Poem: "For the Falling Man" by Annie Farnsworth from Bodies of Water, Bodies of Light. © Annie Farnsworth. Reprinted with permission.
For the Falling Man
I see you again and again
tumbling out of the sky,
in your slate-grey suit and pressed white shirt.
At first I thought you were debris
from the explosion, maybe gray plaster wall
or fuselage but then I realized
that people were leaping.
I know who you are, I know
there's more to you than just this image
on the news, this ragdoll plummeting
I know you were someone's lover, husband,
daddy. Last night you read stories
to your children, tucked them in, then curled into sleep
next to your wife. Perhaps there was small
sleepy talk of the future. Then,
before your morning coffee had cooled
you'd come to this; a choice between fire
How feeble these words, billowing
in this aftermath, how ineffectual
this utterance of sorrow. We can see plainly
it's hopeless, even as the words trail from our mouths
but we can't help ourselveshow I wish
we could trade them for something
that could really have caught you.
Literary and Historical Notes:
On this day in 2001 terrorists flew two planes into the Twin Towers in New York City, causing both towers to collapse. In the hours after the collapse, healthcare officials in New York City expected that they would have to handle a huge surge of injured patients. They asked people to donate blood, and they took volunteers to help staff makeshift hospital stations around the city. But it turned out that very few of the survivors of the attack had suffered serious injuries. And when cleanup at the site of the attack began, there were almost no identifiable bodies of victims. Almost everything had been buried.
For weeks, no one knew how many people had died in the attack. It was as though thousands of people had just vanished. Relatives of the victims had no way of knowing if their loved ones were even dead. Missing-person posters began to appear all over the city, around the entrances of hospitals, on storefronts, bus shelters, and lampposts, asking for help in locating the missing people in the photos. It was believed that some of the victims might be unconscious in unknown hospitals, or wandering the streets in the wake of the attack. The posters kept appearing, even days after it was clear that few, if any, of the missing would be found. Many of the photos were wedding pictures, or pictures at birthday parties, or pictures of the victim holding a new baby.
Journalists at The New York Times quickly realized that there wouldn't be an official list of the dead for weeks or even months, and so on September 14th, a half-dozen reporters divided up 100 missing-person fliers and began calling the phone numbers on the fliers, interviewing the friends and relatives. And on September 15, 2001, the Times began publishing portraits in a section called "Among the Missing." The title was eventually changed to "Portraits of Grief." The journalists involved decided that they would try to write portraits of every victim of the attack whose family they could reach. And they decided that the stories would focus on how the victim lived, not how he or she died.
The portraits were shorter than the average Times obituary, at about 150 words, and they skipped things like college degrees, jobs held, and names of surviving family members. They just tried to capture some detail or anecdote that would express each person's individuality. There was a firefighter who wore size 15 boots; a man who put toothpaste on his wife's toothbrush when he got up before her, almost every day; a grandmother who wore pink rhinestone-studded sunglasses and a metallic gold raincoat.
Ultimately, 143 reporters worked on the project, and they managed to write about 1,910 of the 2,749 victims. They would have written about every victim, but some families didn't want to participate or couldn't be found. The portraits were collected in the book Portraits 9/11/01 (2002) (buy now). Two other Times reporters, Jim Dwyers and Kevin Flynn, set out to tell the story of the final moments inside the Twin Towers, and the result was their book 102 Minutes (2005). (buy now)
The New York Times won six Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the terrorist attacks that year, including one for the section of the paper devoted to the Portraits of Grief. It was the first time in the Pulitzer's history that any paper won more than three awards in a year.
Poem: "Where I Am With You" by Ryan Vine from Distant Engines. © The Backwaters Press. Reprinted with permission.
Where I Am With You
Waking from a nap,
we stand at the window
watching dark clouds crawl
across the sky, whip
down and out and up.
