MONDAY, 24 APRIL, 2006
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Man Writes Poem" by Jay Leeming, from Dynamite on a China Plate. © The Backwaters Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Man Writes Poem

This just in a man has begun writing a poem
in a small room in Brooklyn. His curtains
are apparently blowing in the breeze. We go now
to our man Harry on the scene, what's

the story down there Harry? "Well Chuck
he has begun the second stanza and seems
to be doing fine, he's using a blue pen, most
poets these days use blue or black ink so blue

is a fine choice. His curtains are indeed blowing
in a breeze of some kind and what's more his radiator
is 'whistling' somewhat. No metaphors have been written yet,
but I'm sure he's rummaging around down there

in the tin cans of his soul and will turn up something
for us soon. Hang on—just breaking news here Chuck,
there are 'birds singing' outside his window, and a car
with a bad muffler has just gone by. Yes ... definitely

a confirmation on the singing birds." Excuse me Harry
but the poem seems to be taking on a very auditory quality
at this point wouldn't you say? "Yes Chuck, you're right,
but after years of experience I would hesitate to predict

exactly where this poem is going to go. Why I remember
being on the scene with Frost in '47, and with Stevens in '53,
and if there's one thing about poems these days it's that
hang on, something's happening here, he's just compared the curtains

to his mother, and he's described the radiator as 'Roaring deep
with the red walrus of History.' Now that's a key line,
especially appearing here, somewhat late in the poem,
when all of the similes are about to go home. In fact he seems

a bit knocked out with the effort of writing that line,
and who wouldn't be? Looks like ... yes, he's put down his pen
and has gone to brush his teeth. Back to you Chuck." Well
thanks Harry. Wow, the life of the artist. That's it for now,

but we'll keep you informed of more details as they arise.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, (books by this author) born in London, England (1815). His father was a British gentleman who had failed at being a lawyer, a scholar, and a farmer, and the family sank deeper and deeper into debt. The children at school made fun of his worn, muddy clothes and his teachers were exceptionally cruel. He later said, "[I may have] been flogged oftener than any human being alive." The only reason his family didn't fall into complete poverty was that his mother started writing books for a living, and he looked up to her so much that he decided to become a writer himself.

He got a job in London as a postal clerk. He struggled to pay his bills, he had a series of unhappy love affairs, and nothing came of his writing. Then, in 1841, he was offered a transfer to Ireland, and he saw it as a chance to make a clean start.

In Ireland, Trollope developed a social life for the first time. He went hunting, and he went to pubs and he fell in love and got married, all within a few years. Once he had settled down to his new life, he began to write fiction. In his job for the postal service, he rode a horse over all the rural routes himself, to ensure that a letter could be delivered to the remotest possible areas. It was while he was riding across the countryside that a fictional English county called Barsetshire sprang up in his mind.

In just eleven years, between 1855 and 1866, Trollope published six novels about the extended families and parishioners and civil service workers living in that imaginary county of Barsetshire, novels such as The Warden (1955), Barchester Towers (1857), and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866), all of which were best-sellers.

The novelist Henry James said, "Trollope did not write for posterity. He wrote for the day, the moment; but these are just the writers whom posterity is apt to put into its pocket."

Anthony Trollop said, "Of the needs a book has, the chief need is that it be readable."

On this day in 1916, the Easter Rebellion began on the streets of Dublin. The British police extinguished the rebellion a few days later. Called "the poet's rebellion," it was led by six patriotic poets and men of letters including Patrick Pearse and James Connolly. They barged inside and read their "Proclamation of Independence" to a baffled crowd. The rebellion seemed hopelessly unsuccessful until the British government valorized many of the rebels by executing them a few weeks later. The executions set in motion a movement for Irish nationalism, and in 1921 Ireland finally achieved independence from Great Britain—except for the six northernmost counties of the island that comprise Northern Ireland.

