MONDAY, 20 MARCH, 2006
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Poem: "Trees" by W. S. Merwin from The Compass Flower. © Macmillian Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission.


I am looking at trees
they may be one of the things I will miss
most from the earth
though many of the ones I have seen
already I cannot remember
and though I seldom embrace the ones I see
and have never been able to speak
with one
I listen to them tenderly
their names have never touched them
they have stood round my sleep
and when it was forbidden to climb them
they have carried me in their branches

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the first day of spring, the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. On this day the North and South Poles are equally distant from the sun, so we will have almost exactly the same amount of daytime as nighttime.

The novelist Margaret Atwood said, "In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt."

Emily Dickinson said, "A little Madness in the Spring / Is wholesome even for the King."

It was on this day in 1854 that the Republican Party was founded. The name "Republican" was first used many years before by Thomas Jefferson's political party, the Democratic Republican Party. That name was shortened to the Democratic Party, which is what we call it today. The present-day Republican Party was formed by opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and by members of other parties, like the Democratic and Whig parties, who disagreed with their parties' positions on slavery. By 1855 the Republican Party was thriving in the North, while it had almost no following in the South. The Republican Party's first successful candidate for president of the United States was Abraham Lincoln, who was elected in 1860.

It's the birthday of psychologist BF (Burrhus Frederic) Skinner, born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania (1904). He was the leading exponent of the school of psychology known as behaviorism, which explains the behavior of humans and animals in terms of their psychological responses to external stimuli. He coined the term operant conditioning to describe the phenomenon of learning as a result of an organism responding to its environment. He did extensive research with animals, notably rats and pigeons, and invented the famous Skinner box in which a rat learns to press a lever in order to obtain food.

It's the birthday of playwright Henrik Ibsen, born in Skien, Norway (1828). He is generally considered to be the father of modern drama. His father was a wealthy merchant in Norway's timber trade, but when Ibsen was eight years old his father went bankrupt, and the family had to move to a rundown farm outside of town. Their family friends stopped talking to them, Isben's father became abusive, and his mother fell into depression. When he was sixteen, Ibsen left home and never saw his family again.

He got a job as assistant stage manager for a new theater and then applied to the government for a stipend to travel abroad, and got it. He spent the next twenty-seven years living in Italy and Germany.

He found that by leaving his homeland he could finally see Norway clearly, and he began to work on creating a true Norwegian drama. At a time when most people were writing plays full of sword fights and murders, Ibsen started to write plays about relationships between ordinary people.

One of Isben's first realistic plays was A Doll's House (1879), about a woman named Nora who refuses to obey her husband and eventually leaves him, walking out of the house and slamming the door in the final scene. It changed the style of acting. At the time, most actors were praised for their ability to deliver long poetic speeches, but Ibsen emphasized small gestures, the inflection of certain words and pauses, and he inspired a new generation of actors to begin embodying the characters they played.

When he published his play Ghosts (1881), about a man with venereal disease, it was so scandalous that no one would produce it onstage for two years. A London newspaper called it, "An open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly." But eventually, after writers like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde began calling him the greatest living playwright, audiences began to accept his work as literature.

Henrik Ibsen said, "Writing has ... been to me like a bath from which I have risen feeling cleaner, healthier, and freer."

It's the birthday of the poet Ovid, born in the village of Sulmo, just east of Rome (43 B.C.). He made his name with a book of poems about seduction called The Amores (c. 16 B.C) and then a how-to manual about adultery called The Art of Love (c. 1 B.C.). After having written many light, popular works, Ovid began his masterpiece, The Metamorphoses (c. 8 A.D.), a collection of all the Greek and Roman myths that deal with transformation.

He said, "Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these."

It was on this day in 1852 that Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published.

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Poem: "A Little Tune" by Joseph Enzweiler from The Man Who Ordered Perch. © Iris Press. Reprinted with permission.

