MONDAY, 4 JUNE, 2007
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Poem: "Patriarch at the Lake" by David Swanger, from Wayne's College of Beauty. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Patriarch at the Lake

The aunts, splendid, pale
and ample in their bathing suits,
unfurled tablecloths, challa, melons,
seltzer water in blue bottles, and
honeyed cakes and other cakes.

After the required hour everyone
but Grandpa waded, stirring silt
around our ankles, enjoying the mud.
Then, as if called by voices beyond
us, the old man rose, his belly taut,
trunks reaching his knees, his shins
white as fish, and walked without
watching the ground toward water.

We parted to let him pass, we receded
onto the beach; he prowed outward
and swam. He remembered, he stroked
and roiled and spumed his way away
then back to us, his shorebound spawn.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1919, the 19th amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress giving women the right to vote.

It's the anniversary of two crucial battles in World War II. In 1940, the British forces completed their evacuation from Dunkirk, and on this day in 1942, the Battle of Midway took place.

Winston Churchill, who'd become prime minister that spring, had sent British forces to Belgium to try to stop the advance of the Nazi invasion, but the British soldiers were unprepared for the superior German army. They were completely overwhelmed. They were bottled up in the little coastal town of Dunkirk. They had abandoned equipment on the way, leaving the road to Dunkirk littered with empty vehicles and piles of gear.

The Nazi tanks had been in close pursuit, but when the British troops reached the coast, Hitler gave a personal order to stop the invasion. The Nazi commander was infuriated. He knew that he could probably wipe out the British in a single battle, and that the war for western Europe could be finished in a few days. One of Hitler's associates at the time wrote in his diary, "The Fuhrer is terribly nervous. Frightened by his own success, he's afraid to take any chance and would rather pull the reins on us."

The British estimated they had about two days to evacuate, but when the British ships showed up to carry the troops across the channel, they found the harbor too shallow for most of the ships to reach the shore. Almost 500,000 men were stranded on the beach, and Nazi bombers began to attack from the air. The British government sent out a request for all persons with seaworthy vessels to help in the evacuation, and a great flotilla of fishing boats, lifeboats, paddle steamers and yachts came across the English Channel and saved the British army.

What really turned the tide, however, was Winston Churchill's decision to turn the whole event into a symbol of bravery and perseverance. When the soldiers arrived in Britain, they were given a hero's welcome, with parades and cheering crowds. One solider said, "We might have been the heroes of some great victory instead of a beaten army returning home, having lost most of its equipment."

The Battle of Midway took place in the Central Pacific Ocean—Midway Island—the last American outpost in the Pacific. The Japanese navy hoped to take control of it and use it to stage an invasion of Hawaii, but a squadron of American bombers who had wandered off course accidentally stumbled upon the Japanese fleet while most of planes were refueling. Fuel lines on the Japanese carriers caught fire, munitions exploded, and hundreds of Japanese sailors died in an instant. The battle went on for three more days, but the Japanese never fully recovered from that first attack, and never won another decisive naval battle for the rest of the war.

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Poem: "Miss Shelley, Miss Hattersley, Miss Guilford . . ." by Rosie King, from Sweetwater, Saltwater. © Hummingbird Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Miss Shelley, Miss Hattersley, Miss Guilford . . .

When I can't remember the name of my third grade teacher,
the only one through ninth grade
that won't spring to mind, I sit
wondering at the mystery of her.
Like a fan blowing cool air in summer, her face
bends down to me, strands of her hair—
it must have been long—or the rayony
swish of her skirt lightly brushing my arm
as my pen writes the letters very precisely, rounding them
in the new cursive, her voice a glissando
tinseled with laughter, her eyes crinkling—
the one who left to get married!—
up there behind her glasses,
the glow of her.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the British playwright David Hare (books by this author), born in Sussex, England (1947). He is the author of many plays, including Plenty, Racing Demon, and others. His writing career began when he had to write a play in four days because a playwright had failed to deliver a script to the Portable Theater, which Hare had co-founded.

David Hare was a prolific writer, author of two dozen plays, twelve feature films, three books and a one-man play called Via Dolorosa, in which he starred in New York. In the play, he said, "[In England,] people lead shallow lives because they don't believe in anything anymore. [In Israel,] in a single day I experience events and emotions that would keep a Swede going for a year."

It's the birthday of Richard Scarry (books by this author), born in Boston (1919). He's the author of more than 300 books for children, who said that what made him happiest as an author was getting letters from people telling him that their copies of his books were all worn out and held together with Scotch tape.

It's the birthday of one of the great men of letters of the twentieth century, Alfred Kazin (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1915). He grew up in the Brownsville section, the poor Jewish immigrant sector of Brooklyn. He said, "We were the children of the immigrants who had camped at the city's back door... a place that measured all success by our skill in getting away from it."