Lights come on early,
and people below
on the street scurry
and bumble about
My arm around you, you say
Let it rain, let it pour.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the journalist and editor H. L. (Henry Louis) Mencken, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1880). He graduated as the valedictorian from his high school at the age of 15, but even though he was burning to write, he did exactly what his father expected. He took a job at the cigar factory. He started out rolling the cigars alongside the other blue-collar men, and he actually enjoyed that manual labor. But when he was promoted to the front office, he was hopelessly bored. He finally mustered up his courage and told his father that he wanted to pursue a career in journalism. His father told him to bring up the subject again in a year.
Mencken had been working at his father's factory for three years when, on New Years Eve in 1898, his father had a convulsion and collapsed. His mother told Mencken to get a doctor, 11 blocks down the street, and Mencken later said, "I remember well how, as I was trotting to [the doctor's] house on that first night, I kept saying to myself that if my father died I'd be free at last."
His father died two weeks later. The day after his father's funeral, Mencken shaved his face, combed his hair, put on his best suit, and went down to the Baltimore Morning Herald, asking for a job. Mencken came back every single day for the next four weeks. He finally wore the editor down, and he got to write two articles, each fewer than 50 words long.
He went on to become one of the most influential and prolific journalists in America, writing about all the shams and con artists in the world. He attacked chiropractors and the Ku Klux Klan, politicians and other journalists. Most of all, he attacked Puritan morality. He called Puritanism, "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
At the height of his career, he edited and wrote for the American Mercury magazine and the Baltimore Sun newspaper, wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column for the Chicago Tribune, and published two or three books every year. His masterpiece was one of the few books he wrote about something he loved, a book called The American Language (1919), a history and collection of American vernacular speech. It included a translation of the Declaration of Independence into American English that began, "When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they out to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody."
When asked what he would like for an epitaph, Mencken wrote, "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."
It was on this day in 1940 that four teenage boys discovered the Lascaux cave paintings, generally agreed to be the greatest works of prehistoric art ever found. The boys were looking for fabled buried treasure in the woods, and they stumbled upon a cavern, about 65 feet wide and 15 feet tall. When the boys held up their lanterns, they saw that the walls of the cave were covered with paintings of animals.
It turned out that the cave paintings were about 17,000 years old. Anthropologists believe that the cave was used as a kind of church, devoted to the worship of animals.
There are more than 200 paintings and 1,500 engravings in the Lascaux cave, almost all of them animals, including bulls, deer, oxen, herds of horses, stags, and cats, painted in various shades of yellow, red, brown, and black, realistic drawings with beautiful, fluid lines, showing the various creatures turning their heads, walking through water, falling off cliffs.
One of the few traces left behind by the artists are their own handprints, which they made by tracing around their own fingers.
Poem: "Long Afternoon at the Edge of Little Sister Pond" by Mary Oliver from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays. © Beacon Press. Reprinted with permission.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1814 that Francis Scott Key (books by this author) was inspired to write the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner," by witnessing the British attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. It had been a dark summer for the young United States. Just three weeks previous, on August 24, British troops had set fire to much of Washington D.C., including the Capitol, the Treasury, and the president's house. President James Madison had been forced to flee for his safety. Americans were terrified that the British might choose to invade New York or Philadelphia or Boston and destroy those cities as well.
The British had recently begun using rockets, a new military weapon adapted from Chinese technology. Francis Scott Key was horrified as he watched these rockets raining down on Fort McHenry, at the mouth of Baltimore harbor. He watched the bombardment all night, and he had little hope that the American fort would withstand the attack. But just after sunrise he saw the American flag still flying over the fort. In fact, Francis Scott Key might never have even seen the flag if the fort commander, Major Armistead, hadn't insisted on flying one of the largest flags then in existence. The flag flying that day was 42 feet long and 30 feet high.
Francis Scott Key began writing a poem about the experience that very morning. It turned out that the battle at Baltimore was the turning point of the war. Before the war, the American flag had little sentimental significance for most Americans. It was used mainly as a way to designate military garrisons or forts. But after the publication of "The Star-Spangled Banner," even non-military people began to treat the flag as a sacred object.