A Little Tune

Here's a poem for the little girl
who sat with the band and hit the drum,
who swung her feet to a little tune.
At four years old, it's all that easy.
When she hit the drum, it was the drum
to hit. Time to go and go she went,
a curl of air at the flowered skirt,
her blonde hair hurrying to keep up.
We felt the distance between us then,
all the money she never spent,
deals never made or taxes paid,
no due considerations, sorrows
or tactful retreats. Our smiles
bore the loss of something pure
as mother held the coat she backed into,
laughing at the ceiling as she's buttoned up,
perfectly alone, the way water
is happy around a stone. We were watching
a field move, nothing to say, just the wind,
or how God was content with the infinite
and the dark, then by accident gestured
and made the stars.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Phyllis McGinley, born in Ontario, Oregon (1905).

She wrote,
"A Mother's hardest to forgive.
Life is the fruit she longs to hand you,
Ripe on a plate. And while you live,
Relentlessly she understands you."

Her collection Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades (1960) became the first book of light verse to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

It was on this day in 1952 that Alan Freed organized the first ever rock and roll concert, the Moondog Coronation Ball, in Cleveland, Ohio.

In 1951 Alan Freed took to the airwaves for the first time under the name Moondog. He was convinced by a record storeowner named Leo Mintz to play rhythm and blues songs to an audience of mostly white teenagers. This was a new idea at the time, and it made Freed very popular with his audience.

Freed became a favorite in Cleveland, and so he decided to hold a concert, the Moondog Coronation Ball, for his loyal listeners. He hired bands like the Dominoes, the Rockin' Highlanders, Tiny Grimes and Danny Cobb to play the Cleveland Arena which held 10,000 people. At first, Freed was afraid the concert would be a bust because nobody would show up. But thousands of teenagers lined the sidewalks of Euclid Avenue, holding tickets Freed had printed, eager to hear these black artists perform their music. The arena filled easily, and thousands of teenagers were barred from entering, even though they had tickets.

The first performer that night was Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams. During his first song, the barred teenagers tried to force their way inside. They broke doors and windows, people were knocked down and pushed aside, and fights broke out all over the arena. The police closed down the concert after Williams had played only one song.

It's the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, born in Eisenach, Germany (1685). He came from a family that had produced musicians for seven generations. Both his parents had died by the time he was ten, so he went to live with his older brother, a professional organist who taught him to play a variety of keyboard instruments. He went to the local music school where he sang in the boys' choir, and by the time he was eighteen he got his first job as a church organist.

Members of his congregation were annoyed by his habit of improvising while playing hymns, which made it difficult for people to sing along. But he developed a reputation as one of the best organists in the country. He eventually moved to Leipzig where he worked as the city's director of church music for the rest of his life, and where he composed most of his major works.

Bach earned a decent living in Leipzig, but he had a grueling workload. He had to write a cantata every month. In order to get ahead of the deadlines he wrote one every week for the first two years. In addition to serving as organist and musical director at church services, he had to teach a boys' class in Latin and music, and he was continually frustrated by his undisciplined students and the inexperienced musicians he had to work with.

Despite all his difficulties, he managed to compose some of his greatest works of music in history, including The Passion According to St. John (1723), The Passion According to St. Matthew (1729), Mass in B minor (1733), and the Goldberg Variations (1742). During his lifetime, almost no one appreciated his music. People thought of him has hopelessly old-fashioned. When he died in 1750 he was hailed as a great virtuoso on the organ but nothing more.

In 1829, the composer Felix Mendelssohn staged a revival performance of The Passion According to St. Matthew, and Bach finally began to be appreciated.

Johann Sebastian Bach said, "I was obliged to work hard; whoever is equally industrious will succeed just as well."

And he said, "There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself."

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Poem: "Morning" by Billy Collins from Picnic, Lightning. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.


Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,

then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?

This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—

maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,

dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,

and if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim, born in New York City (1930). He was twelve years old when he became friends with a boy named Jamie Hammerstein, whose father was the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. Sondheim's parents had recently divorced, and he spent as much time as possible at the Hammersteins' house. He wrote his first musical when he was fifteen.

