Poem: "The Rain" by Robert Creeley from The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley © University of California Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
All night the sound had
come back again,
and again falls
this quiet, persistent rain.
What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
so often? Is it
that never the ease,
even the hardness,
of rain falling
will have for me
something other than this,
something not so insistent
am I to be locked in this
Love, if you love me,
lie next to me.
Be for me, like rain,
the getting out
of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
with a decent happiness.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Harriet Martineau, (books by this author), born in Norwich, England (1802). She was born without the sense of taste or smell, and by the time she was twelve she had gone deaf. She became one of the most popular writers in the English-speaking world. Army officers were said to have wept over her books. Queen Victoria considered her one of the greatest writers of all time. Famous thinkers and statesmen considered her one of the most influential people of her generation.
And yet today, almost all of Harriet Martineau's books have been forgotten. The only exception is her Autobiography, which came out in 1877, and it is generally considered one of the best autobiographies written during the Victorian era.
It's the birthday of civil engineer John (Augustus) Roebling, born in Mulhausen, Prussia (1806). He was trained as an engineer in Berlin and worked for the Prussian government for several years before moving to the United States when he was twenty-five. He settled in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, and spent a few years trying to make a living as a farmer, but he had no luck.
He introduced a new design for woven wire cables to replace unreliable fiber ropes used to drag boats over canals. His wire cables were a big success, and the demand for them became so great that he was able to open a factory in Trenton, New Jersey.
Roebling could have lived off selling his cables for the rest of his life, but he'd always wanted to be a real engineer, and so he and his son began building suspension bridges. At the time, suspension bridges were the wave of the future, because they could span much greater distances than traditional bridges. But most bridge builders were using inferior cables, and inferior designs. The vast majority of suspension bridges built in Roebling's lifetime were eventually destroyed by windstorms.
Roebling, with help from his son, built four suspension bridges during the 1850s and '60s, including two in Pittsburgh, one at Niagara Falls, and another across the Ohio River. Then, in 1867, he accepted a commission to build what would be the largest suspension in the world at that time, spanning 1595 feet across the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan.
He had just about finished his plans, and was taking some final compass readings on the edge of the river when a ferryboat rammed the piling he was standing on, and one of his feet was crushed. He died of tetanus three weeks later. His son went ahead with the construction of the bridge the following year, using John Roebling's designs, and the result was the Brooklyn Bridge, opened on May 24, 1883.
Today the Brooklyn Bridge is often considered one of the greatest bridges ever built. It's one of the only suspension bridges of its era still in use today.
It's the birthday of Anne Frank, (books by this author), born in Frankfurt, Germany (1929), who received a diary as a birthday present on her thirteenth birthday in 1942 and immediately began writing in it. Her earliest journal entries are about her grades and her classmates and the boys that she knew.
Not long after receiving her diary, Anne and her family were forced to go into hiding in an attic above a store, where they lived for the next two years. Anne Frank wrote in her diary regularly while she was in hiding, but she didn't just write about the Nazi persecution or the experience of living in secret. She also wrote about the ordinary details of her adolescent life. She wrote about how much she hated potatoes and how her older sister was clearly her parents' favorite. She described the jokes people made, and the crush she had on Peter, the son of the other family living in the attic. After her first kiss, Anne Frank wrote in her diary, "My head lay on his shoulder, with his on top of mine. Oh, it was so wonderful. I could hardly talk, my pleasure was too intense; he caressed my cheek and arm, a bit clumsily, and played with my hair."
In 1944, she heard on the radio that people should hang onto their war letters and diaries because they would be historical documents someday. After that she started thinking about trying to publish her diary someday, but she also thought about turning it into a novel.
In June of 1944, the American and English armies landed on the French coast and the war seemed to be coming to an end. But just as the Frank family was making plans to come out of hiding, they were betrayed. Nazis stormed the annex on the morning of August 4th, 1944, twenty-five months after the Franks had gone into hiding. They were taken to a concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank died of typhus in 1945. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl first came out in 1947.
