Poem: "Lesson" by Steve Straight, from The Water Carrier. © Curbstone Press. Reprinted with permission.
Standing by the side of the road in Jenner, California,
hitchhiking. At least that is the idea.
So few cars pass that one may not stop today.
It's sunny. Goats dispersed across the hillside behind me
chew their way up the green hill gradually, attentive.
The sea breeze carries phrases of seagull chatter
from below a cliff. In my pack are clothes, water,
oranges, three loaves of sourdough, peanuts, cheese.
Hung below the pack, a tent. I peel an orange,
tucking the continents of rind into a loose pocket.
Drops of juice fall onto the sand and on my boots.
A bee lands on the lip of a yellow blossom and walks
inside it. It emerges, dusted with pollen, drunk,
surprised by the generosity of light.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of William Clark, of Lewis and Clark, born in Caroline County, Virginia (1770).
It's the birthday of the man who wrote the lyrics of "The Star Spangled Banner," Francis Scott Key, born in Frederick, Maryland (1779). He was 35 on that September day in 1814, and when he was sitting on a British ship about eight miles away from Fort McHenry as it was being bombed by the British in the War of 1812. In the morning, he saw the flag flying from the fort and checked into a hotel in Baltimore and finished writing the poem that became our national anthem.
It's the birthday of Herman Melville, New York City (1819). He got a job as a cabin boy on a whaling ship when he was 21, and sailed off to the Atlantic Ocean and the South Seas and then came home to write about it.
It was on this day in 1988 that Rush Limbaugh's show premiered on WABC in New York, eventually becoming the most popular radio talk show in the country. Rush Limbaugh had grown up loving radio. He got his radio broadcaster's license when he was 16 and got a job at a local station, working his way up to disc jockey. He only went to college because his father wanted him to. He flunked all of his classes, even speech. He dropped out of school after a year and tried to get back into radio.
He worked for more than ten years as a DJ and a news reader, often using the name Jeff Christie. He was fired often. He was often told he had no talent, and he should go into sales. And he did. He worked as a group ticket sales manager for the Kansas City Royals.
In the early '80s, he got a job reading news at a station in Kansas City and started inserting his own opinions. He was fired by management, but he caught on with a station in Sacramento, hosting a talk show. There were other controversial talk shows at the time, but what made Limbaugh successful was that he was funny. And though he insulted groups of people, he didn't insult individuals who called into his show.
The FCC had just dropped the "Fairness Doctrine" which required radio stations to provide balanced viewpoints on every issue. So now there was an opportunity for talk shows that were openly one-sided and partisan.
Limbaugh's show in Sacramento was popular. He got a syndication deal with ABC and moved to New York City. His first syndicated show was broadcast on this day in 1988 from 12:00 noon to 2:00 p.m. Most people in the radio business thought that time slot was a graveyard, that listeners would only tune in to a national show at night, but Limbaugh changed the way that people listened to the radio. And within a few years, his show had become the most popular talk show in the country. It airs on 580 stations with more than ten million listeners.
Poem: "Reunion" by Amber Coverdale Sumrall, from Litany of Wings. © Many Names Press. Reprinted with permission.
In your old pickup we drive the length of the island looking for
blackberries and trails that lead to the lighthouse, tell stories
about our six cats, the ones we divided when I left. I took your
favorites, the ones that were mine before we met. Your fifth
marriage is faltering. I am falling in love for the third time since
we separated. All you want to do is fish in your father's rowboat,
build a small cabin on five acres of land. Beyond right now,
I don't know what I want. Somewhere on Orcas another woman
dreams of you, waits for you to enter her life.
We smoke from your well-seasoned pipe, nervous as new
lovers. Those last months I refused to get high with you; we
always fought afterward. I remember why I loved you and why,
after ten years, I left. The reasons blend together, rise with the
smoke and dissipate. You ask me to tell you why, once again.
Each time the story is different, a work in progress. Days pass
in one afternoon. Is there still a chance, you ask.
We smile at one another, our defenses down. No one knows
us better. At the trailhead you pick purple flowers, hand
them to me, suddenly shy. I trip over exposed roots as we walk,
instinctively take your outstretched hand then let it go. In the
lagoon a pair of herons dance for one another, lowering their
long necks in courtship. Hidden behind boulders, we watch in
silence until the birds lift and disappear beyond the lighthouse.
There is always a chance, I say.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of James Baldwin, born in Harlem in New York City (1924), the oldest in the family of nine children. He was often put in charge of his younger siblings. He spent much of his childhood with a baby in one hand and a book in the other. He never knew his biological father. When he was three, his mother met a preacher from New Orleans. And when he was 14, young James Baldwin followed in his stepfather's footsteps. He became a Holy Roller preacher in the Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. He enjoyed the power that he had as a teenage preacher. He was accepted into a prestigious, mostly white high school, and there he fell more in love with books and also learned something about racism.