As a young man, he got a job in Hollywood as a scriptwriter for TV in the 1950s, but he really wanted to be working on musicals. Then, one day, a he met a guy at a party who asked him if he would be willing to write the lyrics for a modern-day retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story set in New York City. Sondheim wasn't sure he wanted to write lyrics without music, but he decided to take the job anyway, and the result was West Side Story (1957), which got mixed reviews on Broadway but became a huge hit as a movie.

He went on to compose the music and lyrics for many more musicals, including Sweeney Todd (1979) is about a murderer who makes meat pies out of his victims, and Sunday in the Park with George (1981) about the relationship between the painter George Seurat and the people in his own painting.

It's the birthday of the poet Billy Collins, born in Queens, New York (1941). He's one of the few modern poets whose books have sold more than a hundred thousand copies. He thinks that too much modern poetry lacks humor. He said, "It's the fault of the Romantics, who eliminated humor from poetry. Shakespeare's hilarious, Chaucer's hilarious. [Then] the Romantics killed off humor, and they also eliminated sex, things which were replaced by landscape. I thought that was a pretty bad trade-off, so I'm trying to write about humor and landscape, and occasionally sex."

He was in his forties when published his first book The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), but by the end of the century he was arguably the country's most popular poet. His collection Sailing Alone Around the Room (2000), has sold more copies than any other collection of poetry in the 21st century.

It's the birthday of novelist Louis L'Amour, born in Jamestown, North Dakota (1908). One of the hardest working and best-selling novelists ever, he wrote a hundred and one books in his lifetime.

He knew he wanted to be a writer from the time that he could walk. So L'Amour quit school when he was fifteen and traveled around the West working as an animal skinner, ranch hand and lumberjack. Wherever he went, he got people to tell him their own stories and whatever stories they knew about the Old West. Once, he met a gunman who had ridden with Billy the Kid and who had gone on to sell real estate.

In the early 1930s, L'Amour hopped an East African Schooner and made his way from Africa to Asia. He lived with bandits in the mountains of China and then started boxing professionally in Singapore. He won thirty-four of his fifty-nine boxing matches by knockout.

When L'Amour got back to the United States he started writing for pulp fiction magazines because he needed money and the pulp magazines paid him the fastest. He wrote all kinds of adventure stories, but eventually settled on westerns. L'Amour's first big success was Hondo (1953), about a love triangle between a cowboy, an Apache warrior and a young widow living on a remote Arizona ranch. It begins, "He rolled the cigarette in his lips, liking the taste of the tobacco, squinting his eyes against the sun glare."

In Ride the Dark Trail (1972), L'Amour wrote, "I just pointed my rifle at him ... and let him have the big one right through the third button on his shirt. If he ever figured to sew that particular button on again he was going to have to scrape it off his backbone."

L'Amour said, "I write about hard-shelled men who built with nerve and hand that which the soft-bellied latecomers call the 'western myth.'"

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Poem: "The Rider" by Naomi Shihab Nye from Fuel: Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. © Boa Editions. Reprinted with permission.

The Rider

A boy told me
if he roller-skated fast enough
his loneliness couldn't catch up to him,

the best reason I ever heard
for trying to be a champion.

What I wonder tonight
pedaling hard down King William Street
is if it translates to bicycles.

A victory! To leave your loneliness
panting behind you on some street corner
while you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas,
pink petals that have never felt loneliness,
no matter how slowly they fell.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Fannie Merritt Farmer, born in Boston (1857). She's known for publishing the first cookbook in American history. As a young woman she worked as a housekeeper, cooking and taking care of a young girl named Marcia Shaw. Over time, she taught Marcia how to cook, and to help the girl remember what to do she wrote down simple, precise cooking instructions.

At the time, writing down recipes was almost unheard of. People learned to cook by doing. Measurements were also inexact. Everything was made with a pinch of this and a dash of that. After attending the Boston Cooking School, Fannie Farmer realized that a book full of precise instructions on how to prepare a wide variety of dishes might help many young women become better cooks.

She compiled all the recipes she had ever learned, along with advice on how to set a table, how to scald milk, to cream butter, to remove stains and to clean a copper boiler. At first, all the publishers turned her down because they reasoned that these were all things young women could learn from their mothers. Finally, Little Brown agreed to publish the book if Fannie Farmer would pay for the printing of the first three thousand copies.