He loved books, and spent most of his time sitting on the fire escape of the tenement reading whatever he could get his hands on.

He was a senior in college in 1934 when he read a book review in the New York Times that made him so angry, he got off the subway, went to the Times office, and complained to the editor in person, who was impressed, and got Kazin a job writing freelance book reviews.

He studied literature at Columbia, and started writing a historical survey of American literature from 1880 up to the 1930s. The result was his book On Native Grounds, which covered American literature from Dreiser and Stephen Crane to Edith Wharton and William Faulkner. It became one of the most celebrated works of literary criticism of the decade.

Kazin is also remembered for his great memoir, A Walker in the City, a kind of sensory tour of his childhood in Brownsville. It begins, "Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away. From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue and smell the leak out of the men's room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness... As I walk those familiarly choked streets at dusk and see the old women sitting in front of the tenements, past and present become each other's faces; I am back where I began."

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Poem: "The Cat and the Moon" by W.B. Yeats. Public domain. (buy now)

The Cat and the Moon

The cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping cat, looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnaloushe runs in the grass
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet,
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the anniversary of the largest amphibious invasion in history D-Day, (1944). It's when the Allied armies launched the invasion of Normandy. Dwight D. Eisenhower had planned the invasion, and had been arguing for it ever since America got into the war after Pearl Harbor. Most British military commanders thought it was too risky. Winston Churchill was particularly nervous about the idea of invading France.

But Eisenhower finally won the argument, and the Allies built dozens or airfields in Great Britain, stockpiled millions of tons of weapons and supplies, built tent cities along the ports of the English Channel where tens of thousands of soldiers would live.

The German commanders knew an invasion was coming. They'd spent weeks fortifying their positions, but the Allies had deceived the Nazis into thinking the invasion would come in near the French-Belgian border. They had a number of battle ships across from that point in the channel, and the Nazis took the bait and concentrated a good deal of their defensive forces in the wrong place.

June 6, 1944, was a foggy morning. Sometime after dawn, the English Channel was full of ships—a huge armada—1,200 fighting ships, 10,000 planes, more than 150,000 troops, a little more than half of them American. The plan was to bomb the beach to create craters in the sand for foxholes, and then send the ground troops up the beach.

When the troops reached the shore, they saw that the bombers had missed all of their targets. There was no protection on the beach. The landing craft were hit by a barrage of bullets. In less than a half an hour, more than two-thirds of the first company to reach the shore was killed. At first, the American commanders thought that the invasion had failed, but the first troops made some progress, and the second wave came in and slowly took over the fortified positions above the beach. By nightfall, more than 150,000 Allied troops had landed in France.

The Germans had tank divisions that could have driven the Allies back into the sea, but they got conflicting orders from the high command and didn't start to attack until late in the afternoon, almost ten hours after the invasion had started. The German commander said at the time, "If we don't succeed in throwing the Allies into the sea, we will have lost the war." The German tanks got to within three miles of the shore and then were driven back by Allied tanks and anti-tank guns, and no German unit ever again got so close to the beaches. Many historians saw that as the turning point of the war.

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Poem: "The Junior High School Band Concert" by David Wagoner, from Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems. © University of Illinois Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

The Junior High School Band Concert

When our semi-conductor
Raised his baton, we sat there
Gaping at Marche Militaire,
Our mouth-opening number.
It seemed faintly familiar
(We'd rehearsed it all that winter),
But we attacked in such a blur,
No army anywhere
On its stomach or all fours
Could have squeezed though our cross fire.

I played cornet, seventh chair
Out of seven, my embouchure
A glorified Bronx cheer
Through that three-keyed keyhole stopper
And neighborhood window slammer
Where mildew fought for air
At every exhausted corner,
My fingering still unsure
After scaling it for a year
Except on the spit-valve lever.

Each straight-faced mother and father
Rested his moral fiber
Against our traps and slurs
And the inadvertent whickers
Paradiddled by our snares,
And when the brass bulled forth
A blare fit to horn over
Jericho two bars sooner
Than Joshua's harsh measures,
They still had the nerve to stare.

By the last lost chord, our director
Looked older and soberer.
No doubt, in mind's ear
Some band somewhere
In some Music of some Sphere
Was striking a note as pure
As the wishes of Franz Schubert,
But meanwhile here we were:
A lesson in everything minor,
Decomposing our first composer.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet and novelist Louise Erdrich (books by this author), born in Little Falls, Minnesota (1954). Her father was of German descent, her mother a Chippewa Indian. She grew up in North Dakota, where her parents were both teachers at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school.

She studied creative writing at Dartmouth. After college, she decided not to go into teaching as she had planned. Instead, she wrote poetry, and supported herself hoeing sugar beets, picking cucumbers, babysitting, life guarding, selling fried chicken, waitressing and short order cooking. She was even once a girl with a flag at a construction site on the highway.

