Poem: "Fireflies" by Richard Newman from Borrowed Towns. © Word Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Tonight my yard is full of fireflies
a glitterfest of green, blinking by hundreds,
exactly like last year, when she and I
drove out into the Missouri countryside
to talk about our marriage. It was thick
with greenery. The air was hot and thick,
and we had decided to try and stay together,
though by first light she'd changed her mind again,
and, to be honest, our eleventh hour
hope and promise lacked the weight of truth.
We wandered off the rocky dirt road
over weeds and brambles, through branches
and spiderwebs, and pressed into a clearing,
and it was like a pocket in the darkness
that surrounded usthe misty night
backlit with thousands of glittering fireflies
bettering the stars. It was a mating dance,
and we gazed into a sputtering green sea
of desiresuch irresistible beckoning.
Ours was, tooa death-dance of mating,
a slower, indecisive tarantella,
and she asked me never to write about this,
but I knew then that I had nothing to lose,
that at that moment there was nothing I wanted
more than to write about the fireflies.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of journalist and cultural critic Garry Wills, (books by this author) born in Atlanta, Georgia (1934). He grew up in a conservative Roman Catholic family. He said, "[I was raised as] a Catholic cold warrior, praying after Mass every day for the conversion of Russia." His father was an appliance salesman who believed that reading was a waste of time, and he used to pay Wills not to read.
Wills couldn't stop reading, though. He got a job writing for the conservative National Review, but during the 1960s, he started traveling around the country, writing about protests and race riots. He began to argue against the Vietnam War and for federal support of civil rights. He continued to call himself a conservative, but other conservatives didn't think so.
His first important book was Nixon Agonistes (1970), about Nixon's 1968 campaign for the presidency. Since then he has written more than twenty more books, about religion, Shakespeare, the Kennedys, the Declaration of Independence, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, The Gettysburg Address and the papacy.
The critic John Leonard said, "Books fall from Garry Wills like leaves from a maple tree in a sort of permanent October."
It's the birthday of novelist and nature writer Peter Matthiessen, (books by this author), born in New York City (1927). His father was a successful architect, and Matthiessen grew up in an affluent area of southwest Connecticut. He hated the stifling atmosphere of country clubs and private schools, and he became obsessed with nature. He kept a secret collection of poisonous copperhead snakes in his bedroom and charged local kids money to see them.
He served in the Navy during World War II, where he managed the Navy's boxing team and wrote sports articles for the Honolulu Advertiser. He studied at Yale after the war, and published his first short story in the Atlantic Monthly while he was still in college. Later that year he traveled to Paris, where he and two other young writers, Harold Humes and George Plimpton, decided they were sick of having their work rejected by literary magazines, and so they started their own. They called it The Paris Review, and it went on to become one of the most influential literary journals of the second half of the twentieth century.
Matthiessen published two novels, Race Rock (1954) and Partisans (1955), but they didn't make much money, so he began working as a commercial fisherman off the coast of Long Island. Working on a boat brought him closer to nature than he'd been since he was a child, and he realized that what he really wanted to write about was nature.
He took off on a trip across the United States in his Ford convertible, with a shotgun and a sleeping bag, looking for places where certain American animals were dying out: the bear, the wolf, the crane. His journey became the subject of his book Wildlife In America (1959), which was one of the books that helped launch the modern environmentalist movement in the United States.
Matthiessen said, "There's an elegiac quality in watching [American wilderness] go, because it's our own myth, the American frontier, that's deteriorating before our eyes. I feel a deep sorrow that my kids will never get to see what I've seen, and their kids will see nothing; there's a deep sadness whenever I look at nature now."
Poem: "Philosophy in Warm Weather," by Jane Kenyon, from The Boat of Quiet Hours. © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Philosophy in Warm Weather
Now all the doors and windows
are open, and we move so easily
through the rooms. Cats roll
on the sunny rugs, and a clumsy wasp
climbs the pane, pausing
to rub a leg over her head.
All around physical life reconvenes.
The molecules of our bodies must love
to exist: they whirl in circles
and seem to begrudge us nothing.
Heat, Horatio, heat makes them
put this antic disposition on!
This year's brown spider
sways over the door as I come
and go. A single poppy shouts
from the far field, and the crow,
beyond alarm, goes right on
pulling up the corn.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Thomas Hood, (books by this author), born in London (1799). His early poetry was serious and romantic, but then in 1825 he anonymously published a collection of comic poems called Odes and Addresses to Great People (1825), which poked fun at many famous writers and thinkers of his day. The book was enormously successful; Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the puns as "transcendent." Hood tried all his life to write serious poems, but he is best remembered today for his comic verse, collected in books such as Whims and Oddities (1827) and Whimsicalities (1844).