The book became a kind of kitchen bible for young American wives and went on to sell more than four million copies.

It was on this day in 1743, that George Frideric Handel's oratorio "Messiah" had its London premiere. Handel had spent most of his career writing operas in Germany and Italy, but in 1711 he opened one of his operas in London and it became a blockbuster, selling out the Queen's Theater for fifteen performances. But the problem for Handel was that traditional opera was going out of style in England. Critics began to attack his work as too extravagant and full of operatic clichés. He produced a series of operas in the 1730s that had smaller and smaller audiences until finally his theater closed. He had a stroke and decided to take a break from composing. Most people thought his career as a composer was over.

But instead of giving up, Handel decided to turn his attention to the oratorio, a musical form that was like a religious opera, which told biblical stories in the form of music. In the summer of 1741 he began work on a new oratorio called "The Messiah." For twenty-five days he worked almost without any breaks, often skipping his meals and staying up all night. When he finished, he said, "I think God has visited me ... I think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God himself."

The first performance of "The Messiah" was at a charity concert in Dublin. It got great reviews, but Handel wasn't satisfied with it, and he spent almost another year revising parts of the score. It finally had its London premiere in the audience of the king on this day in 1743. The audience was overwhelmed by the performance.

On this day in 1989, a mountain-sized asteroid passed within 500,000 miles of Earth. According to NASA, this was a very close call. It would have hit with the strength of 40,000 hydrogen bombs, created a crater the size of the District of Columbia and destroyed everything within a hundred miles in all directions.

On this day in 1913, California novelist Jack London wrote to six writers, including H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, asking how much they are paid for their writing. London, who grew up in extreme poverty, always claimed that his chief motive for writing was money. He told his colleagues, "I have published thirty-three books, as well as an ocean of magazine stuff, and yet I have never heard the rates that other writers receive." One of the writers London wrote to—Winston Churchill, the American novelist, not the British Prime Minister—wrote back to him with useful information. In his letter thanking Churchill for his reply, London invited him to stay at his house in Sonoma County, California. He wrote, "It is as a born Californian that I dare to say that we will show you here a different California from any that you have seen so far ... this is a dandy place for a man to loaf in and to work in."

It was on this day in 1775 that Patrick Henry gave the speech that made his name, ending with the words, "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"

FRIDAY, 24 MARCH, 2006
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Poem: "# 46" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti from A Coney Island of the Mind. © New Directions. Reprinted with Permission

# 46

And every poem and every picture
                       a sensation in the eye and heart
Something that jolts you awake
                from the rapt sleep of living
        in a flash of pure epiphany
                     where all stands still
                                  in a diamond light
                                  for what it truly is
                                                           in all its mystery
So a bird is an animal
                       flown into a tree
                                            singing inscrutable melodies
As a lover stands transparen
              Screened against the sun
                            Smiling darkly in the blinding light

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, born in Yonkers, New York (1919). His father died five months before Ferlinghetti was born, and his mother was so devastated by the loss that she had to be committed to the state mental hospital. Young Lawrence was sent to live with his aunt in France.

He didn't learn English until he was five when he returned to America. After serving in World War II he moved to San Francisco where he decided to open a bookstore, which he named City Lights after the Charlie Chaplin movie, because he said, "Chaplin's character represents for me ... the very definition of a poet. ... A poet, by definition, has to be an enemy of the State. If you look at Chaplin films, he's always being pursued by the police. That's why he's still such a potent symbol in the cinema—the little man against the world."

He had an idea that a bookstore should be a place where artists and intellectuals could gather and exchange ideas, and so he made sure that people were allowed to sit down and read books without being pestered to buy anything. And his bookstore became a gathering place for a group of writers who became known as the Beats.

