MONDAY, 30 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "The Gardeners" by Jack Ridl, from Broken Symmetry. © Wayne State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Gardeners

In the spring she
drops the seeds, he
covers them. He
digs up the weeds.
She cuts the flowers.
She takes the blooms
and puts them in
every room. They soar
red from the tables, sprout
yellow from the shelves,
hang purple from
the ceiling, blue
from the edges of
lampshades. Clusters
of flowers sit in
tiny pots on every
windowsill, in open
cupboards, behind
the sink. He stands
beside her as she tosses
all the wilted leaves
into a rusty bucket.
This house is heaven's
door, the air gathering
the bashful smells of
blossoms, roots, cut
stems, wet dirt, new
and rotting leaves.

Literary and Historical Notes:

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

The inauguration was held in New York City. Though New York had been the unofficial capital of the United States for some time, many people thought it was the wrong city for the new government, because it was still a very pro-British City. Upper-class New Yorkers imitated the British in their clothing, in their interior decorating, and in their horse-drawn carriages. Many New Yorkers even celebrated the king's birthday.

But if some American patriots were reluctant for Washington to be inaugurated 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. For the last part of his journey, 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.

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 later said that he hoped it would soon be unfashionable for an American gentleman to appear in any other dress than one of American manufacture. He took the oath, and then Chancellor Robert Livingston shouted, "Long live George Washington, President of the United States!"

It was on this day in 1939 that the New York World's Fair opened to the public. The theme of the fair was The World of Tomorrow. Planners built the fairground on Flushing Meadows, which had been a garbage dump.

It was at that fair that many Americans first saw the products they would enjoy after World War II, including television, long-distance phone service, air conditioners, refrigerators, FM radio, fluorescent lighting, and washing machines. There were prototypes of the early helicopter, called an autogiro, which was basically a plane with a propeller on top. There were dioramas showing model utopian cities of the future, where everyone would soon have fax machines and videophones. The most popular exhibit was General Motors' Futurama, which was a scale model of an American city in 1960, with futuristic homes, cars shaped like flying saucers, and an advanced superhighway system with a speed limit of a hundred miles per hour. The Futurama exhibit popularized the term "aerodynamic." Visitors to the exhibit were given a small blue-and-white pin that said, "I Have Seen the Future."

It's the birthday of singer and songwriter Willie Nelson, born in the small farming community of Abbott, Texas (1933). As a young man, he wrote songs and performed at honky-tonks with names like the County Dump and the Bloody Bucket. Then, in 1959, he wrote "Night Life," a song that was eventually recorded by more than 70 artists and sold over 30 million copies. He only made $150 from the song, because he sold the copyright. But he used that money to buy a second-hand Buick, and he drove in that Buick to Nashville, hoping to become a country music star.

He spent the next decade writing songs for other country singers, but after getting frustrated by Nashville, he 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 traditional country music revival.

It's the birthday of John Crowe Ransom, born in Pulaski, Tennessee (1888). He was a poet and literary critic, and one of the most influential American literature professors of the 20th century. 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.

It was on this day in 1900 that the legendary train engineer Casey Jones died in a train wreck. He was driving the Cannon Ball express from Memphis, Tennessee, to Canton, Mississippi, trying to make up time because the train was overdue, when his fireman warned him that there was another train up ahead. He ordered his fireman to jump, but he stayed on the train, one hand on the brake and the other on the whistle. Though the Cannon Ball crashed and Jones was killed, the passengers were saved because of his efforts to slow the train down.

TUESDAY, 1 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Count your fingers" by C.D. Wright from One Big Self: An Investigation. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Count your fingers

Count your fingers

Count your toes

Count your nose holes

Count your blessings

Count your stars (lucky or not)

Count your loose change

Count the cars at the crossing

Count the miles to the state line

Count the ticks you pulled off the dog

Count your calluses

Count your shells

Count the points on the antlers

Count the newjack's keys

Count your cards; cut them again

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is May Day, a day on which you should wash your face with morning dew to keep yourself looking young and beautiful. You should also gather wildflowers and green branches, make some floral garlands, and set up a Maypole to dance around.

Today is the anniversary of the day in 1931 when the Empire State Building opened to the public on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in New York City. It was built remarkably quickly, in just over a year. At 102 stories, it was the tallest building in the world until 1974.