He decided that he had to get away from his family and become a writer. He said, "I would turn into a writer before my mother died and before the children were all put in jailor became junkies or whores. I had to leave Harlem. I had to leave because I understood very well ... that I would never be able to fit in anywhere unless I jumped. I knew I had to jump then."
So he moved to Greenwich Village. He was a dishwasher. He was a waiter. He had a little bit of success, and used what money he had to buy a ticket to Paris. He arrived with $50 in his pocket, sold his clothes and his typewriter to survive. He was thrown into a French prison. And then a friend set him up in a cottage in the countryside. He started writing in isolation, and he finished his novel in a few months. Go Tell It on the Mountain came out in 1953. It was about a young preacher, based on Baldwin's stepfather. It was a big success, and it was the beginning of his career.
Poem: "Old Men" by Norah Pollard, from Report From the Banana Hospital. © Antrim House. Reprinted with permission.
The way courage is asked of them
The way they still wear hats
and tip them for a lady.
How their collars stand out from their thin necks.
How they are careful to balance their heads.
How they do not complain
but, if you ask, might say,
"Most horrible!" and grin.
How they wear Hush Puppies, walk silently,
practicing to be ghosts.
How their hair grows so white and thin
it lies on their frail skulls like light.
How when they are alone, their spindle fingers
make gestures, speak in silence.
How their mouths work, remembering.
How their eyes, their eyes look far, far off,
seeing something I do not yet know what.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the novelist and essayist Walter Kirn, born in Akron, Ohio, (1962). He grew up on a farm in rural Minnesota. He went off to Princeton University, hoping he'd be surrounded by other people who liked to read and talk about ideas. He was disappointed to find that most of the people that he met were more interested in their social lives.
He started writing poetry, then plays, and then got a chance to talk to the editor Gordon Lish for a radio program. The interview was just finishing up and Gordon Lish asked Walter Kirn if he wrote short stories. Kirn had never written any, but he said, yes, he did. So as soon as he got home, he wrote his first story and kept writing them and published his first collection, My Hard Bargain.
Walter Kirn said, "My advice for aspiring writers is go to New York. And if you can't go to New York, go to the place that represents New York to you, where the standards for writing are high, there are other people who share your dreams, and where you can talk, talk, talk about your interests. Writing books begins in talking about it, like most human projects, and in being close to those who have already done what you propose to do."
It's the birthday of the novelist and short story writer Steven Millhauser, born in Brooklyn (1943). He studied medieval literature at Brown and worked at night on a novel about his own childhood. It came out in 1972, entitled Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 By Jeffrey Cartwright, the story of a disturbed 12-year-old novelist.
Millhauser spent the next 20 years writing novels and short stories, and then in 1996, came out with Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Millhauser was teaching his class at Skidmore when someone came to the room and handed him a note that said he'd won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He told his students that a grotesque error had been committed, and he had to go and straighten it out.
It's the birthday of the poet Hayden Carruth, born in Waterbury, Connecticut (1921). In 1953, he had a nervous breakdown, was put in a psychiatric hospital, and got electroshock therapy. He was released 18 months later and went into isolation in a small cabin in rural Vermont.
He supported himself as a freelance book reviewer and ghostwriter and started writing poems. He said, "The isolation afforded me the opportunity to put everything together, the land and seasons, the people, my family, my work, my evolving sense of survival ... in one tightly integrated imaginative structure. The results were my poems."
Poem: "Can You" by Christian Barter, from The Singers I Prefer © CavanKerry Press, Ltd. Reprinted with permission.
Can you love the dawn and hate the day? I do.
"Addicted to the beginnings of relationships,"
as I've been told. And told. And told. The new
light looks as something else when it first hits,
something more like Catherine standing up
across a strangered room, that promising look
she had before the promises, still stuck
with sweetness to her face in my notebook
of pre-day ecstasies. I love the feel
of gray seeping into black-what it represents:
the casting-out that could occur-and the real,
truant world opening, before it grows dense
with light and the need for endings, setting free
that inkling some lasting love might come to me.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley, born in Sussex, England (1792). He died before the age of 30, but he gave us many masterpieces, including "The Cloud," "To a Skylark," and "Prometheus Unbound."
It's the birthday of Knut Hamsun, born in Lom, Norway (1859). He was considered one of the great Scandinavian novelists of all time. He had almost no formal schooling. As a boy he became an indentured servant to his uncle. He escaped at the age of 14, went to the United States, and found a job as a streetcar operator in Chicago. He was very poor. He wore newspapers under his clothes to keep warm in the winter in Chicago. He went back to Norway and wrote his early novels that made him famous, including Mysteries and Hunger in 1890.
