Poem: "This Shining Moment in the Now" by David Budbill, from While We've Still Got Feet © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.
This Shining Moment in the Now
When I work outdoors all day, every day, as I do now, in the fall,
getting ready for winter, tearing up the garden, digging potatoes,
gathering the squash, cutting firewood, making kindling, repairing
bridges over the brook, clearing trails in the woods, doing the last of
the fall mowing, pruning apple trees, taking down the screens,
putting up the storm windows, banking the houseall these things,
as preparation for the coming cold...
when I am every day all day all body and no mind, when I am
physically, wholly and completely, in this world with the birds,
the deer, the sky, the wind, the trees...
when day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is,
when I go from clearing woods roads, to sharpening a chain saw,
to changing the oil in a mower, to stacking wood, when I am
all body and no mind...
when I am only here and now and nowhere elsethen, and only
then, do I see the crippling power of mind, the curse of thought,
and I pause and wonder why I so seldom find
this shining moment in the now.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Jane Smiley, born in Los Angeles (1949). She came from a family of journalists, but when she was growing up, she loved horses. She read every book about horses she could find and invented imaginary horse farms. She grew to be six feet two as a teenager. She said, "I didn't want to be a writer when I was in high school; all I remember wanting to be was shorter." But she wrote her first novel as her senior thesis at college. She said, "My plan was to go to England and then sort of wander around the world, with my typewriter in one hand, my banjo in the other, and my backpack on my back."
Instead, she got married. She had two daughters before she published her first novel, but she made sure that she had at least three or four hours of babysitting every day so she could write. She had a list of four novels she planned to write: an epic, a tragedy, a comedy, and a romance.
She's best known for her novel A Thousand Acres, a retelling of King Lear, set on an Iowa farm, told from the perspective of the daughters. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and its success enabled Smiley to quit teaching and fulfill her lifelong dream of owning thoroughbred horses.
After she bought a dozen horses, she wrote her novel Horse Heaven (2000) about the world of horse breeding and racing. It was one of the happiest periods of her life. She said, "When I was writing [my novel] about horses, it just added to my pleasure. I'd get up, read something about horses, then go feed the horses. I'd get rid of the children by sending them off to school, then I'd write about horses and read more about horses. Ride the horses, feed the horses again ... it was really wonderful."
It's the birthday of the composer George Gershwin, born in Brooklyn (1898). He grew up in Brooklyn on the Lower East Side. He got a job on Tin Pan Alley as a song plugger, handing out the sheet music to any customers who were wandering by.
When he was 19, he and his childhood friend Irving Caesar wrote a song together called "Swanee," which Al Jolson heard and made it a huge hit, and that was the turning point for George Gershwin.
He wrote his piece "Rhapsody in Blue" in 1924 when the band leader Paul Whiteman asked him to write a jazz composition. Gershwin forgot all about it until he saw an announcement in the newspaper of a concert with the concerto advertised just a couple of weeks away. Gershwin wrote the orchestra's part and then improvised his own solo parts onstage, and it was a big hit.
It's the birthday of Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot, born into a prominent Unitarian family in Saint Louis (1888). He loved the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. He was a birdwatcher. He liked to watch steamboats going up the Mississippi. He didn't have many friends in St. Louis or when he went to Harvard. He moved to England and got a job as a banker. He married a 26-year-old ballet dancer who he never was completely comfortable with. He couldn't bring himself to shave in front of her. Virginia Woolf said of Elliot, "He was one of those poets who live by scratching, and his wife was his itch."
Poem: "Dew" by Kay Ryan, from Elephant Rocks © Grove Press. Reprinted with permission.
As neatly as peas
in their green canoe,
as discreetly as beads
strung in a row,
sit drops of dew
along a blade of grass.
But unattached and
subject to their weight,
they slip if they accumulate.
Down the green tongue
out of the morning sun
into the general damp,
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the poet Kay Ryan, born in San Jose, California (1945). She grew up in a series of small towns along the desert. Her father was always trying to come up with get-rich-quick schemes, selling Christmas trees, and buying land mining operations. He died while reading a get-rich-quick book.