It was on this day in 1786 that Mozart's first great opera, The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in Vienna.

It's the birthday of Joseph Heller, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1923). He's best known for his novel Catch-22 (1961), about a World War II bomber pilot, Yossarian, who believes that the world is out to get him killed. The entire German army wants to shoot him down, and the men that are supposedly his countrymen keep sending him out on bombing missions, where he is likely to get shot down by those Germans. He spends all his time trying to get himself declared insane so he can stop flying bombing missions, but there is a regulation called Catch-22, which says that if you want out of combat duty you can't be crazy.

Heller wrote, "[A pilot] would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Bobbie Ann Mason, (books by this author) born in Mayfield, Kentucky (1940). She grew up in rural Kentucky, the daughter of dairy farmers. When she got to high school, she realized just how different she was from the city kids. She became the first member of her family to go to college, and she eventually got a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut. She wrote her dissertation about the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. By the time she was finished, she said, "I was so sick of reading about the alienated hero of superior sensibility that I thought I would write about just the opposite."

She began to write short stories about people in her home state of Kentucky. Her first collection, Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), got great reviews and made her one of the most prominent writers of the so-called New South. Her collection of short stories Nancy Culpepper will come out this August (2007).

It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern, (books by this author) born in Alvarado, Texas (1924). He co-wrote the screenplays for the films Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Easy Rider (1969), but he started out as a novelist. His first novel was Candy (1958), an erotic retelling of Voltaire's Candide.

Terry Southern said, "The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish. Not shock—shock is a worn-out word—but astonish."

It was on this day in 1941 that Orson Welles's movie Citizen Kane premiered at the RKO Palace in New York. It was his first feature-length film. At that point, Welles was famous for his work in theater and radio. But he'd gotten an unprecedented contract with RKO studios that gave him complete control over the creative process, even though he was just 24 years old.

When he arrived in Hollywood, he knew almost nothing about filmmaking. He hadn't even seen very many movies. So he spent most of his first year there just watching one movie after another, to get a feel for what was possible. He watched John Ford's film Stagecoach more than 40 times.

A screenwriter named Herman Mankiewicz gave Welles the idea for the movie, about the rise of a newspaperman named Charles Foster Kane. Welles decided to structure the movie as a series of five flashbacks, each from a different character's point of view, and each adding a little more information to the story. The movie was wildly innovative in part because Welles didn't know how to make movies, so he didn't know what the rules were. He used techniques he'd learned from watching German silent films, using unusual camera angles and exaggerated shadows, close-ups and lens distortions.

Unfortunately, for Welles, rumor got out before the movie that it was based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the owner of the largest chain of newspapers in the country. Hearst attempted to buy the film from RKO Studios so that he could destroy it. When that failed, he announced that none of his newspapers would run advertisements for Citizen Kane, and he persuaded many of the major movie theaters around the country not to show the movie. When it finally premiered on this day in 1941, the movie got several good reviews, but it flopped at the box office largely because few people were able to go see it.

But by 1962, in a poll of movie critics around the country, Citizen Kane was voted the best film of all time. Many people still consider it among the greatest and most influential films ever made, largely because it expanded the language of movies and the possibilities for how a movie could be made.

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Poem: "I Wish I Were in Love Again" by Lorenz Hart. © Chappell Music Ltd. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I Wish I Were in Love Again

The sleepless nights,
The daily fights,
The quick toboggan when you reach the heights—
I miss the kisses and I miss the bites.
I wish I were in love again!
The broken dates,
The endless waits,
The lovely loving and the hateful hates,
The conversation with the flying plates—
I wish I were in love again!
No more pain,
No more strain,
Now I'm sane, but ...
I would rather be gaga!
The pulled-out fur of cat and cur,
The fine mismating of a him and her—
I've learned my lesson, but I
Wish I were in love again.
The furtive sigh,
The blackened eye,
The words 'I'll love you till the day I die',
The self-deception that believes the lie—
I wish I were in love again.
When love congeals
It soon reveals
The faint aroma of performing seals,
The double-crossing of a pair of heels.
I wish I were in love again!
No more care.
No despair.
I'm all there now,
But I'd rather be punch-drunk!
Believe me, sir,
I much prefer
The classic battle of a him and her.
I don't like quiet and I
Wish I were in love again!