Ferlinghetti also started a publishing venture with what he called the Pocket Poets series—collections of poetry designed to be small enough to slip into your pocket. He had published three of them when, on October 13, 1955, Ferlinghetti went to a poetry reading called "Six Poets at the Six Gallery" organized by the poet Kenneth Rexroth. Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder were among the readers that night, but the man who made the biggest impression was a poet named Allen Ginsberg who read a new poem called "Howl." After the reading, Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram that said, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?"

Howl and Other Poems became the fourth edition of Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets series in September 1956. The following year, a shipment of copies of the book was seized by customs officials and Ferlinghetti was charged with printing and selling lewd and indecent material. Ferlinghetti won the case, with help from the ACLU, and all the publicity made "Howl" into a best-seller. Ferlinghetti said, "The San Francisco [customs office] deserves a word of thanks. It would have taken years for critics to accomplish what the good [customs office] did in a day."

In 1958 he also published his own collection of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, which shocked everyone by going through twenty-eight printings and selling 700,000 copies in the United States alone. By the end of the 1960's it was the bestselling book ever published by a living American poet.

Ferlinghetti is one of the few poets in the United States who has never held a job at a university, never received government funding, and never attended an MLA conference. He's never won a Pulitzer.

Ferlinghetti said, "Like a bowl of roses, a poem should not have to be explained."

It was on this day in 1955 that the Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, opened on Broadway. It's the story of the sixty-fifth birthday party for a man named Big Daddy, at his plantation house on the Mississippi delta. The family members struggle to get along at the party and try not to talk about the fact that Big Daddy is terminally ill with cancer. The play focuses on Big Daddy's son Brick, who is struggling with alcoholism and his sexuality. His wife Maggie is trying to revive their marriage, terrified that her husband might be homosexual.

It was one of Williams's most successful plays. It ran for 694 performances and won a Pulitzer Prize.

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Poem: "Making Things Clean" by Wesley McNair from The Town of No & My Brother Running © David R. Godine. Reprinted with permission.

Making Things Clean

One would hardly recognize him like this,
the high-school shop teacher, glasses off,
bent over the kitchen sink. Nearby,
house dresses and underpants flutter
in the window of the Maytag he bought
for his mother. Its groaning is the only
sound while she washes his hair,
lifting the trembling water in her hands
as she has always done, working foam up
from his gray locks like the lightest
batter she ever made. Soon enough,
glasses back on. He will stand
before students who mock his dullness;
soon, putting up clothes, she'll feel
the ache of a body surrendering to age,
A little longer let him close his eyes
against soap by her apron, let her move
her fingers slowly, slowly, in this way
the two of them have found to be together,
this transfiguring moment in the world's
old work of making things clean.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Flannery O'Connor, born in Savannah, Georgia (1925). As a young girl she was terribly shy and prone to temper tantrums. She became famous in her hometown when she was five years old by teaching one of her chickens to walk backward. A New York City reporter came and filmed the chicken for a newsreel.

She wanted either to be a writer or a cartoonist. During college, she submitted her cartoons to The New Yorker, but she was rejected, so she began to focus on her writing. She applied to one of the only creative writing programs in the country at the time, the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and she was almost rejected because the admissions interviewer couldn't understand her southern accent.

Once she got into the Iowa Writer's Workshop, people there didn't know what to make of her. She never read James Joyce or Franz Kafka, or any of the other fashionable writers of the era. She was more interested in Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. During class, she almost never spoke, and her classmates only knew she was listening by the way she occasionally smiled when she thought something was funny.

But even though O'Connor was an outsider, her fiction impressed everybody, and she won an award that got her a contract to publish her first novel. She was still working on that novel when she began to notice a heaviness in her arms while she typed. Traveling home to Georgia for Christmas that year, she grew so sick on the train that she had to be hospitalized when she arrived. It turned out that she had inherited lupus, the same disease that had killed her father.

She moved in with her mother and began receiving steroid treatments, which made it difficult to walk without crutches. She said at the time, "I walk like I have one foot in the gutter but it's not an inconvenience and I get out of doing a great many things I don't want to do." Even though the disease made her extremely tired, she forced herself to write for three hours every day on the screened in porch of her mother's house. She wrote to her friend Robert Lowell, "I have enough energy to write with and as that is all I have business doing anyhow, I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing. What you have to measure out, you come to observe closer, (or so I tell myself)."