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "A Girl in Milwaukee and a Girl in Brooklyn" by Matt Cook from Eavesdrop Soup. © Manic D Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

A Girl in Milwaukee and a Girl in Brooklyn

My wife is talking on the phone in Milwaukee
To her girlfriend in Brooklyn.
But, in the middle of all that, my wife has to go pee.
And it turns out that the girl in Brooklyn,
At the very same time, also has to go pee.
So they discuss this for a moment,
And they're both very intelligent people.
They decide to set their phones down and go to the bathroom
(This was back when people set their phones down).
So they do this, and now we have a live telephone line open
Between Milwaukee and Brooklyn
With no one speaking through it for about two minutes as
A girl in Milwaukee and a girl in Brooklyn go to the bathroom.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Oliver Cromwell, born in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, England in 1599. In 1653, he became lord protector of the Commonwealth, becoming the only person to ever have been the head of state of a republican Great Britain.

It's the birthday of fiction writer Howard Garis, (books by this author) born in Binghamton, New York (1873). He's the creator of the pink-nosed elderly rabbit named Uncle Wiggily. He published an Uncle Wiggily story in the Newark News six days a week for thirty-seven years.

It's the birthday of novelist Padgett Powell, (books by this author) born in Gainesville, Florida (1952). He was a twenty-year-old college student when he admitted to his favorite literature professor that he'd never read anything by Faulkner. She was horrified, and immediately gave him a copy of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, which inspired him to begin writing serious fiction for the first time, but for a while all he managed to write was bad Faulkner parody.

Powell went to graduate school at the University of Houston, where one of his professors was the writer Donald Barthelme. Barthelme helped Powell publish his first novel, Edisto (1984), and he has gone on to write several more books, including A Woman Named Drown (1987), Edisto Revisited (1996), and Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men (2000).

It's the birthday of J. Anthony Lukas, (books by this author) born in New York City (1933). He went to Harvard and wrote for the campus newspaper, and went on to write for The New York Times.

He wanted to write a big, important book about a critical social issue in America. Then, in 1976, Lukas saw a photograph of an anti-busing rally in Boston, in which a group of white protesters was attacking a black passerby with an American flag. So he decided the great topic for his book was going to be racial desegregation, and how it was affecting the lives of ordinary people.

He spent three years interviewing the members of three families in Boston—one lower-class black, one working-class Irish Catholic, and one upper-class white liberal. Finally, after seven years of research and writing, he came out with Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985). It won all of the major nonfiction book awards for 1985, including the Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Walter de la Mare, (books by this author) born in Charlton, Kent, England (1873). He's known for his fantasy stories and poems for children.

It's the birthday of the "First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald, (books by this artist) born in Newport News, Virginia in 1918. When she was sixteen she entered a contest at the Apollo Theater, at that time no more than a hip local club in Harlem. She had a dance routine worked out and walked on stage wearing ragged clothes and men's boots, but she froze up. Later she said, "I got out there and I saw all the people and I just lost my nerve. And the man said, 'Well, you're out here, do something!' So I tried to sing." She sang a popular song called "Judy" and got such an ovation that she went on to sing "The Object of My Affection." Soon after, she joined Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington as the only performers who could draw audiences at the Apollo from south of 125th Street.

Marilyn Monroe was one of Ella's biggest fans. Fitzgerald said, "I owe Marilyn a real debt. It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the '50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again."

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Prayer Chain" by Tim Nolan. Reprinted with permission by the author.

Prayer Chain

My mother called to tell me
about an old classmate of mine who

was dying on the parish prayer chain—
or was very sick—or destitute—

or it had not worked out—the marriage—
or the kids were all on drugs—and

all the old mothers were praying intensely
for all the pain of their children

and for life—they were praying for life—
in their quiet rooms—sipping decaf coffee—

I bet they've been prying for me at times—
so I'll find my way—so I won't rob a bank—

I'll take them—the mystical prayers of old mothers—
it matters—all this patient and purposeful love.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Bernard Malamud, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1914). He grew up in Brooklyn in a household where both Yiddish and English were spoken. He wrote a few stories in college, but after he graduated he was too preoccupied with finding a job to start writing seriously. It was the middle of the Depression and he was struggling just to earn enough money to eat and pay the rent. He said, "I would dream of new suits."

In 1940, he got a job as a clerk in the U.S. Census Bureau. He spent mornings checking drainage ditch statistics, but as soon as that work was done he would crouch over his desk and write short stories on company time. Eventually, he got a few stories published in magazines and he got a job as a professor at Oregon State College.

It was while he was working there that he published his first novel, The Natural (1952), about a talented baseball player who is dragged down by his own desires and obsessions. He was inspired to write the novel after reading biographies of Babe Ruth and Bobby Feller. It was a huge success and he went on to publish many more novels.