It's the birthday of Sherwood Anderson, (books by this author) born in Camden, Ohio (1876). He grew up in a small town, and often had the sense that he'd been born too late, after the pioneer times and the Civil War. He felt that life had grown too ordinary. As a young man, he got a job as an advertising copy writer, and eventually got a job managing a mail-order paint company in Elyria, Ohio. But one day, out of the blue, he stood up from his desk and walked out of the office, ignoring everyone who asked where he was going, and decided to become a writer.
Anderson was 43 years old when he published Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a collection of stories about a group of characters in a small town who look ordinary on the surface but are full of misery and sexual frustration and violent desires. His simple prose style had a great influence on other writers, including Ernest Hemingway. He also encouraged the young William Faulkner, whom he met in New Orleans. He inspired Faulkner to write his first novel and helped him get published.
It's the birthday of English man of letters J. B. (John Boynton) Priestley, (books by this author) born in Bradford, England (1894). He wrote more than 100 books of fiction, essays, and drama. But he never wrote about World War I. He had served in the war, and it was the defining experience of his life. Most of his friends were killed, and he believed that England was never the same afterward. He thought that writing about the war would be disrespectful. His favorite of his own novels was Bright Day (1946), about his hometown before the war. He said, "I belong at heart to the pre-1914 North Country."
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Poem: "Student" by Ted Kooser from Delights & Shadows. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.
The green shell of his backpack makes him lean
into wave after wave of responsibility,
and he swings his stiff arms and cupped hands,
paddling ahead. He has extended his neck
to its full length, and his chin, hard as a beak,
breaks the cold surf. He's got his baseball cap on
backward as up he crawls, out of the froth
of a hangover and onto the sand of the future,
and lumbers, heavy with hope, into the library.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1812 that Napoleon's army invaded the city of Moscow. Napoleon had hoped to conquer all of Europe, and he had almost succeeded. He had invaded Russia in June of 1812, but the Russian forces kept retreating, leading his army farther and farther into the country.
The Russians practiced a scorched-earth policy of retreat, burning all the farmland so that the French army wouldn't have any food to draw on. The troops were exhausted and hungry by the time they reached Moscow on this day, in 1812. As they approached, they found the gates standing open and the streets deserted. Then they noticed that all over the city, small fires had started. The Russians had set fire to their own city. By that night, the fires were out of control.
Napoleon watched the burning of the city from inside the Kremlin. He finally fled when a fire broke out inside the Kremlin itself, and he barley escaped the city alive. He began his retreat across the snow-covered plains on October 19. It was one of the great disasters of military history. Thousands died of starvation and hypothermia. Of the nearly 500,000 men who had set out in June, fewer than 20,000 ragged, freezing, and starving men staggered back across the Russian frontier in December.
It was on this day in 1901 that the then Vice President Theodore Roosevelt (books by this author) learned he had become the 26th president of the United States, after the death by assassination of President William McKinley.
On September 6, 1901, less than a year into Roosevelt's role as vice president, President McKinley was visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, when an anarchist walked up to him and shot him in the stomach.
Roosevelt rushed to the president's side, but by the time he got there McKinley seemed to be doing fine. He was talking normally and even making jokes, and everyone assumed that he would soon be back on his feet.
Roosevelt decided that he wasn't needed, so he went ahead with his vacation plans for that summer: a camping trip in the Adirondacks. He set out to climb Mount Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York. He had reached the peak and was eating lunch when a telegram delivery man stumbled up the mountain to deliver the news that McKinley's condition had worsened over night. A second telegram arrived late that night saying that Roosevelt should get to Buffalo as soon as possible. His wife begged him to wait until morning, since the roads were still wet and muddy from the rain, but Roosevelt didn't want to wait.
He and a young man hitched some horses to a primitive wagon called a "buckboard" and set off down the mountain just after midnight on this day in 1901. The ride down the mountain took more than five hours. When Roosevelt reached the train station, just after dawn, his secretary met him and gave him the latest telegram from Buffalo. It said, "The president died at two-fifteen this morning." At the age of 42, Theodore Roosevelt had become the youngest president in United States history.