Poem: "Parable" by Richard Wilbur from Collected Poems 1943-2004. © Harcourt, Inc. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
I read how Quixote in his random ride
Came to a crossing once, and lest he lose
The purity of chance, would not decide
Whither to fare, but wished his horse to choose.
For glory lay wherever he might turn.
His head was light with pride, his horse's shoes
Were heavy, and he headed for the barn.
Literary and Historical Notes:
We don't know the day on which Alexander the Great was born, but historians believe that he died on this day in the city of Babylon (323 B.C.). He was one of the most influential conquerors in the history of Western Europe, and by the time he died, at about the age of thirty-three, his kingdom spanned across Europe and Asia, from Greece to Egypt, Turkey and Afghanistan. He probably died of malaria, collapsing after a banquet.
It's the birthday of the poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, (books by this author), born in Dublin, Ireland (1865). His father was a well-known painter, and he split his childhood between the beautiful countryside of County Sligo, in the west of Ireland, and the bustling city life of London. He said, "Because I had found it hard to attend to anything less interesting than my thoughts, I was difficult to teach."
He grew up in a Protestant family, so he should have been pro-British, but around 1889, he became an advocate for Irish nationalism after he met Maud Gonne, a beautiful actress who had become an activist and who spoke out for Irish nationalism and independence. She became the love of his life, and though she refused his proposal of marriage, she believed that they were spiritually married, that they could communicate telepathically, and that they had been brother and sister in a past life. She inspired him to use his writing as a force for national unity.
Yeats spent years writing plays about Irish nationalism for Maud Gonne to star in. But by 1910, Maud Gonne had married someone else and Yeats had given up on trying to win her love. He continued to consult with mediums and to experiment with automatic writing and séances for the rest of his life, but he gave up on the idea of writing poetry for the collective soul of Ireland, and wrote instead for himself. He said, "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Many critics consider his greatest poems those that he wrote after he gave up on Irish nationalism, collected in books such as The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1933).
William Butler Yeats wrote, "Now that my ladder's gone / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."
It's the birthday of British writer Dorothy Leigh Sayers, born in Oxford in 1893. She's best known as the creator of the amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey, who appeared in eleven mystery novels and twenty-one short stories and said, "Once you've got the How, the Why drives it home."
Poems: "Fast-Pitch" and "Foreseeable" by Paul Bussan from A Rage of Intelligence Poems. © PSB Publishing. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
The secret to catching,
Aside from worrying
About the pop-ups
Over your head
Or squibs directly
In front of home plate,
Is to make a fist
Of your free hand
To protect your fingers
From foul tips,
And then look the ball
Right into the mitt
As if the batter
I no longer read obituaries
First thing in the morning,
Nor try to feed myself
With the world's news,
But open up to sports
To find out all the scores
From the day before,
And see if someone
Made a trade
Which helps them now
Or in the coming future.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Flag Day in our country: The government officially adopted the Stars and Stripes as our national flag on this day in 1777.
It was on this day in 1951 that the world's first commercially produced electronic digital computer was unveiled in the United States. It was named as the UNIVAC. The first electronic computers were invented during World War II. Engineers in Great Britain invented the Colossus computer to help break Nazi codes, and engineers in the United States invented the ENIAC, which helped calculate the trajectories of missiles.
The ENIAC weighed thirty tons and occupied a gymnasium. With 18,000 vacuum tubes, it radiated so much heat that industrial cooling fans were needed to keep its circuitry from melting down. It took two days to reprogram it for each new task.
The men who created the ENIAC decided to go into private business for themselves, and it was on this day in 1951 that they unveiled their first product, the UNIVAC, the world's first commercially available electronic computer. It weighed eight tons, used 5,000 vacuum tubes, and cost $250,000. But it could perform 1000 calculations per second, which was the fastest calculation rate in the world at the time.