She switched from poetry to fiction. One of her first short stories began to grow in her mind and became her first novel Love Medicine, about two Indian families, the Kashpaws and the Lamartines. She created those two families and then went on to write several more novels about them and their imaginary reservation in North Dakota, including The Beet Queen, The Bingo Palace, Tracks, and others.

Louise Erdrich said, "Writing became a way for me to talk about myself—or a character—in a really personal, surprising manner without any embarrassment. I was brought up to be an incredibly nice person, but not everything I wanted to say was nice."

It's the birthday of the linguist Deborah Tannen (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1945). She caught the mumps when she was a kid, which damaged her hearing, and she compensated for this hearing loss by paying very close attention to the way people talked. She was drawn into linguistics as a study and wrote her book, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which was a best-seller in 1990.

Deborah Tannen said, "Saying that men talk about baseball in order to avoid talking about their feelings is the same as saying that women talk about their feelings in order to avoid talking about baseball."

FRIDAY, 8 JUNE, 2007
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Poem: "#318" by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)


I'll tell you how the Sun rose —
A Ribbon at a time —
The Steeples swam in Amethyst —
The news, like Squirrels, ran —
The Hills untied their Bonnets —
The Bobolinks — begun —
Then I said softly to myself —
"That must have been the Sun"!
But how he set — I know not —
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while —
Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie in Gray —
Put gently up the evening Bars —
And led the flock away —

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1862 that Emily Dickinson (books by this author) wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson asking him to be her friend and her advisor.

That spring, she had read an article that Higginson had published in the Atlantic Monthly, offering advice to young writers. He challenged them to try to capture the world they lived in with all of its ordinary detail.

Dickinson had started seriously writing poetry a few years before that. She had written a few hundred poems, and she sent four of them to Higginson to ask his opinion of them. She sent him a poem that went:

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—
Untouched by Morning
And untouched by Noon—
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection—
Rafter of Satin—and Roof of Stone!

Grand go the Years—in the Crescent—above them—
Worlds scoop their Arcs
And Firmaments—row—
Diadems—drop—and Doges—surrender—
Soundless as dots—on a Disk of Snow—

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was confused by Emily Dickinson. His letters to her have not survived, but we know from Dickinson's letters to him that he didn't care for her inexact rhymes and her rhythms which seemed off-kilter to him. He told her that her poetry was spasmodic, uncontrolled and wayward. But Dickinson kept writing him that spring, asking for more advice.

At that point in her life, most of the people Emily Dickinson had been close to, outside of her family, had either moved away or died. She wrote to Higginson that her only companions were the hills, the sundown, and her dog. Higginson wrote back to her that maybe what she needed was a friend. So on this day, in 1862, she wrote a letter to Higginson and said, "Would you have time to be the 'friend' you should think I need. I have a little shape: it would not crowd your desk, nor make much racket as the mouse that dents your galleries."

Dickinson scholars think that she had some kind of romantic attachment to Higginson. There is evidence that she tried to conceal her correspondence with him. And after the first letter she sent, she mailed all the additional letters to him from outside of Amherst.

They kept up their correspondence for the rest of her life. She eventually stopped asking for his advice about her poetry. He visited her in 1870, and when he arrived at the door, he said, "She came to me with two daylilies which she put in a sort of childlike way into my hand and said, 'These are my introduction.'" They talked about literature, and she gave him her famous definition of poetry. She said to Higginson, "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

Higginson found it exhausting to visit Emily Dickinson. He wrote to his wife, "I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much."

After Emily Dickinson died, her sister Lavinia found her manuscripts, thousands of poems. She turned to Higginson as a possible editor. He wasn't sure there would be enough for a whole book, so Mabel Loomis Todd did the actual editing of her first collection.

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Poem: "Small Pleasures" by Greg Pape, from American Flamingo. © Crab Orchard Review and Southern Illinois Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

Small Pleasures

Mojave Desert, California

Noon, one hundred fourteen degrees, no breeze
except the breeze we make
going ten miles an hour in the pickup,
no road, just open flat desert, low brush
and scattered rock, the Mojave
somewhere west of Edwards Air Force Base.
We're eating our sandwiches, the boss and I,
drinking cups of cold water from the thermos jug
on the seat between us. We carry
three gallons of water for each man
to get us through to four o'clock,
when we head for cold beer at the bar.
He hasn't said anything for some time,
just chews and drinks, chews and drinks,
stares out at the heat waves
as the pickup bumps along. Covered with dust
and oil, we've been out here since five a.m.
working on the road. Now we're leaving
the road behind. Last night, stopped
at a phone booth on the way to the motel,
I watched moths swarm at the light
While he tried to call home, was it?
Something was wrong, bad connection, something.
He got angry, yanked the phone off the cord
and threw it on the ground. He didn't try
to explain, and I didn't ask.
We went to our rooms and slept.
We've finished our lunch and cigarettes.
I look over thinking to say something
about how a day like this makes me appreciate
small pleasures, a little shade, this cushioned
seat, a cold tomato with salt, but his
fifty-year-old eyes are closed, his head
fallen to one side, mouth open, hands
in his lap, no longer steering.
Out here it doesn't seem to matter.
Even the snakes, tortoises, and horned lizards
are underground. It's a big desert
and we're all alone. I lean back,
close my eyes. This too
is a pleasure, moving off into the open
where the work is never done.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1870, in London, Charles Dickens (books by this author) dropped dead at his chair at the dinner table. He died of a stroke, or apoplexy as it was called then. He was 58 years old. In the months before he died, he must have already suffered a stroke—he spoke in his letters of weakness and deadness on the left side and of not being able to pick up things with his left hand.