Kay Ryan went off to college. She just started writing poetry as a teenager. For ten years she only wrote when she had some spare time. And then a few months before her 30th birthday, she decided to take a cross country bicycle trip, 4,000 miles to give her time to think about what to do with her life. She was out in the middle of Colorado when the rhythmic movement of pedaling the bike got her thinking about poetry, and she realized she had to devote her life to being a poet.
She got a job teaching remedial English composition at a local college, and she made sure she'd only have to teach two days a week so she could spend all the rest of her time writing. She pared her life down to the basic essentials so she could afford to live on her meager salary.
She's published just four books of poetry over thirty years, including Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends and Flamingo Watching.
It's the birthday of novelist Louis Auchincloss, born in Lawrence, New York (1917). He grew up in one of the most prestigious families in New York City, spent his childhood in private schools, private clubs, and was surrounded by servants and debutantes. He went to Yale and the University of Virginia Law School.
His father was a member of a big law firm on Wall Street, and when his father took Louis to Wall Street to introduce him to the business world, Auchincloss was horrified by what he called "those dark narrow streets and those tall sooty towers."
He wanted to be a writer, but when his first novel was rejected, he decided he wasn't cut out for it and so he went into law. He liked working with the law, but he couldn't seem to stop writing on the side. He finally published his first book in 1947, The Indifferent Children, an autobiographical novel which he published under the pseudonym Andrew Lee
He continued writing novels and practicing law until he retired from law in 1986. He is best known for his novel The Rector of Justin, about an Episcopal boarding school for boys near Boston.
It's the birthday of the crime novelist Jim Thompson, born in Anadarko, Oklahoma (1906). His father was a sheriff in a small town. The family lived in an apartment above the county jail. Thompson was shocked when his father was charged with embezzling thousands of dollars from the state. Jim Thompson is best known for his novel The Killer Inside Me, about a friendly and beloved sheriff who is also a serial killer.
Poem: "Peace" by C. K. Williams, from Love About Love © Ausable Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission.
We fight for hours, through dinner, through the endless evening,
who even knows now what about,
what could be so dire to have to suffer so for, stuck in one another's
craws like fishbones,
the cadavers of our argument dissected, flayed, but we go on with
it, to bed, and through the night,
feigning sleep, dreaming sleep, hardly sleeping, so precisely never
touching, back to back,
the blanket bridged across us for the wintry air to tunnel down, to
keep us lifting, turning,
through the angry dark that holds us in its cup of pain, the aching
dark, the weary dark,
then, toward dawn, I can't help it, though justice won't I know be
served, I pull her to me,
and with such accurate, graceful deftness she rolls to me that we
arrive embracing our entire lengths.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is a big day in the history of the English language. On this day, in 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. Having defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings and on Christmas day he was crowned the King in Westminster Abby.
At the time the British were speaking a combination of Saxon and Old Norse. The Normans, of course, spoke French, and over time the languages blended. To the Saxon word "house" came the Norman word "mansion." To the Saxon word "cow" came the Norman word "beef" and so on.
So the English language now contains more than a million words, one of the most diverse languages on earth. Cyril Connelly wrote, "The English language is like a broad river ... being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck." But Walt Whitman said, "The English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all."
It's the birthday of John Sayles, born in Schenectady, New York (1950). He's one of the few writers who went on to become a successful filmmaker. His first novel was Pride of the Bimbos (1975), about five men who make a living playing exhibition baseball dressed as women.
He got his first screenwriting job on a horror movie called Piranha. He said, "My whole job was to contrive a reason why people, once they hear there are piranhas in the river, don't just stay out of the river but end up getting eaten. That's basically what they paid me $10,000 for."
It's the birthday of Ed Sullivan, born in New York City (1902). He was writing a gossip column for the New York Daily News called "Little Old New York," moonlighting now and then as a master of ceremonies at variety shows and benefits. He was emceeing a dance contest when somebody asked him if he'd like to try hosting a show on this new thing called television.