He wrote, "'Lives' of great men oft remind us as we o'er their pages turn, / That we too many leave behind us / Letters that we ought to burn."
It's the birthday of poet Jane Kenyon, (books by this author), born in Ann Arbor, Michigan (1947). She wrote poetry about everyday life, collected in books such as The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986) and Let Evening Come (1990).
It's the birthday of playwright, poet and novelist Pär Lagerkvist, (books by this author), born in Växjö, Sweden (1891). He's best known for his novel Barabbas (1950), about the thief pardoned by Pontius Pilate at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. Lagerkvist was the son of poor, devout Lutherans, but when he was in high school he read Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, and it caused him to question his faith. He began writing for various socialist journals and made a name for himself as one of the most promising young socialist writers of his day.
Between 1915 and 1945, he published more than twenty-five plays and novels, none of them very successful. He wrote about the anguish and the meaninglessness of the universe, and many of his characters were disabled, deformed, or dead. His short-story collection The Eternal Smile (1934) is about a group of spirits passing the time in eternity by telling stories about their former lives. He finally achieved international recognition with his novel Barabbas (1950), and a year later he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
It's the birthday of Margaret Wise Brown, (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1910). She wanted to become a writer as a young woman, and she once took a creative writing class from Gertrude Stein. But she had a hard time coming up with story ideas, so she went into education. She got a job researching the way that children learn to use language and found that children love language with patterns of sound and rhythm. She also found that young children have a special attachment to words for objects they can see and touch, like shoes and socks and bowls and bathtubs.
She eventually began to write books for children based on her research and in 1938 she became the editor of a publishing house called William R. Scott & Company which specialized in new children's literature. The Great Depression had made children's books into luxury items, and most other publishing houses had phased out children's literature. Margaret Wise Brown helped make children's books profitable, because she invested in high-quality color illustrations, and she printed her books on strong paper with durable bindings, so that children could grab, squeeze and bite their books the way they did with all their toys.
But we know Margaret Wise Brown for one book she wrote, and that was Goodnight Moon (1947), which includes the lines "Goodnight room / Goodnight moon / Goodnight cow jumping over the moon ... Goodnight stars / Goodnight air / Goodnight noises everywhere."
The New York Public Library gave it a terrible review, and it didn't sell as well as some of Brown's other books in its first year. But parents were amazed at the book's almost hypnotic effect on children, its ability to calm them down before bed. Brown thought the book was successful because it helped children let go of the world around them piece by piece, just before turning out the light and falling asleep.
Parents recommended the book to each other, and it slowly became a word-of-mouth best-seller. It sold about 1,500 copies in 1953, 4,000 in 1955, 8,000 in 1960, 20,000 in 1970; and by 1990 the total number of copies sold had reached more than four million.
Poem: "Mahogany China," by Jim Dodge, from Rain on the River. © Grove Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
My grandmother tells me
About her first love
Johnny Hansen was his name
She'll always remember
A warm autumn day
She was fifteen
Or almost fifteen
Had a mare named Patches
And she and Johnny went riding together
Down along the Chetco River
Low and mossy before the rains.
She can still taste the fried chicken
She made for their picnic
And how worried she was
Her lips would be all greasy
If he wanted to kiss her.
Tells me this as she polishes
The mahogany china closet
Over and over
The same spot
Till it shines.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Joseph Brodsky, (books by this author), born in St. Petersburg, Russia (1940). He grew up in the Soviet Union and began writing poetry as a young man. He became popular in underground literary circles, but in 1964 he was arrested for "social parasitism" and sentenced to five years' hard labor in Siberia. Writers and politicians from countries around the world protested his imprisonment, and he was released after eighteen months.
In 1972 he left Russia for America, where he taught at several universities. He had translated English poetry from the time he was a teenager, so he was already fluent in English when he arrived in America, but it took several years before he began writing poems primarily in English. He said he wrote in English as a form protest against the Soviet Union, and also so he could reach a wider audience. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, and from 1991 to 1992 he served as the Poet Laureate of the United States.
Brodsky said, "Were we to choose our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. I believe ... that for someone who has read a lot of Dickens to shoot his like in the name of an idea is harder than for someone who has read no Dickens."
And he said, "There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them."
It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer William Trevor, (books by this author), born in Mitchelstown, Ireland (1928). His collections of short stories include The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (1967) and Beyond the Pale (1981); and his novels include Felicia's Journey (1994) and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002).