It's the birthday of the short story writer and playwright S.N. Behrman (books by this author), Worcester, Massachusetts (1893). It was S.N. Behrman, who said, "I have had just about all I can take of myself."

It's the birthday of the man famous for writing the song "Home Sweet Home." John Howard Payne was born in New York City (1791). He spent the last years of his life in Tunisia far away from New York City with no place to call home. He wrote, "'Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there's no place like home."

It's the birthday of the man who wrote so many classic songs: "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to," (his first big hit, in 1928), and "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love," among many others. Cole Porter (music by this artist) was born in Peru, Indiana (1893).

It was on this day in 1856, the first group of Mormon handcart pioneers left Iowa to begin the 1,000 mile-long hike to Salt Lake City on foot. They pushed two-wheeled handcarts, each of which was heaped with about 500 pounds of supplies.

The axles had been made with wood instead of iron, and most of them broke down. They wound up discarding most of the freight and carrying their food on their backs. But most of the 500 pioneers made it all the way to Salt Lake in just three months.

SUNDAY, 10 JUNE, 2007
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Poem: "A Girl Playing in a Sandbox" by David Wagoner, from The House of Song. © University of Illinois Press, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

A Girl Playing in a Sandbox

She drops the plastic soldiers, the trucks
            And tanks and caissons over the side
                        Of the sandbox and begins smoothing
The field of battle with her hands and forearms,
            Sweeping away the foxholes, trenches, and craters
                        Where only a moment ago the lost patrols
And panzers had plowed to the four known corners
            Of her desert under the leadership
                        Of boys. She follows her own fingers
With her eyes as if she could see the wind
            Retouching the dunes, as if she could hear it
                        Trembling along the sand, the lovely fragments,
The cracked misshapen incongruously melded
            And bedded abrasive multitudes, the ruins
                        Of mountains, now bringing themselves
More peacefully together around her, obeying
            Her slightest gesture and changing everything
                        They are, for her alone, at her lightest touch.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Terence Rattigan (books by this author), London (1911), a popular British playwright in the '40s and '50s. He said he wrote for the common theatergoer, whom he called "Aunt Edna."

Terence Rattigan said, " A novelist may lose his readers for a few pages; a playwright never dares lose his audience for a minute."

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer, James Salter (books by this author), born in New York City (1925). He's the author of The Hunters, The Arm of Flesh, and many Hollywood screenplays as well. James Salter said, "In the richness of language, its grace, breadth, dexterity, lies its power. To speak with clarity, brevity and wit is like holding a lightning rod."

It's the birthday of Saul Bellow (books by this author), born in Quebec, Canada (1915). He grew up in Chicago. He was often sick as a child, and spent his time reading the great classics of literature. Saul Bellow later said, "I came humbly, hat in hand, to literary America. I didn't ask for much; I had a book or two to publish. I didn't expect to make money at it. I saw myself at the tail end of a great glory. I was very moved by the books I had read in school, and I brought an offering to the altar."

His father wasn't happy that Bellow wanted to be a writer. He said, "You write and then you erase. You call that a profession?" His brothers went into more conventional careers and Bellow once said, "All I started out to do was to show up my brothers."

He wrote a couple of novels that didn't do that well. He went to Paris on a Guggenheim fellowship. He hated Paris. The more he hated Paris, the more he loved America and Chicago. It was there he began writing his first big successful book, The Adventures of Augie March.

It's the anniversary of the establishment of A(lcoholics) A(nonymous), (1935) in Akron, Ohio. It was founded by a stockbroker named Bill Wilson and a surgeon, Bob Smith, who found that the best way to keep from drinking was to spend time with other people who were trying to keep from drinking. Between the two of them, they developed the main traditions of AA: anonymity, confession, and mutual support.

Alcoholics Anonymous grew rapidly in the '40s and '50s, but Bill Wilson refused to appear on the cover of Time, wouldn't accept an honorary degree from Yale, because believed in anonymity, and he stuck with it to the end.



  • “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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  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
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