Malamud said, "I ... write a book, or a short story, at least three times—once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say."

And he said, "The purpose of the writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself."

It's the birthday of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, born in Rome (AD 121). He rose through the ranks of the Roman Senate and became emperor when in AD 161. He wrote a philosophical work called Meditations, and he's one of the few Roman emperors who is known as much for his writing as he is for his reign.

Before Aurelius came to power, the Roman Empire was experiencing incredible prosperity. It was the period known as the Pax Romana, a time of peace that lasted nearly two hundred years. The Roman Empire was the largest it would ever be, stretching from Scotland to the Arabian desert. The richest people lived in great villas with central heating systems. The historian Tacitus wrote that it was a time of "rare happiness ... when we may think what we please, and express what we think."

But almost as soon as Marcus Aurelius became emperor, Rome encountered a series of disasters. There were plagues, famines and wars. He was almost constantly trying to defend the Roman Empire against invaders; in the north his armies battled the Germans, and in the east they battled the Parthians.

In the midst of all this chaos, Marcus Aurelius consoled himself by keeping a kind of diary filled with philosophic meditations. He studied the Stoic philosophers, who believed in detaching yourself from everything in the universe that's outside of your power to control.

His Meditations was first printed in Zurich in 1559.

It was on this day in 1937 that German bombers attacked and destroyed the city of Guernica, Spain, in the Basque part of the country. It was the first time in the history that a city was completely destroyed from the air.

The bombing inspired the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso to make his famous painting Guernica, which was first shown at the Paris World's Fair in 1937. When the painting was finally shown in Spain in 1981—six years after the death of Spain's Fascist dictator, Francisco Franco—it had to be displayed behind bulletproof glass.

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time" by Robert Herrick. Public domain. (buy now)

To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
   Old Time is still a flying:
And this same flower that smiles today,
   Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun,
   The higher he's a getting;
The sooner will his Race be run,
   And nearer he's to Setting.

That Age is best, which is the first,
   When Youth and Blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
   Times, still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time;
   And while ye may, goe marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
   You may for ever tarry.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the Ulysses S. Grant, (books by this author) born in Point Pleasant, Ohio (1822). He was the commander of the Union Armies at the end of the Civil War and served as the eighteenth president of the United States. After serving as president, he joined his son in an investment banking business.

The banking venture was extremely profitable for a few years, and then the bubble burst. One of the bank's partners had been keeping false books and embezzling money into his private account. Grant, who had thought he was a millionaire, found out that his partnership in the failed bank left him several million dollars in debt. Less than ten years since he had been president of the United States, he had gone completely broke.

He had previously rejected requests to write about his experience as a Civil War general. Now he desperately needed the money. Mark Twain offered him 75 percent of the profits if Grant would publish with Twain's newly started publishing house.

But by that time, Grant had also been diagnosed with throat cancer and his health deteriorated rapidly. He realized that he didn't have long to live, and wrote his memoirs as fast as he could. In extreme pain, and in a daze from pain medication, he still managed to write 275,000 words in less than a year. In the last few weeks of his illness, he couldn't even speak, but he kept writing and revising, and checking everything he wrote against the official records to make sure it was all factual. He finished his memoirs in July 1885, and died four days later.

Grant's book did not appear in bookstores, but was sold by subscription, and it was Mark Twain's idea to send out former Union soldiers, in uniform, to sell the subscriptions door to door across the country. The book eventually sold more than 300,000 copies. It provided Grant's family with $450,000 in royalties, the largest amount of royalties that had ever been paid out for a book at that point in history.

Critics and writers of the time were shocked at how well Grant wrote. His book Personal Memoirs (1885) is one of the few books ever written by an American president that qualifies as great literature.

Among the most famous passages in the book is Grant's description of Robert E. Lee's surrender at the Appomattox Court House. Grant wrote, "What General Lee's feelings were I do not know ... [but] my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause (slavery) was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse."

It's the birthday of the author of the "Madeline" books, Ludwig Bemelmans, (books by this author) born in Meran, Tyrol, Austria (1898). The first of the five "Madeline" books tells tells the story of a young Parisian girl's trip to the hospital to have her appendix removed. He got the idea when he was in the hospital recovering from a bicycle accident and there was a girl in the next room over who had just had her appendix out.