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1611 that the first edition of the King James Bible was published in England. It is one of the greatest and most influential works in the English language, even though it was translated by a committee.

It was produced during a particularly chaotic period for England. An epidemic of the black plague had struck London so severely that the year before work began on the King James Bible, 30,000 Londoners had died of the disease. At the same time, Puritans in the country were beginning to agitate against the monarchy as a form of government. And a group of underground Catholics were plotting to assassinate the king.

King James I thought that a new translation of the Bible might help hold the country together. There had been several English translations of the Bible already, but King James wanted a Bible that would become the definitive version. Previous versions had been translated from Latin. King James wanted his Bible to be more accurate to the original Hebrew and Greek. King James also decided that his Bible should have as few explanatory notes as possible, so that it would appeal to the widest audience.

James assembled a committee of 54 of the best linguists in the country. They believed that the most important quality of the translation would be that it sound right, since it would be read aloud in churches. So when the committee would gather, each man read his verses aloud, to be judged and revised by the other men.

The translators also deliberately used old-fashioned language. At the time they were working on the Bible, words like "thou" and "sayeth" had already gone out of fashion. Some scholars believe that the translators wanted to give the sense that the language in the Bible came from long ago and far away.

The first edition came out on this day in 1611, but for decades, most people preferred the Puritan Geneva Bible, because of its plainer language. It was only after England went through a civil war that the King James Bible came into fashion. It went on to influence the way writers have used the English language for hundreds of years.

It was on this day in 1972 that an era of American law enforcement came to an end when J. Edgar Hoover died in Washington D.C. He had been serving as the head of the FBI since 1924, before it was even called the FBI, and he served in that position right up until the day he died. There have been many rumors and conspiracy theories about Hoover since his death, but few have been proven, in part because, after Hoover died, his secretary followed his order that all his personal papers should be burned.

It's the birthday of lyricist Lorenz Hart, born in New York City (1895). He's famous for writing the lyrics to songs like "Blue Moon" (1934), "My Funny Valentine" (1937), and "The Lady Is a Tramp" (1937). As a young man in his 20s, he was drifting around, writing verse in his spare time, when someone introduced him to Richard Rodgers, a teenage composer who wanted to be a lyricist. They worked on a series of amateur musical comedies together, but their future didn't seem promising. Rodgers was just about to give up on music and go into the underwear business when their show The Garrick Gaieties (1925) became a huge success. They went on to write several successful musicals together, including Connecticut Yankee (1927), The Boys From Syracuse (1938), and Pal Joey (1940).

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Poem: "Old South School" by Rosie King, from Sweetwater, Saltwater: Poems by Rosie King. © Hummingbird Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Old South School

The sidewalk my feet once knew in every weather
still heads straight
to the corner of Martin's drugstore,
still turns north on Elm, where
the white-belted boys on safety patrol
held their arms out for us, past the red and white pole
at Mickey's, king of crewcuts,
and stops at the little flight of steps,
plinth of chipped concrete by the kindergarten door—
locked. It's summer, and all the windows
now stuccoed muddy brown,
so even when the kids are at their desks,
they can't see out.

I want my yellow slicker,
my locker by the art room stairs
where once in a morning of thunder,
from the stairwell's high window
dark clouds blew away
and just in time
for walking home
the sun poured down.

A crow now,
flapping and cawing high above the west steps,
and there, on top of the entrance columns, stone claws
clinging to the eaves—tiny gargoyles grinning.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of playwright and screenwriter William Inge, born in Independence, Kansas (1913). He wrote Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957).

It's the birthday of songwriter and playwright Betty Comden, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1915). She and Adolph Green had one of the longest-running collaborations in the history of Broadway. Together they wrote the lyrics for On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), Subways are for Sleeping (1961), Hallelujah, Baby (1967), and the movie Singin' in the Rain (1952).

It's the birthday of the poet, essayist, and novelist May Sarton, (books by this author) born in Wondelgem, Belgium (1912). Her family was forced to flee the country during World War I, so she grew up in Massachusetts and eventually settled in New York City. After an attempt at becoming an actor, she began writing books of poetry, as well as many novels, including Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965). Then, in the last 15 years of her life, she published a series of journals about aging, including At Seventy (1984) and After the Stroke (1988). She wrote about her daily habits, gardening, washing the dishes, taking care of her pets, looking at the ocean. She referred to her journals as "the sacramentalization of ordinary life."

