and the sun
fill the house
a short delicious nap
under a fleece throw
and the phone doesn't ring
at dusk you roast a chicken,
bake bread, make an exquisite
for some friends
you've been missing
someone brings you an
and the wine is just right with the food
after a wonderful party
you sink into sleep
in a clean nightgown
in fresh sheets
your sweetheart doesn't snore
and in your dreams
and old piece of sadness
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan, the composer Arthur Sullivan, born in London (1842).
It's the birthday of novelist Daphne du Maurier, born in London (1907). She spent most of her adult life in the coastal towns of Cornwall. And her three most famous novels Jamaica Inn, Frenchman's Creek, and Rebecca were all set there.
It's the birthday of the novelist and travel writer Bruce Chatwin, born in Yorkshire, England (1940). He loved to travel. He had traveled as a boy with his father and his brother to the Middle East and Spain and Italy and Greece. He'd been an archeologist, helping at digs in Africa and Afghanistan.
In 1973, when Bruce Chatwin was virtually penniless, he got an offer of a job at the London Sunday Times magazine to write about art and architecture, and he got to travel on international assignments for the magazine. For one of his articles, he went to see an architect in ParisEileen Gray, who was 93. He saw that she had a map of Patagonia on the wall of her apartment. He said he had always wanted to go there, and she said, "So have I. Go there for me." And he left the next day.
He spent six months in Patagonia at the southern tip of South America, which includes parts of Chile and Argentina. And he wrote his first book, In Patagonia. It came out in 1977 and became an instant classic. It was made up of about 100 short chapters about Bruce Chatwin's own adventure, also about various people he met there, little bits of history, the fact that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had hid out in Patagonia. Bruce Chatwin said about the book, "While stringing its sentences together, I thought that telling stories was the only conceivable occupation for a superfluous person such as myself." It helped to inspire a whole generation of travel writers, including Paul Theroux and Jonathan Raban, Peter Matthiessen and Bill Bryson.
And it's the birthday of the novelist and short story writer Charles Baxter, born in Minneapolis (1947). He got his Ph.D. in literature, taught for 14 years at Wayne State University in Detroit. His real ambition was to write.
He spent five years writing fiction. He wrote three experimental novels, not one of which was published. He sent off the third to his agent who said she hated it. Charles Baxter was completely devastated, and decided to give up on writing. But the experience of giving up on writing gave him an idea for a story about a musician who gives up on music, and he decided to write that one last story called "The Harmony of the World," which was selected for the Best American Short Stories anthology of 1982. It became the title story of his first collection of fiction, which he published in 1984.
Each one of his books since then has sold better than the last. The most recent, The Feast of Love and Saul and Patsy, were best sellers.
It was Charles Baxter who said, "A lack of self confidence can be turned to your own purposes if it helps you to take pains, to take care."
Poem: "Borrowed Time" by David Moreau from Sex, Death and Baseball © Moon Pie Press. Reprinted with permission.
I will not die tonight
I will lie in bed with
my wife beside me,
curled on the right
like an animal burrowing.
I will fit myself against her
and we will keep each other warm.
I will not die tonight.
My son who is seven
will not slide beneath the ice
like the boy on the news.
The divers will not have to look
for him in the cold water.
He will call, "Daddy, can I get up now?"
in the morning.
I will not die tonight.
I will balance the checkbook,
wash up the dishes
and sit in front of the TV
drinking one beer.
For the moment I hold a winning ticket.
It's my turn to buy cold cuts
at the grocery store.
I fill my basket carefully.
For like the rain that comes now
to the roof and slides down the gutter
I am headed to the earth.
And like the others, all the lost
and all the lovers, I will follow
an old path not marked on any map.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the anniversary of the proclamation of the state of Israel in Tel Aviv on this day in 1948.
It's the anniversary of the first English settlement in the New World. Explorers from the London Company landed in what would become Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.
It was on this day in 1796, that Edward Jenner, a doctor, inoculated an eight-year-old boy with a vaccine for smallpox. It was the first safe vaccine ever developed, and it was the first time anyone had successfully prevented the infection of any contagious disease. What made it so remarkable was that it was accomplished before the causes of disease were even understood, decades before anyone even knew about the existence of germs.
Jenner was a country doctor. He studied for a few years in a hospital in London, and learned something about the scientific method. Smallpox at the time was the most devastating disease in the world. It caused boils to break out all over the body, and killed about one in four adults who caught it, and one in every three children. It was so contagious, most people who lived in populous areas caught it at some point in their lives.