It's the birthday of novelist Hamlin Garland, (books by this author) born in West Salem, Wisconsin (1860). His parents were pioneers who had moved west to stake out some land for themselves. The family went through droughts and floods and plagues of locusts, and had to move around more than once. Garland thought he would support himself as a farmer in South Dakota, but after three of the harshest winters of his life, he decided to give up the farm and move east.
He wound up in Boston where he began to write for the newspapers, and eventually decided that he wanted to write fiction about the life of pioneers that he had left behind. At that time, almost no one had written authentically about pioneer life. People in the East believed that farmers lived in the beautiful countryside and that their lives were simple and noble. Hamlin Garland said, "There is no gilding of setting sun or glamour of poetry to light up the ferocious and endless toil of the farmer's [life]."
In 1891 he published his first collection of stories, Main Traveled Roads, and within a few years he was famous. He went on to become one of the most respected novelists of his generation, best known for his autobiographical trilogy, A Son of the Middle Border (1917), A Daughter of the Middle Border (1921), and Back-Trailers from the Middle Border (1928).
It's the birthday of essayist Barbara Harrison, (books by this author) born Barbara Grizzuti in Brooklyn, New York (1934). She grew up with an abusive father, but when she was nine years old, she and her mother became Jehovah's Witnesses, and she spent the rest of her childhood evangelizing. More than 20 years later, she came out with Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses.
It's the birthday of philosopher and educator Allan Bloom, (books by this author) born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1930). He's best known as the author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), about what he believed was the decline of higher education in the United States.
Poem: "Maine Landscape" by Joyce Greenberg Lott from Dear Mrs. Dalloway. © Finishing Line Press. Reprinted with permission
A porch rail peels outside the window
where my husband sits painting a watercolor.
He's taken out our table and covered it
with his orange and yellow beach towel,
so I won't see paint when we eat together.
Two butterflies hover over the larkspur
he is putting into the foreground of his picture.
I watch them suck, each its own blossom,
and then dance in the air together.
"Look they're mating," I say out the window.
"How do you know?" he answers.
A single pine, with awkward limbs, stares back at me.
I look past its loneliness to yellow grass
(Hopper grass, my husband says) and then
to the sea. I'd swim to that island,
the one just beyond the sailboat, if I could.
But the wonder of this moment is
I don't want to do anything
or to have anyone do anything for me
paint a porch rail, catch a butterfly, cut grass.
I just want to sit by the window and watch
the shadows my husband's arms make
on the orange and yellow towel
or look up at the cloud that floats like a white roof
or a soft steeple over the island,
beyond the sailboat.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of François VI, duke de La Rochefoucauld, (books by this author) born in Paris (1613), an author whose entire literary reputation is based on a single slim book that he published in 1665: Maxims. It's about 10,000 words long, and it consists of a series of individual, brief, witty statements about human nature.
La Rochefoucauld's maxims include, "Everybody complains of his memory, but nobody of his judgement," and "We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others."
It's the birthday of humorist Robert Benchley, (books by this author) born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1889). Benchley tried to work as a journalist, but he had a terrible time because he hated intruding on people's privacy. So he got a job at Vanity Fair in 1919, and it was there that he met Dorothy Parker, who became his best friend. Benchley went on to become the drama critic for Life magazine and The New Yorker.
Robert Benchley said, "It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous."
It's the birthday of the mystery novelist and playwright Agatha Christie, (books by this author) born in Devon, England (1890). She never went to school or university, but her mother encouraged her to write from an early age. She wrote her first story one day when she was home sick with a cold. She kept writing for most of her adolescence, but she said, "[Back then I wrote] stories of unrelieved gloom, where most of the characters died."
During World War I, she was working as a Red Cross nurse, and she started reading detective novels because, she said, "I found they were excellent to take one's mind off one's worries." She grew frustrated with how easy it was to guess the murderer in most mysteries, and she decided to try to write her own. That book was The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) about a series of murders at a Red Cross hospital.