He started out as a sculptor, but he wanted to create works of art that dealt more directly with human beings, and so he started writing. His first major novel came out in 1964The Old Boys, about eight men over eighty years old who meet at a reunion at their old public school.
Trevor has gone on to write many more novels and short stories. He said, "All my writing is about noncommunicationwhich is very sad and very funny."
Trevor's story "Mrs Acland's Ghosts" begins: "Mr Mockler was a tailor. He carried on his business in a house that after twenty-five years of mortgage arrangements had finally become his: 22 Juniper Street, SW 17. He had never married and since he was now sixty-three it seemed likely that he never would. In an old public house, the Charles the First, he had a drink every evening with his friends Mr Uprichard and Mr Tile, who were tailors also. He lived in his house in Juniper Street with his cat Sam, and did his own cooking and washing and cleaning: he was not unhappy."
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Poem: "Loafing," by Raymond Carver, from All of Us: The Collected Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
I looked into the room a moment ago,
and this is what I saw
my chair in its place by the window,
the book turned facedown on the table.
And on the sill, the cigarette
left burning in its ashtray.
Malingerer! my uncle yelled at me
so long ago. He was right.
I've set aside time today,
same as every day,
for doing nothing at all.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Theodore Roethke, (books by this author), born in Saginaw, Michigan (1908). It took him ten years to publish his first book of poetry, Open House (1941). Thirteen years later he won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Waking (1954).
Roethke said, "Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It's what everything else isn't."
It's the birthday of short story writer Raymond Carver, (books by this author), born in Clatskanie, Oregon (1938). He's known for writing pared-down, realistic stories about working-class people, collected in books like What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and Will You Be Quiet, Please? (1976).
He became seriously interested in writing in 1959 while he was taking a fiction-writing class from the novelist John Gardner at Chico State College. Gardner would pick apart Carver's stories line by line. He would cross out words and sentences and tell Carver that he was not allowed to keep them in the story; and he would circle other sections and allow Carver to come up with arguments for why they should be allowed to stay. Carver later said that for the rest of his life he could feel Gardner looking over his shoulder whenever he wrote a story.
It's the birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson, (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1803). He started out as a Unitarian minister, but when his wife died in 1831 he questioned his faith and eventually he left his position. He had liked giving sermons, and he was a great public speaker, so he started giving lectures in the Boston area.
Public lectures were becoming more and more common in New England in the middle of the nineteenth century, and Emerson was one of the first people to make his living off of them. Many of his first lectures were on natural history. In November of 1833, he gave a lecture for the Natural History Society. The lecture, "The Uses of Natural History," was so successful that Emerson was invited to give more lectures on science by many other organizations in the winter of 1834.
In 1836, his first great essay, "Nature," was published in Boston, and it got a lot of attention in America and England. That winter, Emerson was invited to give a series of twelve lectures in the Masonic Temple in Boston. The subjects ranged from "Philosophy of History" to "Trades and Professions."
By this time, lecturing had become his main source of income, and Emerson needed the money to take care of his family. In order to make as much money as he could from the lectures, he wrote his own advertising and oversaw ticket sales himself. Tickets cost two dollars for twelve lectures, and they could be bought at Boston bookstores. Emerson considered the lectures a success: each lecture drew about 350 people, which was pretty good considering he was competing against many other lecturers in Boston at the time.
He often scheduled three or four lectures a week, each in a different city. His reputation grew quickly, and by the winter of 1840, more people went to his lectures in New York than those of all the other speakers combined.
Emerson began giving lectures outside of New England, as far west as St. Louis, and also in England and France. By the end of his life he was making about a hundred dollars per lecture, and he had become a celebrity in America and Europe.
Emerson said, "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books."
Poem: "The Lost House," by David Mason, from Arrivals. © Story Line Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
The Lost House
A neighbor girl went with me near the creek,
entered the new house they were building there
with studs half-covered. Alone in summer dark,
we sat together on the plywood floor.
The shy way I contrived it, my right hand
slipped insinuatingly beneath her blouse
in new maneuvers, further than I planned.
I thought we floated in the almost-house.
Afraid of what might happen, or just afraid,
I stopped. She stood and brushed the sawdust off.
Fifteen that summer, we knew we could have strayed.
Now, if I saw it in a photograph,
I couldn't tell you where that new house stood.
One night the timbered hillside thundered down
like a dozen freight trains, crashing in a flood
that splintered walls and made the owners run.
By then I had been married and divorced.
The girl I reached for in unfinished walls
had moved away as if by nature's course.