Madeline (1939) begins: "In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread, and brushed their teeth, and went to bed. They smiled at the good, and frowned at the bad, and sometimes they were very sad. They left the house at half past nine, in two straight lines, in rain or shine ... the smallest one was Madeline!"

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1929). His first novel was The Sky Changes, the story of a couple's attempt to save their crumbling marriage by taking a road trip across America.

It's the birthday of playwright August Wilson, (books by this author) born Frederick August Kittel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945). He wrote many plays, including Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990). He died on October 2, 2005.

It's the birthday of Anglo-Irish writer Mary Wollstonecraft, (books by this author) born in London in 1759, one of the first women to argue in favor of equality between the sexes in her book Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

FRIDAY, 28 APRIL, 2006
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Once In New York" by Tim Nolan. Reprinted with permission by the author.

Once In New York

I spoke to Greta Garbo—I said—
"Good evening"—she said—"Good evening"

I was a young man-she was an old lady—
but she was beautiful in her actions—

rushing across the lobby—she was as fleet
as a doe-turning in the dark forest—

wary of everyone in the woods-but not me—
she was not wary of me—I was harmless—

Then I knew the quick connection to something
rare and passing—the only living example—

Helen—long after the Greek men found their way
toward home—and tried to remember her voice again.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1789 that a mutiny broke out on a British cargo ship called the HMS Bounty. It was the most notorious mutiny in naval history. William Wordsworth wrote a poem about the story called "The Borderers" (1795), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798) was partly inspired by the events following the mutiny. But the work that did the most to popularize the story was the novel Mutiny on the Bounty (1932) by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall.

In that novel, and the several movie adaptations, the villain of the story was Captain Bligh, who was so brutal in his command of the ship that he actually had a man whipped to death with a cat-o'-nine-tails and ordered the whipping to continue even after the man was dead. In that fictional version of the story sailors under his command had no choice but to rebel against him.

But historians argue that Bligh wasn't any stricter than the average sea captain, and that the cause of the mutiny was that the men missed the women they had met on the island of Tahiti.

In fact, historians suggest that Captain Bligh was the hero of the story. On this day in 1789, a few days after leaving the island, 11 crew members burst into Bligh's cabin and forced him out on the deck, dressed only in his night shirt. They placed him in a small lifeboat, and they were shocked when seventeen other members of the ship volunteered to go with him. They were given a hundred and fifty pounds of bread, twenty pounds of pork, five quarts of rum, three bottles of wine, and twenty-eight gallons of water. Bligh and his remaining loyal sailors were then set adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Bligh's boat was a little more than twenty feet long and seven feet wide. It had one sail and six oars. It barely stayed afloat, weighed down by so many men and supplies. Barely six inches of its sides were exposed above the water. Bligh navigated to the nearest island, but when they ran aground, the local islanders began pelting them with rocks. Bligh and his crew were only able to escape after throwing some of their clothing overboard, which distracted the islanders. After that, Bligh decided that their only chance of survival was to sail to the nearest colonized island, about 3,900 miles to the west to the island of Timor.

It's the birthday of Harper Lee, (books by this author) born Nelle Harper in Monroeville, Alabama (1926). She's the author of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a novel about a girl named Scout growing up in Alabama during the Great Depression. Scout, her brother Jem, and her best friend Dill spend all their time trying to uncover the mystery of Boo Radley. Scout's father, Atticus Finch, takes on the case a black man named Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white girl. The title of the novel comes from something Atticus Finch says to his daughter: "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, which had a population of about 7,000, and it was the model for the town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her father was a lawyer, like Atticus Finch. She was a little girl when she became friends with the writer Truman Capote. When she was still young, Lee's father bought her a typewriter, and she and Capote set up a little office in the tree house in her backyard. Capote convinced Lee to start writing with him for two or three hours every day.

Lee went to law school at the University of Alabama, and after she graduated she worked as a reservation clerk for an airline in New York City. She spent all day at work, and then came home to write for four hours every evening. In the mid '50s, Lee started working on a novel about the trial of a black man in a small town in Alabama.