O'Connor's first novel Wise Blood came out in 1952. Three years later, she published the story collection that made her name A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955). It contains her two most famous short stories: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," about a silly, annoying old woman whose entire family gets murdered by a man called The Misfit, and "Good Country People" about a pretentious young woman whose wooden leg is stolen by a Bible salesman.

O'Connor filled her stories with crazy preachers, murderers, the deformed, the disabled, freaks and outcasts. An uncle once asked her why she didn't write about nice folks. O'Connor focused on the grotesque because she said, "To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures." She died a little more than a week shy of her fortieth birthday.

Flannery O'Connor said, "Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."

SUNDAY, 26 MARCH, 2006
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Poem: "Revelation" by Robert Frost from Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays © The Library of America. Reprinted with permission.


We make ourselves a place apart
    Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
    Till someone really find us out.

'Tis pity if the case require
    (Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
    The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
    At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
    Must speak and tell us where they are.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Robert Frost, born in San Francisco (1874). His father was a journalist and a hard drinker who died of tuberculosis when Frost was eleven years old. Frost moved with his mother to New England to live near family. He grew up hating school and his mother let him skip class whenever he wanted, telling him that he would grow up to be a greater man than any of his classmates. He believed her. He graduated from his high school as the co-valedictorian. The other valedictorian was his high school sweetheart, Elinor White.

After graduation, Frost went to Dartmouth and Elinor went to St. Lawrence. But Frost was totally bored by his classes and didn't even finish a single term. He took a job at a mill and tried to persuade Elinor to drop out of school and marry him. He decided to prove himself to her through his writing. He worked hard on a series of five poems, one of which he'd managed to publish in a journal, and had them privately printed in a book. He brought the newly printed book all the way to St. Lawrence, hoping it would persuade Elinor to be his wife. She told him that she thought the poems were unimpressive.

Frost was so devastated that he went home and hopped a Merchant Marine ship to Norfolk, Virginia. From there, he followed a trail into the Dismal Swamp and considered drowning himself. He walked all night through the swamp, but something made him decide to head back home. It took him three weeks, hopping trains and borrowing food from hobos along the road. He and Elinor got married the next year (1895).

Frost supported himself as a teacher for a few years, writing poetry on the side. Then, in 1900, he and his wife lost their first child. He fell into despair. He was barely making ends meet, his marriage was on the rocks and he began considering suicide again. So his grandfather took pity on him and bought him a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, in hopes that it would give him a steady income. Frost never really took to farming. He milked his cows late at night so that he wouldn't have to get up early in the morning. But farm life gave him something to write about, and it was in those years on the farm that he began to write the poems that would make his name.

He developed a new style of poetry that was metrically precise but which sounded like ordinary American speech. In a letter to a friend, Frost wrote, "I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense." His first two collections were A Boy's Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914). The latter contains many of Frost's early masterpieces, including "Mending Wall," "The Death of the Hired Man," "After Apple-Picking," and "Home Burial." Several of Frost's early poems read like short stories, and "Home Burial" is about a fight between a husband and wife after the death of their son, which Frost wrote about the loss of his own first child. He never once read it aloud in public.

It's the birthday of dramatist Tennessee Williams, born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi (1911). He wrote the plays The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

Tennessee Williams said, "I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really."

It's the birthday of Joseph Campbell, born in New York City (1904). He saw Buffalo Bill's Wild West Riders as a child and decided to learn everything there was to know about Indians. He read his way through the children's room at his local library by the time he was eleven and started right in on reports from the Bureau of Ethnology.

In college, he turned to studying Arthurian legend. He abandoned a Ph.D. dissertation about Holy Grail stories and went to live in a shack, where for five years he continued to read. In 1949 he published a monumental study of mythology called The Hero With a Thousand Faces; it traced the common theme of the spiritual quest in myth. All sorts of writers found it a treasure trove for their own work, from the poet Robert Bly to the filmmaker George Lucas, who said that without it, he would never have been able to write Star Wars.



  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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