It's the birthday of Niccolò Machiavelli, (books by this author) born in Florence, Italy (1469). He grew up at an extremely unstable period of Italian history. Italy wasn't even a country at the time, but just a collection of city-states that were constantly at war with each other. By the time he was 30, Machiavelli became the secretary to Florence's governing council, which meant he was the most influential bureaucrat in the city.

But at the height of Machiavelli's career, the influential Medici family took power in Florence, overthrowing the elected city council and purging the government of enemies, including Machiavelli. He lost his government position, and then the authorities arrested him and threw him in a dungeon, where he was tortured for 22 days.

Machiavelli was eventually released from prison and sentenced to house arrest. He decided that the only way to get his life back was to offer some kind of gift to the Medici family, and the thing he had to give was his knowledge of politics. So he holed up in his tiny villa just outside of Florence and set out to write a handbook, incorporating everything he knew about being an effective ruler in a dangerous and volatile world. It took him just a few months to complete his book in 1513, and that was The Prince, the book for which he is remembered today.

Machiavelli's main point in The Prince is that an effective ruler should use whatever means possible to keep his country secure and peaceful. He wrote, "Men must be either pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries, but not for grievous ones. So any injury a prince does a man should be of a kind where there is no fear of revenge."

Despite Machiavelli's hopes, The Prince didn't win over the Medicis. A few years later, a new republic was established in Italy, but Machiavelli's name had already become so associated with evil and violence that he wasn't able to get another government job for the rest of his life. Today, the word "Machiavellian" has come to mean "marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith."

Niccolò Machiavelli said, "It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both."

FRIDAY, 4 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Live at the Village Vanguard" by Sebastian Matthews from, We Generous: Poems. © Red Hen Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Live at the Village Vanguard

Near the end of Bill Evans' "Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)"
played live at the Village Vanguard and added as an extra track
on Waltz for Debby (a session made famous by the death
of the trio's young bassist in a car crash) a woman laughs.
There's been background babble bubbling up the whole set.
You get used to the voices percolating at the songs' fringes,
the clink of glasses and tips of silver on hard plates. Listen
to the recording enough and you almost accept the aural clutter
as another percussive trick the drummer pulls out, like brushes
on a snare. But this woman's voice stands out for its carefree
audacity, how it broadcasts the lovely ascending stair of her happiness.
Evans has just made one of his elegant, casual flights up an octave
and rests on its landing, notes spilling from his left hand
like sunlight, before coming back down into the tune's lush
living-room of a conclusion. The laugh begins softly, subsides,
then lifts up to step over the bass line: five short bursts of pleasure
pushed out of what can only be a long lovely tan throat. Maybe
Evans smiles to himself when he hears it, leaving a little space
between the notes he's cobbled to close the song; maybe
the man she's with leans in, first to still her from the laugh
he's just coaxed from her, then to caress the cascade of her hair
that hangs, lace curtain, in the last vestiges of spotlight stippling the table.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1626 that Dutch explorer Peter Minuit landed on what is now Manhattan Island. Two days later he bought the island from the Algonquin Indians for the equivalent of $24. The Dutch were drawn to Manhattan because of its extraordinary fertility and variety of wildlife. There were tall oaks, chestnuts, walnuts, maples, cedars, and pines, right up to the edge of the water. A vast array of flowers, including many roses, grew wild on the island of Manhattan, and the fragrance of flowers drifted far out to sea. Sailors coming into harbor said it was one of the sweetest-smelling shores they'd ever approached. There were huge 21-inch oysters and six-foot lobsters in the bay, and so many fish in the streams that they could be caught by hand.

Peter Minuit arrived, on this day, May 4, 1626, to take over as the director of New Amsterdam. There was already a small village in place, and more land was being cleared. On the west side of the island there was a cemetery, a small farm, an orchard, and two wealthy estates. Most of the houses were built along the East River, since its shore was more protected from winds than the shore of the Hudson. The main street was built over an old Indian path running from the southern tip of the island north to what is now City Hall Park. First it was called Heere Straat, which meant Gentlemen's Street, but it eventually came to be known as Breede Wegh—which became the name we know it by today, Broadway.