Christie's first few books were moderately successful, and then her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd came out in 1926. That same year, Christie fled her own home after a fight with her husband, and she went missing for 10 days. There was a nationwide search, and the press covered the disappearance as though it were a mystery novel come to life, inventing scenarios and speculating on the possible murder suspects, until finally Christie turned up in a hotel, suffering from amnesia. During the period of her disappearance, the reprints of her earlier books sold out of stock and two newspapers began serializing her stories. She became a household name and a best-selling author for the rest of her life.
Christie averaged about two novels a year for most of her writing life. Her murderers were always members of the upper class, people who dressed well, spoke well, and had great manners, but who just happened to also be killers.
Her most famous character was the eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. He appeared in more than 30 books, but when she got tired of him she created a busybody named Miss Marple to solve her crimes.
Poem: "Mrs. George Reece" by Edgar Lee Masters from Spoon River Anthology. © Dover Publications, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
Mrs. George Reece
To this generation I would say:
Memorize some bit of verse of truth or beauty.
It may serve a turn in your life.
My husband had nothing to do
With the fall of the bankhe was only cashier.
The wreck was due to the president, Thomas Rhodes,
And his vain, unscrupulous son.
Yet my husband was sent to prison,
And I was left with the children,
To feed and clothe and school them.
And I did it, and sent them forth
Into the world all clean and strong,
And all through the wisdom of Pope, the poet:
"Act well your part, there all the honor lies."
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Henry V, the king of England immortalized by Shakespeare, born on this day in Monmouth, Wales (1387). At that time, the nobility in England still had strong ties to France, and in fact Henry V was the first king of England to grow up speaking and writing fluently in English.
King Henry V believed that parts of France, including Normandy and Touraine belonged to England, and he was prepared to go to war to claim them.
He met the French at the Battle of Agincourt. There were about 30,000 French soldiers compared Henry's army of fewer than 10,000. It appeared as though Henry had arrogantly led his men to slaughter. But the French chose a tiny, muddy battlefield, which made it difficult for them to maneuver. Henry used his archers and their superior long bows to force the heavily armored French soldiers into a crowded mass, and then his more lightly armored soldiers attacked, hacking down thousands of the almost helpless French.
The battle of Agincourt became a huge patriotic victory, pulling the citizens of England together, even though the campaign in France eventually drove Henry V to an early grave. He died of dysentery just seven years after that battle, and the lands he'd captured in France were quickly lost.
Shakespeare's play about Henry V captured what historians believe was one of the more egregious war crimes in medieval history. At the time, it was almost unheard of for knights to kill prisoners of war. But at the end of the battle of Agincourt, Henry V ordered his men to kill all the French prisoners of war as a way of intimidating any remaining French soldiers in the area. In the play, Henry's soldiers hesitate, and the order has to be repeated three times, until finally the soldiers comply and kill the unarmed Frenchmen. Though Henry V is one of the most popular of Shakespeare's histories, that scene is rarely included in productions of the play. It wasn't included in either of the two film versions in 1944 or 1989.
It was on this day in 1620 that the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, bound for the New World. The passengers called themselves Separatists or Saints, but today we call them Pilgrims. They had come to believe that the only way to practice their religion freely would be to separate themselves from the Church of England. They moved at first to a village near Amsterdam, where the government was more religiously tolerant, but eventually decided to travel to the New World to start a society from scratch.
They originally commissioned two boats for the journey: the Speedwell and the Mayflower. But when they set out, the Speedwell began to leak. They returned to England and tried to repair the Speedwell, but it was not fit for travel. So on this day in 1620, they set sail in the Mayflower, leaving the Speedwell behind.
Having wasted time trying to repair the Speedwell, they had to start their journey later in the summer, when the winds were less favorable. Because of strong crosscurrents, the Mayflower averaged only two miles an hour.