It's the birthday of Louis Armstrong, born in New Orleans (1901) in a poor section of town known as "The Battlefield." When he was six years old, he and three other boys formed a vocal quartet and sang on street corners for tips.
A family of Russian Jewish immigrants, the Karnofskys, hired young Louis to work on their junk wagon, and he bought his first cornet with the money that the family loaned him. He was 12 years old when he was sent to a reform school as a juvenile delinquent, and that was where he learned to play the cornet.
It's the birthday of the crime writer Dennis Lehane, born in Dorchester, Massachusetts (1965). He grew up in a poor Irish neighborhood that he once described as "[A place] cramped with corner stores, small playgrounds, and butcher shops ... days, the mothers searched the papers for coupons. Nights, the fathers went to bars. You knew everyone; nobody ever left ... My mother and father were Irish immigrants with a sense that life was hard and unfair and you just tried your best."
Dennis Lehane was one of the few kids in the neighborhood who went to college. He got a master's degree in a creative writing program and studied the work of Raymond Carver and Walker Percy. He tried his hand at writing literary short stories, but he'd grown up reading mysteries and crime fiction. And so he decided to try writing a mystery novel for fun. It came out in 1994, A Drink Before the War. It did all right. He went on writing, but he had to support himself as a valet in a parking garage and a chauffeur.
In 2001, he came out with a novel, a story based on his own neighborhood, a murder that affects three men who've grown up there. The result was Mystic River, which got great reviews and became his first major best-seller. Clint Eastwood went on to make it into a movie in 2003.
Poem: "One Day You'll Knock and a Stranger Will Come to the Door" by Charles Darling, from The Saints of Diminished Capacity. © Second Wind Press. Reprinted with permission.
"One Day you'll knock and a stranger
will come to the door"
Linda, in Death of a Salesman
My parents write to announce
after the predictable weather report
and brief obituary of someone I never knew
that they're moving to Tennessee.
My sister in Knoxville has told them of forsythia
in February, of robins that punctuate the lawn
by Groundhog Day. After forty years of Lake Effect,
my parents are weary of snow.
Imagining how my father's garden
will surrender to volunteers of odds and ends,
inscrutable vegetables surprised at their
I give them my blessing, thinkingas self intrudes
yes, move while you can, and on your own.
But after they're gone, what stranger will answer
at that door? What look will come to her face
when a bearded, absurdly tall man,
who seems close to tears, walks in and
tries to explain why tomatoes and marigolds
shoot up overnight in the lawn, why
in the fall her kitchen seems heavy with steam
and she hears
in the night the tinkling of a hundred mason jars?
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of one of the great French short story writers Guy de Maupassant, born in Normandy (1850). In just ten years, in his 30s, he wrote most of the work for which we remember him, including 300 stories and five novels.
It's the birthday of the poet and novelist Conrad Aiken, Savannah, Georgia (1889). When he was just 11, his father shot Aiken's mother and then himself. Aiken wrote about it in his autobiography Ushant. He wrote, "After the desultory early-morning quarrel, came the half-stifled scream, and the sound of [my] father's voice counting three, and the two loud pistol shots and [I] tiptoed into the dark room, where the two bodies lay motionless, and apart, and, finding them dead, found [myself] possessed of them forever."
It's the birthday of Wendell Berry, born in Port Royal, Kentucky (1934). He grew up on farmland that had been in his family since 1803. His great grandparents and grandparents had lived and farmed in the area. He learned how to plow with a team of mules, no tractors. Wendell Berry said, "I began my life as the old times and the last of the old-time people were dying out ... If I had been born five years later I would have begun in a different world, and would no doubt have become a different man."
Wendell Berry had an uncle who he described as "an inspired tinkerer with broken gadgetry and furniture ... and a teller of wonderful bedtime stories," And his uncle had a cabin up in the woods, and Berry often went up there as a kid to get away from everything, when he was feeling melancholic and rebellious.
He went away to school at a military academy, went on to college, and graduate school. He lived in California, Italy, and New York City but never stopped thinking about that place in Kentucky. He often went back to that old cabin of his uncle's. He decided to restore it and turn it into a writer's retreat, and that was the beginning of Wendell Berry's decision to move back to the area permanently and to write his poems and fiction and essays about farm life and farming communities.
Poem: excerpts from "In Memoriam" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Public Domain
excerpts from In Memoriam
Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,
A hand that can be clasped no more
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly through the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
Love is and was my Lord and King,
And in his presence I attend
To hear the tidings of my friend,
Which every hour his couriers bring.
Love is and was my King and Lord,
And will be, though as yet I keep
Within his court on earth, and sleep
Encompassed by his faithful guard,
And hear at times a sentinel
Who moves about from place to place,
And whispers to the worlds of space,
In the deep night, that all is well.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1945 that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. It was the first time that a nuclear weapon was used in combat, only the second time that one had been exploded. It was an attack which led to the end of World War II.