The Ed Sullivan Show premiered live on CBS in 1948, and within a few years about 50 million people watched it every Sunday night. It was like vaudeville. It had opera singers, ventriloquists and magicians and pandas on roller skates and big stars. Ed Sullivan said, "Open big, have a good comedy act, put in something for children, and keep the show clean."
He was a shy, awkward man, but he loved performers. He personally chose every guest for his show. He was one of the first hosts to invite black performers, including Jackie Robinson, Duke Ellington, Richard Pryor, and James Brown.
Ed Sullivan: the last television host who tried to appeal to everyone in America.
Poem: "In the Lap of a Stranger" by Karen Whalley, from The Rented Violin. © Ausable Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission.
In the Lap of a Stranger
A young man is bending
Over an old man
Lying on a street corner
At the busiest intersection
Of the city.
Homeless or drunk, I can't tell which,
But there are hundreds of us passing
And only one man stops,
Cradles that dirty head
Between his knees.
It's the soles of the shoes
Turned up that make me want
To turn awayso small!
The feet pointing like arrows
Straight up and motionless,
And the crosswalk box's little man
Walking in his mechanical way,
As if on a treadmill,
And the man not walking,
Not getting up.
When the light changes,
We all drive through,
Going forward into appointments,
Shopping and errands like a future,
Choosing the crispest head of lettuce
At the grocer's, which will taste
Particularly sharp tonight.
Glad for awhile it wasn't us
Saying our goodbyes
To our one and only life, in public,
In second-hand clothes,
Easing through the ethers
Into the afterlife
From the lap of a stranger
We've probably made late.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes, born near Madrid (1547), a contemporary of Shakespeare's. He grew up in a distinguished, but poor family in Spain. He joined the Spanish Armada when he was 24. He was wounded on his way back from the Battle of Lepanto. He was captured by pirates and enslaved.
Eventually he returned home to Madrid, only to be put in jail there for fraud. And while he was in prison, having had all of these adventures, he began writing his masterpiece, Don Quixote, about a man who reads too many books about chivalry and goes crazy and tries to restore heroism to the world. In one episode, he mistakes a group of windmills for monsters and attacks them. Cervantes finished the work in 1615 and died one year later, on the same day as William Shakespeare.
It's the birthday of the physicist Enrico Fermi, born in Rome (1901). It was Einstein's theory that lay the basis for nuclear energy, but it was Enrico Fermi who was the first to use that theory to build the first functioning nuclear reactor, and he went on to help build the atom bomb.
He almost discovered nuclear fission in 1934, when he was still living in Italy, in a series of experiments with neutrons. And if he had not made the mistake of using tinfoil to wrap his sample of uranium, nuclear energy would probably have been discovered that year, might even have been used by Hitler to win the war.
But Fermi won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938, went to Stockholm to accept it, and then defected to the U.S. with his wife who was Jewish. He got a job at Columbia, then at the University of Chicago where he built the first nuclear reactor on a squash court under the stands of the football field in late 1942.
He conducted the first nuclear reaction on the morning of December 2, 1942, the same morning the State Department announced that two million Jews had been killed in Europe, and five million more were in danger. And three years later, in the desert outside of Los Alamos, Fermi watched as the first atomic bomb was exploded.
Poem: "In Time" by W.S. Merwin, from The Pupil. © Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2001. Reprinted with permission.
The night the world was going to end
when we heard those explosions not far away
and the loudspeakers telling us
about the vast fires on the backwater
consuming undisclosed remnants
and warning us over and over
to stay indoors and make no signals
you stood at the open window
the light of one candle back in the room
we put on high boots to be ready
for wherever me might have to go
and we got out the oysters and sat
at the small table feeding them
to each other first with the fork
then from our mouths to each other
until there were none and we stood up
and started to dance without music
slowly we danced around and around
in circles and after a while we hummed
when the world was about to end
all those years all those nights ago
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the anniversary of the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in Mainz, Germany in 1452. It was the first book ever printed with movable type. What made Gutenberg's invention revolutionary was not that it allowed you to print letters on paper, but that you could print an infinite number of different pages from a small number of letter blocks simply by rearranging them.