It's the birthday of the man who became known as "Darwin's bulldog," Thomas Henry Huxley, (books by this author) born in Ealing, England (1825). Huxley was a doctor and a scientist in 1856, when he went to visit his friend Charles Darwin, and Darwin explained to Huxley his theory of evolution. Once Huxley came to understand Darwin's theory, he became Darwin's spokesperson. Darwin was by nature a reclusive person, a great writer but not a great public speaker. But Huxley enjoyed public debates.

One of his first public debates about evolution came in 1860, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science. During that debate, the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, famously asked Huxley whether Huxley was related to apes through his grandmother's or his grandfather's side of the family. There are different accounts of how Huxley replied, but he said something like, "I'd rather have an ape for an ancestor than a man who won't face the truth."

Huxley was the first person to hypothesize that birds were descended from dinosaurs, a theory that has only recently been accepted by most paleontologists. He also coined the word "agnostic," to describe his own religious idea that the only things worth believing in were things that could be directly observed in the world.

It's the birthday of the man credited with inventing the piano, Bartolomeo Cristofori, born in Padua, Italy (1655). He called his invention "the harpsichord that plays soft and loud." He had replaced the string-plucking mechanism of the harpsichord with hammers, which allowed the player to adjust its volume by applying different degrees of force to the keys. As the instrument grew more popular, the name was shortened to "soft-loud" and finally to "soft." In Italian, the word for "soft" is "piano."

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Poem: "Instrument of Choice" by Robert Phillips, from Spinach Days. © The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Instrument of Choice

She was a girl
no one ever chose
for teams or clubs,
dances or dates,

so she chose the instrument
no one else wanted:
the tuba. Big as herself,
heavy as her heart,

its golden tubes
and coils encircled her
like a lover's embrace.
Its body pressed on hers.

Into its mouthpiece she blew
life, its deep-throated
oompahs, oompahs sounding,
almost, like mating cries.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Kaye Gibbons, (books by this author) born in the small rural community of Bend of the River in Nash County, North Carolina (1960). She grew up in a four-room farmhouse, her father barely supporting the family as a tobacco farmer. Her mother suffered from depression and committed suicide when Gibbons was 10 years old. Her father drank himself to death a year later. Gibbons went to live with a series of aunts until her older brother took her in. She later said, "[It was] the sort of childhood that encourages someone to either become a writer or to rob convenience stores."

She went on to write a novel based loosely on her own childhood, told in the voice of a young Southern girl, and that was Ellen Foster, which came out in 1987 and got great reviews. It begins, "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy. ... But I did not kill my daddy. He drank his own self to death the year after the County moved me out."

Gibbons has gone on to write many more novels, and her most recent is a sequel to that first book about Ellen Foster. It's called The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster (2005).

Kaye Gibbons said, "One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that it can be done at home."

It's the birthday of political journalist Richard Rovere, born in Jersey City, New Jersey (1915). In 1944, he was hired by The New Yorker, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Each month, he wrote the column called "Letter from Washington" from his home in Rhinebeck, New York.

It's the birthday of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, (books by this author) born in Copenhagen, Denmark (1813). His father was a prosperous merchant and when he died, Kierkegaard inherited enough money to be financially independent for the rest of his life. Around the same time that his father died, Kierkegaard fell in love with a girl named Regine and became engaged. But for some mysterious reason, Kierkegaard called off the wedding. In a letter to Regine, he wrote, "Above all, forget him who writes this, forgive a man who, though he may be capable of something, is not capable of making a girl happy." He later wrote in his diary, "I was a thousand years too old for her." The girl eventually married another man, but Kierkegaard never forgot her. He dedicated many of his books to her father, and he made her the sole beneficiary of his estate. He later said that it was loss of Regine that turned him into a writer.

It's the birthday of Karl Marx, (books by this author) born in Trier, Prussia (1818). His main theory was that the economic system was a perpetual conflict between those who controlled the capital and those who provided the labor. He believed that the conflict would never be resolved peacefully, because capitalism was too volatile.

Marx wrote about his ideas in the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, but after revolution broke out in France, Italy, and Austria, Marx was forced to flee Belgium where he was living. He moved to London, where he worked on his last book, Das Kapital (1867). He slowly sank into poverty, having to avoid creditors, pawn his furniture, and fight off eviction. When one of his children died, Marx was so poor that his wife had to borrow money from a neighbor to buy a coffin. When he died in 1883, only 11 people came to his funeral.