The first customer to buy the UNIVAC was the United States Census Bureau, and the computer was used to predict the presidential election of 1952, after early returns began to come in. It correctly predicted that Eisenhower would win.
The president of IBM at the time thought that computers, with all their incredibly complex vacuum tubes and circuitry, were too complicated. He said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." But with the invention of the microchip in 1971, all the processing power of those thousands of vacuum tubes and punch cards could suddenly be crammed into a space the size of a postage stamp. Within a decade, the first personal computers, or PCs, began to appear.
For the first thirty years or so of the history of computers, it was mostly businesses that used them for accounting purposes. But in the 1980s, the word processing powers of computers made them attractive to writersalthough Stephen King said that when he first started using a word processor, he lost the ability to pace himself by the number of pages he had written, and his books grew longer and longer. Russell Baker said, "Computers make writing so painless that the writer cannot bear to stop. On and on the writer goes, all judgment numbed. Before you know it, you've written a book." Some contemporary writers still don't use computers. Joyce Carol Oates writes all her first drafts in longhand. Don DeLillo still uses a manual typewriter.
But, the novelist Stanley Elkin called his word processor a "bubble machine." He said, "The word processor enables one to concentrate exponentially; you have absolute command of the entire novel all at once. You can go back and reference and change and fix ... so in a way, all novels written on the bubble machine ought to be perfect novels."
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Poem: "Off the Record" by Ronald Wallace from Long for This World: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Off the Record
In the attic I find the notes
he kept in college
over forty years ago: Hooray
for Thanksgiving vacation! he wrote
in the margin of Psych 102.
And for a moment I can see him there,
feel the exuberance surge through
that odd cell of his body
where I am still
a secret code uncompleted, a piece
of DNA, some ancient star-stuff.
And then I find a recording of me
from 1948, when he was twenty-two
and I was three, and I can see,
from my perch up on his shoulders,
him stopping at the gaudy arcade,
plugging his lucky quarter into
the future where we'd always be.
Maybe imagination is just
a form of memory after all, locked
deep in the double helix of eternity.
Or maybe the past is but one more
phantasmagoric invention we use
to fool ourselves into someone else's shoes.
It is not my voice I want to hear
on memory's fading page, on imagination's disk.
It is my father's in the background
prompting me, doing his best
to stay off the record, his hushed
instructions vanishing in static.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the illustrator for Charles Dickens, Hablot Knight Browne, (books by this author) better known as "Phiz," born in Lambeth, near London (1815). He went on to work with Dickens for over twenty years, illustrating ten of Dickens's novels, including David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Most people read Dickens today without the aid of illustration, but when his work first began to appear in 1836, the illustrations were an integral part of the story.
The critic G.K. Chesterton wrote of Hablot Knight Browne, "No other illustrator ever created the true Dickens character with the precise and correct quantum of exaggeration. No other illustrator ever breathed the true Dickens atmosphere in which clerks are clerks and yet at the same time elves."
It's the birthday of Saul Steinberg, (books by this author) born in a small village near Bucharest, Romania (1914). His mother was a cake decorator, and Steinberg said her cakes were too beautiful to eat. His father specialized in designer cardboard boxes, and Steinberg spent his childhood rummaging through the embossed paper, rubber stamps, colored cardboard, and blocks of type. He said, "I got high on elementary things, like the luminosity of the day and the smell of everythingmud, earth, humidity, the delicious smells of cellars and mould, grocers' shops."
After graduating from high school in Bucharest, he moved to Milan, Italy, to study architecture. He received an architecture degree, but he said, "I realized I couldn't be an architect because of the horror of dealing with people."