The first section of the Bible came out on this day. He printed 180 copies on expensive Italian paper. It was designed to be used for public reading in the dining halls of monasteries. But within three decades there were print shops all over Europe, and Gutenberg's invention launched a revolution in education.
Today about four dozen copies of the Gutenberg Bible survive. One of the most recent copies to come on the market was auctioned in New York in 1987 and sold for more than $5 million.
It's the anniversary of the first edition printing of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women in 1868. It's a children's book written by a woman who did not much care for children's books or for children. She preferred to write dark, sensational stories with diabolical heroines.
It's the birthday of the mystery writer Michael Innes, who was born John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, in Edinburgh (1906). He went to school at Oxford, sailed off to Australia to get a teaching job. On the boat, he began writing a mystery just to pass the time, and the book was published that year, Death at the President's Lodge.
He wrote many mysteries, known for their complicated plots and many scholarly allusions.
It's the birthday of Truman Capote, born in New Orleans (1924). He was the son of a salesman and a beauty queen. He moved to New York City with his mother, went to Trinity School, dropped out when he was 17, and began working for the New Yorker magazine. His first book came out in 1948, Other Voices, Other Rooms.
It was Truman Capote who said, "All literature is gossip." He also said, "Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does or music. If you were born knowing them, fine. It not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself."
It's the birthday of the poet W.S. Merwin, born in New York City (1927). He's the son of a Presbyterian minister. He went to Princeton University where he met the poet John Berryman, then a graduate student. Merwin asked Berryman how to know if your poems were any good. Berryman said, "You can't. You can never be sure. You die without knowing." Merwin later included those lines in a poem.
He's a prolific author and translator who lives in Hawaii in a house built on an old pineapple farm where he's planted many species of palms.
Poem: "Bike Ride with Older Boys" by Laura Kasischke, from Dance and Disappear. © University of Massachusetts Press. Reprinted with permission.
Bike Ride with Older Boys
The one I didn't go on.
I was thirteen,
and they were older.
I'd met them at the public pool. I must
have given them my number. I'm sure
I'd given them my number,
knowing the girl I was...
It was summer. My afternoons
were made of time and vinyl.
My mother worked,
but I had a bike. They wanted
to go for a ride.
Just me and them. I said
okay fine, I'd
meet them at the Stop-n-Go
at four o'clock.
And then I didn't show.
I have been given a little gift
and inexpensive, something
I never worked or asked or said
thank you for, most
days not aware
of what I have been given, or what I missed
because it's that, too, isn't it?
I never saw those boys again.
I'm not as dumb
as they think I am
but neither am I wise. Perhaps
it is the best
afternoon of my life. Two
cute and older boys
pedaling beside me-respectful, awed. When we
turn down my street, the other girls see me...
Everything as I imagined it would be.
Or, I am in a vacant field. When I
stand up again, there are bits of glass and gravel
ground into my knees.
I will never love myself again.
Who knew then
that someday I would be
crumbs off the kitchen table with a sponge, remembering
those boys still waiting
outside the Stop-n-Go, smoking
cigarettes, growing older.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the author Tim O'Brien, born in Worthington, Minnesota (1946), the son of an insurance salesman and a grade school teacher. One day he stumbled on some clippings of articles that his father had published in the New York Times about fighting in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He had never known before that his father had been a writer.
He applied to Harvard for graduate school, hoping to eventually get a job in the State Department, but that summer he got drafted to fight in Vietnam. He was assigned to the infantry. Before he went to Vietnam, he was spending some time in northern Minnesota. He had the chance to cross the border into Canada, but he decided not to. He said, "I did not want people to think badly of me. My conscience told me to run, but I was ashamed of my conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing."