It's the birthday of the man who discovered penicillin, the Scottish bacteriologist Sir Alexander Fleming, born in Lochfield in Ayr, Scotland (1881). In 1928, he noticed that one culture of Staphylococcus bacteria had been accidentally contaminated by a green mold called Penicillium notatum, and around the mold there was a circle where the bacteria could not grow.
Sir Alexander Fleming once said, "A good gulp of hot whiskey at bedtimeit's not very scientific, but it helps."
It's the birthday of the poet Alfred Tennyson, born in Lincolnshire, England (1809), who gave us such long poems as In Memoriam and Idylls of the King. At the height of his career, he was one of the most famous men in England.
Tennyson loved poetry, and wrote almost nothing else. He never wrote an essay or a review. He kept a diary, wrote no memoir, and wrote no autobiography at all. He hated writing letters.
He lived at a time when authors such as Dickens, others were turning the novel into the most popular form of literature, and he was one of the last poets who could sell as many books as a novelist. Nearly every English household of people who could read owned at least one copy of Tennyson.
He was a friend of Queen Victoria, wrote public poems, including the "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" and "Charge of the Light Brigade" in 1854. He lived with his wife Emily on the Isle of Wight in a big secluded house. He took long walks along the chalk cliffs overlooking the sea, composing his poems.
In 1864, he published Enoch Arden, which had the largest sales of any book during his lifetime, more than 40,000 copies on publication. He was followed in the streets by his admirers. Tourists came all the way to the Isle of Wight to line up at the walls of his country estate.
At the age of 75, he was offered a lordship in honor of his poetry, the first time any Englishman had been given a title for literary achievement alone. And that is why we now call him Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Poem: "The Bachelor" by Leslie Monsour, from The Alarming Beauty of the Sky © Red Hen Press. Reprinted with permission.
No family pictures on the wall, no books,
A drafting desk, a travel magazine;
No children, one divorce, a satellite dish
A cold, efficient exercise machine,
And in the corner with the firewood, stacks
Of videos. The fridge comes with "lite" beer
And non-fat milk for the granola stored
In jars. I've looked, but there's no sugar here.
Platoons of running shoes camp by the door;
His Boston fern, neglected, pays the price;
His one unfriendly cat purposefully saunters
Across the threshold, searching hard for mice.
As he begins to age, and his gray beard
Inaugurates the thinning of his hair,
He'll pale with each sensation in his chest,
Each flutter, every pain and numbness there
No cardiologist, nor any chart
Will ever find the trouble with his heart.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the journalist Jane Kramer, born in Providence, Rhode Island (1938). She's known for the many long pieces she's written for the New Yorker magazine about teenagers in Morocco and cowboys in Texas and Allen Ginsberg and Europe. Her most recent book, Lone Patriot: The Short Career of an American Militia Man came out a couple of years ago.
It was on this day in 1912 that Teddy Roosevelt was nominated by the Progressive Party to run for President, an election that went on to define the Republican Party for the rest of the 20th Century.
Republicans had dominated politics ever since the Civil War. A Republican had been in the White House for 44 of the previous 52 years. They were the party of civil rights and, under the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican Party became the party of environmental conservation, antitrust laws, and consumer protection.
Teddy Roosevelt was one of the most popular presidents in history, the youngest too. He was 42 when he took office. He was the first president to ride in an automobile and in an airplane, and the first to visit a foreign country while in office. He was a naturalist. He was an author of history. He published almost 50 books.
After he'd served two terms, he announced that he would not seek a third term. He handpicked his successor, William Howard Taft, and then went off on an African safari. But when he got back, Teddy Roosevelt found that Taft had moved away from progressive principles and aligned himself with the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Teddy Roosevelt ran against Taft in the primaries, won the primary in Taft's home state of Ohio, but eventually it was party insiders who picked the nominee, and they gave it to Taft. And so Roosevelt called for the creation of a new progressive party and accepted its nomination on this day in 1912. It was nicknamed the Bull Moose Party because Roosevelt said, "I am as strong as a bull moose, and you can use me to the limit."
He was in a three-way race with Taft and Woodrow Wilson, campaigning on a platform that called for income taxes, inheritance taxes, the eight-hour workday, and voting rights for women. He drew huge crowds wherever he went. In Milwaukee, October 14, 1912, on the way to give his speech, he was shot by a man six feet away, the bullet deflected by the speech in his pocket, along with a metal eyeglasses case. Roosevelt went on to give the speech, but Woodrow Wilson won the election. Despite Roosevelt making the best showing of any third party candidate in American history. He came in second.
And one of the results of his Progressive Party campaign was splitting the Republican Party between conservatives and progressives, and the progressives have never been in charge since.