He sailed for America from Portugal, but unfortunately he carried a "slightly fake" passport, which he had doctored with his own rubber stamp. When he arrived at Ellis Island, he was deported on a cargo ship to Santo Domingo. The editor of The New Yorker magazine intervened, and Steinberg was finally allowed to enter the United States through Miami in 1942. He took a bus to New York City, and for the rest of his life he always loved traveling by bus. He said, "From a bus one has a much better and nobler view, as from horseback."
He was a longtime cartoonist for The New Yorker, and he painted many covers for the magazine, including his most famous, "View of the World from 9th Avenue" (1975), which shows a New Yorker's view of the city, huge in the foreground, and the rest of the United States so small and formless that it barely exists.
Steinberg parodied most of the popular styles of painting of the twentieth century, including cubism, pointillism, abstract expressionism, and even children's art. But instead of being difficult, like most modern art, his work was always playful and funny. He filled his pictures with American icons that he found fascinating: Easter bunnies, Lady Liberty, the Chrysler Building, cheerleaders.
He always hated having his photograph taken for magazine articles, so for photo shoots, he started wearing masks over his face with a drawing of his face where his real face should have been. He loved making elaborate counterfeit documents, currency, passports, licenses, and especially diplomas. He would bestow his diplomas on various friends and loved ones each year. His wife hung her diploma over the kitchen sink.
It's the birthday of science writer Dava Sobel, (books by this author), born in New York City (1947). Her big breakthrough came in 1995, when she published Longitude, which tells how the eighteenth-century scientist and clockmaker John Harrison solved the problem of determining east-west location at sea. Longitude became a surprise best-seller in America and England. Sobel's book Galileo's Daughter, about the correspondence between the great Italian astronomer and his favorite daughter, came out in 1999.
Poem: "Spy Girls" by Jeannine Hall Gailey from Becoming the Villainess. © Steel Toe Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
always get their fiancés killed
in the very first scene.
A femme fatale can't also be
a loving wife and mother.
So she becomes a workaholic
to get over Steve, Jeff, or Lance,
sliding down elevator chutes
cutting through plate glass windows
carefully cracking the codes of illegal governments
dressed in formfitting rubber suits and blue wigs,
Temporarily blinded with acid spray
and shot through a shoulder and thigh,
she still manages to somersault over the wall
to grab the bars of the helicopter
just as it lifts off
secrets of nuclear fission in a disk
tucked in her lace-up boots,
keeping the world safe
from people just like her.
At night, she dreams of rescue,
of blending in with the crowd
of being one more girl
who eats ice cream for dinner
whose purse is not full of explosives.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Bloomsday, a day to celebrate James Joyce's novel Ulysses, whose action takes place on June 16th, 1904. It's called Bloomsday because the main character in the book is Leopold Bloom, a Jewish ad salesman who lives on the north side of Dublin. Bloom is introduced in the fourth chapter of Ulysses; he eats breakfast and serves his wife breakfast in bed. He spends most of his day wandering around Dublin doing errands.
Joyce (books by this author), chose June 16, 1904 as the date for his novel because it was on that day that he went on his first date with the love of his life, Nora Barnacle.
It's the birthday of one of the most distinguished scientists of the 20th century, Barbara McClintock, (books by this author), born in Hartford, Connecticut (1902). She grew up in the semi-rural Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and, growing up, she was much more interested in playing sports with the boys of her neighborhood than she was in studying.
Unfortunately, McClintock's mother refused to let her attend college. So McClintock got a job at an employment agency and spent all her free time at the library. Her parents eventually realized that she wasn't going to come to her senses and get married any time soon, so they relented and let her study biology at Cornell University.
She became interested in the study of maize, or Indian corn, because its multicolored kernels showed visible evidence of genetic changes from one generation to the next. She became one of the first scientists to show that the visible traits of a plant were directly linked to the structure of its chromosomes.
Despite her revolutionary work, Cornell would not give her a faculty appointment, because she was a woman. A friend eventually got her a permanent research position at another school, and she was elected president of the Genetics Society of America, but her research into genetics was so radical that it was ignored by other scientists. Nobody accepted her theories. She eventually stopped publishing her work altogether.