He hated his experience in Vietnam, but by the end of his tour, he had published some articles in newspapers about it, and came back to this country. O'Brien said, "They process you out of the Army in about two hourssay the "Pledge of Allegiance," get in a taxicab, get on a plane, take off your uniform in the toilet, and fly to Minnesota. It was fast and effortless, just like gliding out of a nightmare "
He got a job at the Washington Post, and then quickly published a memoir of his experiences called "If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home." It came out in 1973.
He's best known perhaps for his book, The Things They Carried, a series of short stories about a group of soldiers in Vietnam. The title story is among the most widely anthologized short stories in contemporary literature.
"The Things They Carried" begins, "First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day's march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending."
It's the birthday of Julie Andrews, born Julie Wells in Surrey, England (1935). She made her debut on Broadway at the age of 19 in The Boyfriend in 1954.
It's the birthday of historian Daniel J. Boorstin, born in Atlanta (1914), author of Empire of Czar, The Discoverers and Cleopatra's Nose.
Daniel J. Boorstin said, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations people."
Poem: "130" by Emily Dickinson . Public Domain.
These are the days when Birds come back
A very fewa Bird or two
To take a backward look.
These are the days when skies resume
The oldold sophistries of June
A blue and gold mistake
Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.
Till ranks of seeds their witness bear
And softly thro' the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.
Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze
Permit a child to join
Thy sacred emblems to partake
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of King Richard III (1452) born in Northhamptonshire, England. He was the last English king to die in the battlefield. He reigned for only two years. He died in the Battle of Bosworth, which ended the War of the Roses.
It's the birthday of Nat Turner, born in Virginia (1800). He was the slave who led a revolt in Southampton, Virginia in August 1831. He started preaching at clandestine meetings of slaves. He had a vision in August 1831 in which the sun appeared bluish green that convinced him that the hour for the revolt was at hand. And a week later, he and a group of slaves took up arms and killed about 55 whites. He was captured and executed.
Most of what we know about him comes from the book The Confessions of Nat Turner, in which a man named Thomas Gray records Turner's life story from conversations they had.
It's the birthday of Mohandas K. Gandhi, born in Gujarat, India 1869. He was educated in British schools, earned a law degree in London. He was in South Africa on business when he was pushed off a train because he wouldn't give up his seat for a white person, and that single act helped to make Gandhi politically active. He fought against anti-Indian legislation in South Africa, returned to India, and quickly became the leader of the Indian Campaign for Home Rule, which was finally granted to India in 1947.
It's the birthday of the poet Wallace Stevens, born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1879). He was one of the few great writers to work in corporate America. He was an executive for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He worked his way up to vice president. Almost nobody at the office knew that he was a poet, even after he became famous in the literary world. Stevens said, "I'm sure that most people here in Hartford know nothing about the poetry, and I'm equally sure that I don't want them to know because once they know, they don't seem to get over it. I mean that once they know, they never think of you as anything but a poet and, after all, one is inevitably much more complicated than that."
He woke up early, read for a few hours, and then composed his poems in his head while he walked to work. His wife didn't want him to publish anything, but he finally came out with a collection in 1923, Harmonium, which got almost no critical attention, though eventually it came to be seen as one of the most accomplished poetry debuts in literary history, including his famous poems, "Sunday Morning," and "Peter Quince at the Clavier," and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Stevens was so disappointed in the reception of his first book that he stopped writing poetry for almost a decade. But he eventually started up again and published many more books, including Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942), The Auroras of Autumn (1947), and An Ordinary Evening in New Haven (1950).
Wallace Stevens said, "It is not every day that the world arranges itself in a poem."
It's the birthday of Julius Henry Marx, Groucho Marx, born in New York City (1890), who said, "Marriage is a wonderful institution. That is, if you like living in an institution."
It's the birthday of Graham Greene, born in Hertfordshire, England (1904). He wrote just 500 words per day, often stopped writing in the middle of a sentence when he'd reached his quota but ended up publishing over 30 books.