In December of 1956, she celebrated with a family she knew in Manhattan. Their gift to her that year was a loan so that she could take a year off from her job and write whatever she wanted. It was during that year that Lee wrote most of the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

It was published in July of 1960. It was priced at $3.95, and it sold more than two and a half million copies in less than a year. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

Today, To Kill a Mockingbird sells about a million copies every year, and it's sold over thirty million copies since its publication. In 1963, just three years after its publication, it was taught in eight percent of U.S. public middle schools and high schools, and today that figure is closer to eighty percent. Only Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Huckleberry Finn are read by more high school students.

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The Ten Commandments" by Anonymous. Public domain. (buy now)

The Ten Commandments

I.   Have thou no other gods but me,
II.   And to no image bow thy knee.
III.   Take not the name of God in vain:
IV.   The sabbath day do not profane.
V.   Honour thy father and mother too;
VI.   And see that thou no murder do.
VII.   Abstain from words and deeds unclean;
VIII.   Nor steal, though thou art poor and mean.
IX.   Bear not false witness, shun that blot;
X.   What is thy neighbor's covet not.
  These laws, O Lord, write in my heart, that I,
    May in thy faithful service live and die.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday emperor Hirohito, born in Tokyo (1901). He was the Emperor of Japan during World War II, and the Japanese people believed that he was a living god. When he announced the surrender of Japanese forces over the radio on August 15, 1945, it was the first time that his voice had ever been recorded or broadcast. People across Japan gathered around their radios to hear him. Unfortunately, they couldn't understand him, because he spoke in an ancient form of Japanese.

It's the birthday of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst born in San Francisco, California (1863). In 1887, he took control of his first newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, and went on to build one of the most powerful chains of newspapers in American history.

It's the birthday of Duke Ellington, born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C. (1899). When Ellington was seven years old, a piano teacher refused to teach him because he wouldn't stop improvising and experimenting with off-tone chords. So he taught himself to play on the family player piano, using as his models ragtime pianists he heard in and around Washington, D.C. He dropped out of high school to peruse a career in music. He worked briefly as a soda jerk, and his first piece of music was called "Soda Fountain Rag" (1915).

It was on this day in 1983 that Harold Washington was sworn in as the first black mayor of Chicago.

Washington had been serving as a member of the House of Representatives, representing the poorest district in the state of Illinois, an area of Chicago that was 92 percent black. For decades, Chicago had been one of the most racially divided cities in the country. The Democratic political machine that ruled the city was known to deny municipal services to the black neighborhoods. The city didn't enforce housing codes in black neighborhoods, the city didn't fix potholes or sidewalks in black neighborhoods, there was less police and fire patrol, and less investment in public schools.

Washington entered the primary race in 1982. He was the least well known and he had the least amount of money of the three. One of his opponents spent $10 million during the primary, the other spent $2 million. Washington spent less that $750,000. He didn't run any television advertisements until the last week of the primary race.

But he made a name for himself during the primary's televised debates, when he was the only candidate to speak like a real person, with passion and humor and his willingness to address the history of racism in the city of Chicago. It also helped that the two white candidates split the vote of the opposition. Washington won the primary with 82 percent of the black vote.

Usually, whoever won the Democratic primary in Chicago became the mayor, because Democrats were so dominant in Chicago politics. Chicago hadn't elected a Republican mayor since 1927. But when Washington became the Democratic nominee, many white Democrats in the city turned against him.

The Republican candidate was Buddy Epton, and his campaign slogan was, "Epton, Before it's too late." The mayoral election turned out a record 82 percent of Chicago's 1.8 million eligible voters. Washington won the election by just over forty thousand votes.

Washington spent his first term fighting against members of his own party in the city council to enact political reforms. He became a kind of folk hero among his supporters. Restaurants in Chicago's black neighborhoods put his picture up in windows. People carried tiny portraits of him attached to their key chains. When he ran for reelection in 1987, he got more than 99 percent of the black vote. He died of a heart attack a few months after the start of his second term.

It's the birthday of editor and publisher Robert Gottlieb, (books by this author) born in New York City (1931). As a teenager he read War and Peace in one day, and while he was at college he read Marcel Proust's six-volume Remembrance of Things Past in less than a week.