It wasn't until the 1970s that molecular biologists with more sophisticated tools began to prove that Barbara McClintock's theories about genetics were correct, and suddenly she was seen as a visionary. In 1983, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for the work that she had first published in 1951.
She said, "I know my corn plants intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them."
It's the birthday of novelist Joyce Carol Oates, (books by this author) born in Lockport, New York (1938). She is one of the most prolific writers of her generation, having published almost one hundred books in forty years, including novels, short stories, plays, poetry and essays. She's the author of many novels, including Them (1969), Bellefleur (1980), and We Were the Mulvaneys (1996).
Oates's own father worked for forty years as a tool-and-die designer at the Harrison Radiator Company. Her parents were poor and uneducated, but they both had artistic leanings. Her father often came home from the tool-and-die shop and played piano in the evenings.
Oates went to school in the same one-room schoolhouse where her mother had gone to school in Niagara County, near the Erie Canal. When she was eight years old, her grandmother gave her a hardcover copy of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and Oates loved it so much she memorized the whole book, word for word. She started writing novels in high school.
When asked how she can write so much, Oates says she just works steadily, about eight or ten hours a day. She spends a lot of her time thinking about her work while she's running, walking, or bicycling. She said, "At such times the imagination floats free, and one can contemplate one's work with an almost magical detachment."
Oates also said, "We [humans] are the species that clamors to be lied to."
Poem: "Blessings" by Ronald Wallace from Long for This World: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.
Some days I find myself
putting my foot in
the same stream twice;
leading a horse to water
and making him drink.
I have a clue.
I can see the forest
for the trees.
All around me people
are making silk purses
out of sows' ears,
getting blood from turnips,
building Rome in a day.
There's a business
like show business.
There's something new
under the sun.
Some days misery
no longer loves company;
it puts itself out of its.
There's rest for the weary.
There's turning back.
There are guarantees.
I can be serious.
I can mean that.
You can quite
put your finger on it.
Some days I know
I am long for this world.
I can go home again.
And when I go
take it with me
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Igor Stravinsky, born in Oranienbaum, a suburb of St. Petersburg, Russia (1882). His first major success as a composer was a ballet based on a Russian folk tale called "The Firebird" (1909). It was wildly popular, and he traveled all over Europe to conduct it. Then, one night, he got an idea for a ballet about a pagan ritual in which a virgin would be sacrificed to the gods of spring by dancing herself to death. Stravinsky composed the piece on a piano in a rented cottage, and a boy working outside his window kept shouting up at him that the chords were all wrong. When Stravinsky played part of the piece for director of the theater where it would be performed, the director asked, "How much longer will it go on like that?" Stravinsky replied, "To the end, my dear." He titled the piece "The Rite of Spring."
It had its opening night in 1913 in Paris. The audience sat quietly through the first several minutes of the piece, but when the music suddenly turned harsh and dissonant, people in the audience began to shout at the stage. Fights broke out between the audience members. People who were enjoying the music attacked those who were booing. People spat in each other's faces. Men exchanged cards in order to fight duels the next day. The police were called. Stravinsky was so upset by the response that he left his seat in disgust. But the performance kept on, despite the disturbance. The composition lasted only thirty-three minutes, but it made Stravinsky was one of the most famous composers in the world.
Stravinsky went on to write many more pieces of music. He never waited for inspiration to compose. He said he kept banker's hours at his worktable. After his early success, he began to compose colder, more intellectual music, though he also once wrote a polka for a dancing elephant in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Igor Stravinsky said, "My music is best understood by children and animals."
It's the birthday of religious leader John Wesley, born in Lincolnshire, England (1703). He was the founder of the Methodist movement within the Anglican Church, which spread rapidly in the United States. The Methodist Church became the church of the colonists on the frontier, as well as the church of African Americans, both slave and free.