The house was gone. Under quiet hills
the creek had cut new banks, left silt in bars
that sprouted alder scrub. No one would know,
cruising the dead-end road beneath the stars,
how we had trespassed there so long ago.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet and novelist Maxwell Bodenheim, born in Hermanville, Mississippi (1892). His family was among the only Jews in rural Mississippi, and after his father's store went bankrupt his family moved to Chicago. He became friends with the poet Carl Sandburg and published his first poems in Poetry magazine. He published many books of poetry in the 1920s, including Against This Age (1923), and he wrote several best-selling erotic novels, including Replenishing Jessica (1925) and Naked on Roller Skates (1930).
It's the birthday of Robert W. Chambers, (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1865). He was one of the most popular writers of the early twentieth century. He's best known as the author of supernatural tales like those in his book of short stories The King in Yellow (1895).
It was on this day in 1521 that Martin Luther was declared an outlaw by the Edict of Worms, (books by this author). The edict made Luther more of a hero than he already was, and it's a big reason that Protestantism caught on so quickly.
Luther decided to become a priest after getting caught out in a thunderstorm one night. He swore to God that if he survived he would enter the religious life. He did survive, and he went on to study theology, become ordained, and get a job as a professor in Wittenberg. As he became more and more involved in the Church he began to grow disgusted with some of its practices. He was especially angry about the Church's sales of indulgences, which were said to decrease the time a person had to spend in purgatory.
On the eve of All Saints' Day in 1517, Luther nailed to the door of his church ninety-five theses attacking the sale of indulgences and other excesses of the church. They were originally written in Latin, but they became so popular that people demanded they be translated into German, and so they were. Hundreds of copies were printed up on a printing press, which was still a fairly recent invention, and Luther's message spread throughout Germany and Europe.
Religious leaders and politicians began to realize how dangerous he was becoming to the traditional church, and in April of 1521, a group of Roman princes pressured Emperor Charles V into forming an assembly in the city of Worms to try to get Luther to reject his writings.
On his trip to Worms, Luther was celebrated as a hero at most of the towns he passed through. He refused to recant and went back to Wittenberg to start the reformation.
Poem: "What We Want," by Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening. © W.W. Norton. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
What We Want
What we want
is never simple.
We move among the things
we thought we wanted:
a face, a room, an open book
and these things bear our names
now they want us.
But what we want appears
in dreams, wearing disguises.
We fall past,
holding out our arms
and in the morning
our arms ache.
We don't remember the dream,
but the dream remembers us.
It is there all day
as an animal is there
under the table,
as the stars are there
even in full sun.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Linda Pastan, (books by this author), born in New York City (1932). Her collections include Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968 -1998 (1998) and The Last Uncle (2002).
It's the birthday of hard-boiled detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, (books by this author), born in St. Mary's County Maryland (1894). He's the author of The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Thin Man (1934), both of which were made into classic movies.
It's the birthday of best-selling mystery novelist Tony Hillerman, (books by this author), born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma (1925). Most of his books take place in the American Southwest, including People of Darkness (1991), A Thief of Time (1989), and his latest, The Sinister Pig (2003).
It's the birthday of novelist John Barth, (books by this author), born in Cambridge, Maryland (1930). He's known for writing innovative fiction in novels like The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), Chimera (1972) and Letters (1979).
It's the birthday of novelist Herman Wouk, (books by this author), born in New York City (1915). His novels include The Caine Mutiny (1951), The Winds of War (1971), The Hope (1994), and The Glory (1995).
It's the birthday of Julia Ward Howe, (books by this author), born Julia Ward in New York City (1819). She was a poet, essayist, and leader of the women's movement, but she's best known to us today as the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," in which she wrote:
"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible, swift sword;
His truth is marching on."
It's the birthday of ecologist and nature writer Rachel Carson, (books by this author), born in Pennsylvania (1907). Her best-selling book about the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring (1962), became one of the most influential books in the modern environmental movement.
It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer John Cheever, (books by this author), born in Quincy, Massachusetts (1912). He wrote for more than fifty years and published over two hundred short stories. He's known for writing about the world of American suburbia. Even though he was one of the most popular short-story writers of the twentieth century, he once said that he only earned "enough money to feed the family and buy a new suit every other year."
In 1935 he was published in The New Yorker for the first time, and he would continue to write for the magazine for the rest of his life. His stories were collected in books, including The Way Some People Live (1943) and The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953). The Stories of John Cheever, published in 1978, won the Pulitzer Prize and became one of the few collections of short stories ever to make the New York Times best-seller list.