SUNDAY, 6 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "A Wedding Poem" by Thomas R. Smith, from Waking before Dawn. © Red Dragonfly Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

A Wedding Poem

Bright faces surround the woman in white,
the man in black, the sweetness of their attention
to each other a shine rising toward the high ceiling.
The men watch the groom, and the women
the bride, as they speak their candle-lit vows,
as if there were something in it for us personally.

Worn by the distances we the already-married
have traveled down the road on which these two
are setting out, we leave the dust of the journey
outside the door of this house where tonight no word
is casual, no posture undignified, and each
becomes again handsome in them, beautiful in them.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and critic Randall Jarrell, (books by this author) born in Nashville, Tennessee (1914). He wrote many collections of poetry in his life time, but he was also considered one of the greatest literary critics of his generation. In his critical essays, collected and published as Poetry and the Age (1953), he revitalized the reputations of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams. He was also one of the first critics to notice the work of Elizabeth Bishop. In a review of her first book of poems, Jarrell wrote, "[Bishop understands that] morality, for the individual, is usually a small, personal, statistical, but heartbreaking or heartwarming affair of omissions and commissions, the greatest of which will seem infinitesimal, ludicrously beneath notice, to those who govern, rationalize, and deplore."

It was on this day in 1937 that the Hindenburg, the largest aircraft ever to take flight, caught fire as it was landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 35 people. The disaster effectively ended the growing business of passenger flight in hydrogen-filled dirigibles. It was only in the 1990s that a retired NASA engineer named Addison Bain put forward a theory that the explosion of the Hindenburg wasn't caused by hydrogen at all, but by a chemical used to waterproof the fabric of the gas cells. In fact, that chemical was highly flammable and would go on to become one of the ingredients of rocket fuel. Addison Bain said, "I guess the moral of the story is, don't paint your airship with rocket fuel."

It's the birthday of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, (books by this author) born in the small town of Freiberg in what was then the Austrian Empire (1856). He started out a medical doctor and scientist in Vienna, studying the anatomy of eels. He also made breakthroughs in the use of anesthetic for surgery. But one of his superiors in the medical community told him that he would never go far in his career because he was Jewish.

So Freud decided to go into the less-crowded field of psychology, where he thought he might be able to break new ground. He was particularly interested in a mental illness called hysteria, which caused patients to suffer from tics, tremors, convulsions, paralysis, and hallucinations. It was believed that most hysterics were women, and they were given a variety of treatments: everything from isolation, to electrocution, to surgical removal of the uterus.

Freud learned that some doctors were using hypnosis to treat hysteria, and he went to France to see the use of hypnosis firsthand. Seeing that a patient could be talked out of his or her symptoms gave Freud the idea that the symptoms were a product of the mind and not the body. He learned the method of hypnosis himself and began to treat patients, but he had little success. Then one of Freud's colleagues told him about a patient named Anna O., whose hysterical symptoms had improved when she told stories about her life. The woman herself named this process of storytelling "the talking cure."

Freud knew it would be difficult for a self-respecting woman to talk to her doctor about her darkest fears and desires, and the most traumatic things that had ever happened to her. So he took a couch that had belonged to his wife, covered it with a Persian rug, and asked his patients to lie down on it. Instead of having them look at him, he asked them to stare at an empty wall, and he sat behind them as they talked, occasionally asking a question. He called the process free association.

Over the next few years, he developed the idea that his patients were not conscious of all their desires and fears, that many of their own thoughts were hidden from them in their unconscious mind. He believed that their unconscious mind would reveal itself in various ways, through slips of the tongue, jokes, and especially dreams. What made his ideas so revolutionary and controversial was that he didn't just apply them to mentally ill patients, but to all human beings, even himself. When he came out with The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, it read like a partial autobiography, because many of the dreams in it were his own. He was suggesting that no one can easily understand his or her unconscious mind, not even the doctor who invented the concept.

Freud's ideas are no longer really a part of modern psychology. Most psychologists don't even consider psychoanalysis a science. But Freud had a tremendous impact on literature. It was after Freud's work that novelists began to write fiction that took place entirely inside the minds of their characters'. His work also gave writers permission to start describing more frankly their characters' sexual desires.



  • “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
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