By 1850, the United Methodist Church held more members than any other Christian denomination in the United States. It was thought of as the most mainstream of all denominations. A convert needed only to believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and everyone's personal savior. Methodists believed that all other questions about Christianity were up for discussion.
Methodists have established more colleges, hospitals, child-care facilities, and retirement homes than any other denomination. A 19th-century Methodist preacher named William Booth noticed that his lower-class converts were often turned away from respectable churches, so he founded the Salvation Army to reach the poor and needy. Methodists also started Goodwill Industries in 1902, with stores across the country that employ people with disabilities to repair furniture and mend old clothes to be sold at a discount.
It's the birthday of poet Ron Padgett, (books by this author) born in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1942). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including Great Balls of Fire (1969), Tulsa Kid (1979), and You Never Know (2002).
Poem: "March 8" by David Lehman from The Evening Sun: A Journal in Poetry. © Scribner Poetry. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Every so often my father comes over
for a visit he hangs his overcoat and hat
on my hat rack I brief him on recent
developments and serve us coffee
he is surprised that I like to cook
once when he made an omelette
he flipped it in the air much to my delight
and it landed on the floor yes that
was the summer of 1952, he remembered
the high breakers and how fearless
I was running into the ocean anyway
the important thing is to see you doing
so well he said and took his coat and hat
and left before I remembered he was dead
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Father's Day, a holiday that we celebrate because of a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd. One Sunday morning in May of 1909, Dodd was sitting in church in Spokane, Washington, listing to a Mother's Day sermon. And she thought there ought to be a holiday to celebrate fathers as well. So she went on a crusade to celebrate fathers, and the tradition of observing Father's Day caught on, though not quite as quickly as the tradition of Mother's Day. Mother's Day became an official holiday in 1914, but Father's Day wasn't officially recognized until 1972, almost sixty years later.
Many writers have had difficult relationships with their fathers. When Charles Bukowski was a teenager, his father stumbled upon some of his short stories and read them. Bukowski came home that day to find his clothes, his typewriter, and all the stories he had written lying on the lawn outside his front door.
John Cheever's father was a hard-drinking shoe salesman and an unpredictable man. One night, while setting the table, Cheever's mother casually mentioned that she and his father had gotten into a fight, and his father had decided to drown himself at the local beach. Though he didn't have a driver's license, Cheever jumped in the family car and drove to the beach as fast as he could. He found his father drunk, riding a roller coaster, and had to coax him down and bring him home.
When Franz Kafka was a young boy, he once shouted for a glass of water in the middle of the night, and his father pulled him out of bed, put him on the courtyard balcony, and locked him out of the house. He later wrote, "For years thereafter, I kept being haunted by fantasies of this giant of a man, my father, the ultimate judge, coming to get me in the middle of the night."
The poet Hart Crane's father was the wealthy owner of a candy company, who couldn't understand why Hart Crane wanted to be a poet. His father constantly threatened to disown Hart Crane unless he got a real job.
Stephen King's father was a merchant seaman who deserted the family when Stephen was two. He has no memories of the man, but one day he found a boxful of his father's science fiction and fantasy paperbacks, including an anthology of stories by horror author H. P. Lovecraft. That box of his father's books inspired him to start writing horror stories.
August Strindberg said, "That is the thankless position of the father in the familythe provider for all, and the enemy of all."
It's the birthday of Amy Bloom, (books by this author) born in New York City (1953). She's the author of the novel Love Invents Us (1996) and the collection of short stories A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000).
It's the birthday of novelist Gail Godwin, (books by this author) born in Birmingham, Alabama (1937). She's the author of many books, including The Odd Woman (1974), The Finishing School (1985), and The Good Husband (1994).
Today is the anniversary of the day in 1815 that Napoleon Bonaparte lost his final major battle near Waterloo Village in Belgium. He was defeated by the British and the Prussians and by an untimely thunderstorm.