Cheever kept journals his entire life, and a few years before he died in 1982, he told his son that he wanted selections from his journals to be published. The Journals of John Cheever came out in 1990. He wrote about his alcoholism, his depression, his bisexuality, his family, and his writing.
He wrote in his journal: "I worked four days a week on the "[Wapshot] Chronicle," with intense happiness. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I had a course in advanced composition at Barnard College. My weekends went roughly like this. On Saturday mornings, I played touch football until the noon whistle blew, when I drank Martinis for an hour or so with friends. On Saturday afternoons, I played Baroque music on the piano or recorder with an ensemble group. On Saturday nights, my wife and I either entertained or were entertained by friends. Eight o'clock Sunday morning found me at the Communion rail, and the Sunday passed pleasantly, according to the season, in skiing, scrub hockey, swimming, football, or backgammon. This sport was occasionally interrupted by the fact that I drove the old Mack engine for the volunteer fire department and also bred black Labrador retrievers. As I approached the close of the novel, there were, in my workroom, eight Labrador puppies, and on my desk the Barnard themes, the fire-department correspondence, [and] "The Wapshot Chronicle." ... My happiness was immense, and I trust that the book will, in some ways, be a reminder of this."
Poem: "Analysis of Baseball," by May Swenson, from The Complete Poems to Solve. © Macmillan Publishing Co. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Analysis of Baseball
and the mitt.
bat, or it
hit ball, bat
off bat, flies
air, or thuds
to take bat's
keep the date.
Ball goes in
(thwack) to mitt,
and goes out
ball gets hit
(pow) when bat
to a place
has to quit
and the fans.
on a diamond,
and for fun.
home, and it's
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Romantic poet Thomas Moore, (books by this author) born in Dublin, Ireland (1779). He's best known for his ten-volume collection Irish Melodies (1808), which contains poems such as "The Last Rose of Summer" and "Oft in the Stilly Night."
It's the birthday of Australian novelist Patrick White, (books by this author), born in London, England, while his parents were there on a visit in 1912. He grew up in Australia at a time when Australians still considered the United Kingdom their home. He traveled widely and wrote novels set in London and the United States, but he's best known for his novels about pioneers in Australia, such as The Tree of Man (1955) and Voss (1957). He said that the subject of these novels was "the great Australian emptiness, in which the mind of man is the least of possessions." In 1973 he became the first Australian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
It's the birthday of novelist and poet Fred Chappell, (books by this author), born in Canton, North Carolina (1936). His novels include Look Back All the Green Valley (1999), It Is Time, Lord (1963), and Dagon (1968); and his collections of poems include Family Gathering: Poems (2000).
It's the birthday of novelist Walker Percy, (books by this author), born in Birmingham, Alabama (1916). He was working as a psychiatrist when he caught tuberculosis, and he spent two years recovering from the disease. In bed, he started reading existentialist philosophers and decided to become a writer. He's best known for his first novel, The Moviegoer (1961).
Percy wrote, "[We] live in a deranged age, more deranged than usual, because in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing."
It's the birthday of poet May Swenson, (books by this author), born in Logan, Utah (1919). She moved to New York City in her twenties and supported herself as a secretary, writing poems when she was supposed to be writing speeches for executives. She published her first collection, Another Animal, in 1954, and she became known for her playful poems about everything from DNA to baseball to astronauts.
It's the birthday of the man who created James Bond, novelist Ian Fleming, (books by this author), born in London, England (1908). He wanted to be a diplomat, but he failed the Foreign Office examination and decided to go into journalism. He worked for the Reuters News Service in London, Moscow, and Berlin, and then during World War II, he served as the assistant to the British director of naval intelligence.
After the war, he bought a house in Jamaica, where he spent his time fishing and gambling and bird watching. He started to get bored, so he decided to try writing a novel about a secret agent. He named the agent James Bond after the author of a bird-watching book.
Fleming said, "James Bond is ... the feverish dreams of the author of what he might have beenbang, bang, bang, kiss, kiss, that sort of stuff. It's what you would expect of an adolescent mindwhich I happen to possess."
The first Bond novel, Casino Royale, sold about 7,000 copies, and Fleming followed it with four more that sold less and less well. Critics said he was good at writing about places, but that was about it. Fleming had a newborn son at home, and he was disappointed that these books weren't making more money to help support the family, so for his next Bond story he wrote the book specifically for the movies. He filled it with more psychopaths and beautiful women than usual. No one in the movie industry was interested at the time, but the novel From Russia, with Love (1957) became a huge international best-seller.