There were inoculations for smallpox, but they didn't work very well. People who were inoculated could still pass the disease onto others. Some people who were inoculated developed the disease and died from it.
Jenner knew that milkmaids who worked in his area almost never caught smallpox, and he figured that they had caught cowpox from the udders of cows and that this infection somehow helped them develop an immunity to smallpox.
He took some of the fluid from a cowpox sore and injected it into the arm of an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps who developed a slight headache and lost his appetite but that was all. And six weeks later Jenner inoculated the boy with smallpox, and the boy showed no symptoms. He had developed immunity.
At first, the Royal Society of London did not believe Edward Jenner, so he published his ideas about inoculation at his own expense in a book which came out in 1798, and was a huge success. The novelist Jane Austen said in one of her letters that she had been at a dinner party and everyone was talking about the "Jenner pamphlet."
By 1840, the British government passed a law providing all infants with free smallpox vaccinations. It was the first free medical service in the history of the country. And today, so far as we know, smallpox only exists in the freezers of laboratories. The last known natural case occurred in 1977 in Somalia.
Poem: "We Collect Gull Feathers" by Timothy Young from Building in Deeper Water © The Thousands Press. Reprinted with permission.
We Collect Gull Feathers
As the evening dies over Pepin,
we collect gull feathers, black and white ones,
and pretend they were dropped by the eagle
whose track and wing marked
the gray Mississippi sandbar.
Jesse remarked as we arrived,
"If I point at hawks they fly away,
but if I don't they stay in their trees."
The river moves heavily, south,
and the sun drops beyond the bluffs.
The air chills me.
I want to keep my fingers in my pocket,
because everything moves on here,
except that sweet pain of love that knows
he's growing up to leave me.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the poet Wyatt Prunty, born in Humbolt, Tennessee (1947).
It's the birthday of the painter Jasper Johns, born in Augusta, Georgia (1930). He was famous for his paintings of flags and maps.
It's the birthday of the man who gave us The Wizard of Oz, L(yman) Frank Baum, born in Chittenango, New York. He moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota and then to Chicago, where his first children's story, Father Goose, was a big success in 1899. Thereupon he submitted Wizard of Oz to his publisher. It came out in 1900. It was produced as a musical extravaganza in 1901 on the stage in Chicago.
It's the birthday of the author and editor Clifton Fadiman, born in Brooklyn (1904).
It's the birthday of the short story writer and novelist Katherine Anne Porter, born in Indian Creek, Texas (1890). She grew up in poverty, and received very little education. She got married at the age of 16 to a railway clerk, but later ran away from her husband to Chicago to become an actress.
She got a job in a song and dance show. She caught tuberculosis, but had no money. She had to go into a charity hospital which was known at the time as a "pest house." It was dirty. It was overcrowded. The patients were fed on dry bread and thin soup. But her brother, having heard she was sick, came to her rescue. He sent her money to pay for treatment at a real sanatorium in Texas where she spent two years surrounded by young women, including some journalists who inspired Katherine Anne Porter to become a writer.
Porter had never been to college, never left the country, hadn't lived outside of Texas for more than a year, but she went to work covering entertainment news and society. In 1919, she met a group of Mexicans who told her that a revolution was brewing in their country and that she should write about it. And though it was unheard of for a woman to travel alone to a foreign countryespecially one that was unstable politically as Mexico wasshe spent the next several months there, wrote about it, and also began writing short stories. She wrote "Flowering Judas," about a young American woman living in Mexico just before the revolution. It was published, made her famous, and became the title story of her first book, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, which came out in 1930.
It earned her some money so she could travel to Europe, where, being far away from Texas, she could see her home clearly for the first time. She began to write about her childhood. She wrote her novel Noon Wine which most critics consider her masterpiece. It's the story of a dairy farmer who hires a stranger to work on his farm, whereupon a bounty hunter arrives, claiming that the stranger is an escaped criminal, and the farmer winds up killing the bounty hunter and has to prove to the town that he is not a murderer.
It was on this day in 1942 that William Faulkner's book Go Down Moses was published. Go Down Moses is a collection of seven short stories, all taking place in his fictional Yoknapatawph County, about members of the McCaslin family. It includes his famous story, "The Bear."