There are no records left as to the size and shape of the Mayflower, but historians believe it was about 90 feet long. In addition to the 102 passengers, it carried food for the journey as well as stores for the winter, livestock, and tools needed to start the new colony. The passengers of the Mayflower had to make themselves comfortable in the large open cargo area called the orlop. One nice thing about the Mayflower was that it smelled sweet, because it had previously been used to transport wine.
Some of the richer families brought partitions for their areas on the boat, but most passengers on the Mayflower had no privacy. There were no sanitary facilities, and there was little fresh water for washing. Many of the passengers became seasick. They ate cold foodcheese and fish or salted beef.
The Mayflower's destination was supposed to be near the mouth of the Hudson River, but it had sailed off course and landed near Cape Cod. The Pilgrims spent the next month searching for a place to settle. On December 21, just over three months after they left England, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, their new home.
Only half the colonists and crew survived that first winter. But today an estimated 35 million people are direct descendants of those Mayflower Pilgrims.
Poem: "The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist" by Mary Oliver from Thirst. © Beacon Press. Reprinted with permission.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of one of the greatest figures of country music, Hank Williams Sr., born Hiram King Williams in Mount Olive West, Alabama (1923).
It's the birthday of the poet William Carlos Williams, (books by this author) born in Rutherford, New Jersey (1883). Williams fell in love with the poetry of Walt Whitman in high school, and began keeping a series of notebooks full of his own Whitman-esque poems. He wanted to devote his life to writing after graduation, but his parents persuaded him to study medicine. So he became a doctor in his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey. He set up a patients' room off the kitchen of his house at number 9 Ridge Road, and began to treat the poor immigrants who had begun moving into the neighborhood: Italians and Poles and Germans.
He came to believe that the greatest poetry was produced by devotion to the poet's local culture. He paid close attention to the language used by gas station attendants and nurses and shopkeepers, and he began to incorporate that more simple, spoken language into his poetry. And he wrote about ordinary things: plums, wheelbarrows, hospitals, and the New Jersey landscape, with its polluted rivers and suburban lawns.
It's the birthday of the short-story writer who wrote under the name Frank O'Connor, (books by this author) born Michael O'Donovan in Cork, Ireland (1903). His family was too poor to get him a higher education, so he educated himself at libraries, teaching himself to read French, German, and Russian. He joined the Irish Republican Army while he was still a teenager and fought in the Civil War. He was arrested and imprisoned after living for a year as a homeless fugitive. When he got out of prison, he got a job at a library, and began writing stories about his experiences during the war.
O'Connor went on to publish many more books of fiction, but most of them were banned by the Irish government in his lifetime. He eventually moved to the United States, where he published many of his short stories in The New Yorker magazine.
But even though O'Connor had a larger readership in the United States than he did in his home country, he never wrote about anything other than Ireland. He said, "I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people merely because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said."
It's the birthday of Ken Kesey, (books by this author) born in La Junta, Colorado (1935). He moved to Oregon as a kid, where his father became a successful dairy farmer. Kesey did well in school. He was a champion wrestler and voted most likely to succeed by his high school graduating class. He studied communications in college and married his high school sweetheart and considered a career as a Hollywood actor before accepting a fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University. Among his classmates were the poet Wendell Berry and the novelist Larry McMurtry.
He wasn't much of a bohemian himself until a psychology student told him about a CIA-funded experiment being conducted at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Menlo Park. For $75 a day, they would inject you with drugs that were supposed to simulate insanity and then they would ask you to describe your experience. Kesey thought that sounded interesting, so he signed up, and became one of the first Americans to be exposed to a new drug called LSD.
The experience changed his life. He became deeply interested in the nature of sanity and insanity, and took a job as the night attendant on the psychiatric ward of a hospital. That experience helped inspire his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962).
On this day in 1862, 23,000 men from the Union and Confederate armies were killed or wounded at the Battle of Antietam, in the fields near Sharpsburg, Maryland. It's known as the "bloodiest day in American History."