In 1955, he applied for a job as an editorial assistant for Jack Goodman at Simon & Schuster. In his second year as an editor, Gottlieb received a manuscript by Joseph Heller with the working title Catch-18. Gottlieb suggested the title Catch-22, the book became a modern classic, and Gottlieb became one of the best-known editors in the country at the age of twenty-six.

He went on to edit the books of S.J. Perelman, Jessica Mitford, Doris Lessing, Ray Bradbury, Chaim Potok, Anthony Burgess, John Cheever, Michael Crichton, John le Carré, and many other writers.

It's the birthday of poet C.P. Cavafy, (books by this author) born in Alexandria, Egypt (1863). His parents were Greek, and he wrote his poetry in modern Greek, but lived in Alexandria almost his entire life. He lived with his mother until he was thirty-six, in an apartment just above a brothel, and across the street from a church and a hospital.

One of his few friends was the novelist E.M. Forster, who called Cavafy "a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe."

SUNDAY, 30 APRIL, 2006
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now" by A.E. Housman. Public domain. (buy now)

Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1789 that George Washington (books by this author) was sworn in as the first President of the United States of America.

The inauguration was held in New York City. Washington was reluctant to be inaugurated at all. He had very little experience as a politician, and he worried that he might be a complete failure as a president. He said, "I feel like a culprit who is going to the place of his execution."

He hoped to make a quiet entry into New York, with little ceremony. Instead, his weeklong journey from Virginia to New York became a giant parade, with crowds of people cheering him as he passed through each town on his route. In preparation for his arrival, portraits of Washington were posted all over New York City. Washington had to take a barge across the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York. A boat next to his was filled with musicians, but none of the music was audible over the sound of cannons being fired from the shore. Washington's barge landed at the foot of Wall Street on the East River, and the procession marched up Wall Street, turned on to Pearl Street, and then Cherry Street, where Washington arrived at the new Presidential Residence.

The inauguration ceremony was performed on the balcony of Federal Hall a few days later, on this day in 1789. Thousands of people gathered in the streets to watch Washington take the oath of office.

Many people had speculated about what he would wear: a military uniform or the clothes of a king. Instead, Washington wore a plain brown suit made with cloth from a mill in Connecticut. He took the oath, walked back inside the Federal Hall, and addressed the Senate chamber with one of the shortest inaugural speeches in American history, just 1200 words long.

The Bible he swore on is still owned by the order of the Masons in New York City, and several other presidents have used it at their own inaugurations, including Warren G. Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and both Presidents Bush.

It was on this day in 1939 that the New York World's Fair opened to the public. Planners built the fairground on Flushing Meadows, which had been a garbage dump. Many recent inventions were marketed at the fair, including television, long-distance telephone service, air conditioners, refrigerators, FM radio, fluorescent lighting, washing machines and dishwashers. There were dioramas showing model utopian cities of the future, where everyone would soon have fax machines and videophones.

Unfortunately, most Americans couldn't afford to go to the fair, and those who did wouldn't be able to afford the new inventions until after World War II.

It's the birthday of singer and songwriter Willie Nelson, (books by this author) born in the small farming community of Abbott, Texas (1933). He was raised by his grandparents and aunts during the Great Depression, and earned his keep by picking cotton. In 1959 he wrote "Night Life," a song that was eventually recorded by more than seventy artists and sold over thirty million copies. He went to Nashville to become a recording artist but he grew increasingly frustrated by the music industry, went back to Texas and started recording his own albums.

In 1975, he recorded Red Headed Stranger, a concept album about a preacher on the run after murdering his wife and her new lover. At the time, many country singers were backed by orchestras and backup singers, but Nelson recorded the album with just his acoustic guitar and a few other instruments. No one thought it would be a hit, but it sold millions of copies, and inspired a revival of traditional country music.

It's the birthday of poet, critic and nature writer Annie Dillard, (books by this author) born Ann Doak in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945). She's the author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), The Writing Life (1989), and For the Time Being (1999).

It's the birthday of John Crowe Ransom, born in Pulaski, Tennessee (1888). He was one of the first people to argue that American schools should be teaching American literature, not just European, and that students should be reading modern poetry, not just the classics.

John Crowe Ransom wrote:

"God have mercy on the sinner
Who must write with no dinner,
No gravy and no grub,
No pewter and no pub.
No belly and no bowels,
Only consonants and vowels."



  • “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
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning