MONDAY, 18 JUNE, 2007
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Beauty" by Tony Hoagland, from Donkey Gospel. © Graywolf Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


When the medication she was taking
caused tiny vessels in her face to break,
leaving faint but permanent blue stitches in her cheeks,
my sister said she knew she would
never be beautiful again.

After all those years
of watching her reflection in the mirror,
sucking in her stomach and standing straight,
she said it was a relief,
being done with beauty,

but I could see her pause inside that moment
as the knowledge spread across her face
with a fine distress, sucking
the peach out of her lips,
making her cute nose seem, for the first time,
a little knobby.

I'm probably the only one in the whole world
who actually remembers the year in high school
she perfected the art
of being a dumb blond,

spending recess on the breezeway by the physics lab,
tossing her hair and laughing that canary trill
which was her specialty,

while some football player named Johnny
with a pained expression in his eyes
wrapped his thick finger over and over again
in the bedspring of one of those pale curls.

Or how she spent the next decade of her life
auditioning a series of tall men,
looking for just one with the kind
of attention span she could count on.

Then one day her time of prettiness
was over, done, finito,
and all those other beautiful women
in the magazines and on the streets
just kept on being beautiful
everywhere you looked,

walking in that kind of elegant, disinterested trance
in which you sense they always seem to have one hand
touching the secret place
that keeps their beauty safe,
inhaling and exhaling the perfume of it—

It was spring. Season when the young
buttercups and daisies climb up on the
mulched bodies of their forebears
to wave their flags in the parade.

My sister just stood still for thirty seconds,
amazed by what was happening,
then shrugged and tossed her shaggy head
as if she was throwing something out,

something she had carried a long ways,
but had no use for anymore,
now that it had no use for her.
That, too, was beautiful.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the anniversary of the day in 1815 that Napoleon Bonaparte lost his final major battle near Waterloo Village in Belgium. After a series of defeats, he had abdicated the throne and went to live on the island of Elba. He took long salt baths and read The Arabian Nights. But after a year in exile, he got bored and went back to France. He gathered an army and marched north toward Belgium where he hoped to attack and destroy the English and Prussian armies, which were gathering near Brussels.

His plan was to split his own army and attack the English and Prussian armies separately, in order to drive them apart. Then he could defeat them one at a time. But the men in his army were mostly peasants and farmers he had gathered on his way north. They loved him, but they had no real experience on the battlefield. Due to a series of blunders, his two flanks accidentally drove the English and Prussian armies closer together rather than further apart.

Napoleon got the bad news at 11:00 p.m. on June 17th, and he spent all night worrying about it. There had been a thunderstorm that evening so he'd been forced to delay his attack on the British troops near the village of Waterloo. But despite everything going against him, he still thought he could win. He had 74,000 men compared to the opposing army's 68,000, and he had superior artillery. He told his chief of staff, "This affair is nothing more than eating breakfast."

Unfortunately for Napoleon, the rain had delayed the battle so long that the Prussian army had time to arrive with reinforcements and help the British win the battle. Napoleon lost 25,000 men. He signed a second abdication in Paris and went to live on the remote island of St. Helena off the coast of Africa.

The word "Waterloo" has come to mean an impossible struggle or a decisive and final contest. An abolitionist and orator named Wendell Phillips was one of the first people to use the word that way when he said, "Every man meets his Waterloo at last."

It's the birthday of children's author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, (books by this author) born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1949). He's the author of the children's books Jumanji (1981) and The Polar Express (1985).

It's the birthday of novelist Gail Godwin, (books by this author) born in Birmingham, Alabama (1937). She's the author of many books, including The Odd Woman (1974), The Finishing School (1985), and The Good Husband (1994).

It's the birthday of film critic Roger Ebert, (books by this author) born in Urbana, Illinois (1942). He said, "No good movie is depressing, all bad movies are depressing."

It's the birthday of the novelist Richard Powers, (books by this author) born in Evanston, Illinois (1957). His most recent novel, The Echo Maker (2006), is about a man who gets into a car accident and begins suffering from a neurological disorder called Capgras syndrome, which causes him to think that his family and friends are all imposters. It won the National Book Award.

TUESDAY, 19 JUNE, 2007
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "What I Like and Don't Like" by Philip Schultz, from Failure: Poems. © Harcourt, Inc., 2007. Reprinted with permission.

What I Like and Don't Like

I like to say hello and goodbye.
I like to hug but not shake hands.
I prefer to wave or nod. I enjoy
the company of strangers pushed
together in elevators or subways.
I like talking to cab drivers
but not receptionists. I like
not knowing what to say.
I like talking to people I know
but care nothing about. I like
inviting anyone anywhere.
I like hearing my opinions
tumble out of my mouth
like toddlers tied together
while crossing the street,
trusting they won't be squashed
by fate. I like greeting-card clichés
but not dressing up or down.
I like being appropriate
but not all the time.
I could continue with more examples
but I'd rather give too few
than too many. The thought
of no one listening anymore—
I like that least of all.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of mathematician and mystic Blaise Pascal, born in Clermont, France (1623). He wrote a lot about religion, and attempted to convert skeptics to Christianity. But he also said, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

It's the birthday of film critic Pauline Kael, born in Petaluma, California (1919). She said, "You have to be open to the idea of getting drunk on movies."

It's the birthday of the journalist and music critic Greil Marcus, born in San Francisco (1945). He started out as a music critic for various magazines, and he has gone on to write many books of criticism, including Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music (1975) and Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989).

It was on this day in 1964 that the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act after a long battle in the Senate. Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law 13 days later. It was this piece of legislation that outlawed all segregation on the basis of race in the United States. The text of the law was extremely specific, listing all the places of public accommodation where segregation was forbidden, including any inn, hotel, motel, restaurant, cafeteria, lunchroom, lunch counter, soda fountain, gasoline station, motion picture house, theater, concert hall, sports arena, stadium or other place of exhibition or entertainment.

It's the birthday of the novelist Salman Rushdie, (books by this author) born in Bombay, India (1947). His parents sent him to school in England, where he didn't get along with his classmates, and he missed India terribly. And then, while he was in school, his parents were forced to leave Bombay and move to Pakistan because they were Muslims. Rushdie was crushed. He didn't want to stay in England, but now he no longer had a home in India. So he enrolled at Cambridge and then got a job writing copy for an advertising company.

Working at the advertising company just two days a week, he took five years to produce Midnight's Children (1981), about the India that he missed so much. It's the story of a group of 1,001 children all born in the hour after midnight on the day that India gained independence. In the novel, each of those children gains magical powers. The novel is told from the point of view of a boy who receives the power to read minds, and who attempts to draw together all the other midnight's children, even as India and Pakistan are sliding toward war.

The book won the Booker Prize and became a huge success, among both Westerners and Indians. Only Rushdie's family hated the book, because he had incorporated a lot of family secrets into the storyline.

Rushdie published his third novel, Shame, in 1983, and then in 1987, he came out with a book called The Satanic Verses, which got mixed reviews. Most Western critics didn't notice that it would be offensive to Muslims. But turned out that Rushdie had made a lot of obscure jokes about the Islamic religion in the book, and one section of The Satanic Verses seemed to suggest that the Quran is not the direct word of God. A month after the book came out, it was banned in India and book burnings throughout the Muslim world followed. The Ayatollah Khomeini eventually announced that Rushdie should be sentenced to death for blasphemy, and he placed a $1.5 million bounty on Rushdie's head.

Rushdie had to go into hiding. His Italian translator was threatened and stabbed. His Japanese translator was murdered. His Norwegian publisher was attacked and left for dead. Rushdie spent the next nine years moving from place to place. He lived in more than 30 houses. He found it difficult to write, so he helped set up an international organization for the protection of persecuted writers. The death sentence was finally lifted in 1998.

Rushdie later said, "The experience taught me ... a lot about the human capacity for hatred. But it also taught me the opposite: the capacity for solidarity and friendship. ... My Norwegian publisher was shot three times in the back and ... his first reaction, upon recovering from the bullet wounds, was to reprint the book. That's courage."

Back when he was still in hiding, a group of writers and literary critics distributed a series of buttons that said, "I am Salman Rushdie," to express their solidarity with him. Rushdie has since acquired a few of those buttons, and he said, "I still wear them sometimes, because, after all, I am Salman Rushdie."

Salman Rushdie said, "A poet's work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep."

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Sit, drink your coffee here; your work can wait awhile..." by Vikram Seth, from All You Who Sleep Tonight. © Phoenix The Orion Publishing Group Ltd, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

"Sit, drink Your coffee here; your work can wait awhile..."

Sit, drink your coffee here; your work can wait awhile.
You're twenty-six, and still have some life ahead.
No need for wit; just talk vacuities, and I'll
Reciprocate in kind, or laugh at you instead.

The world is too opaque, distressing and profound.
This twenty minutes' rendezvous will make my day:
To sit here in the sun, with grackles all around,
Staring with beady eyes, and you two feet away.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Vikram Seth, (books by this author) born in Calcutta, India (1952). In 1975, he moved to the United States to get a Ph.D. in economics at Stanford, but he took poetry classes on the side. He wrote his dissertation on the economics of Chinese villages, and then got a grant to travel to China. He spent two years there, and in the summer of 1982, he decided to walk and hitchhike from China back to his birthplace in India, traveling through Tibet and Nepal along the way. He carried a journal with him and wrote down his thoughts throughout the journey.

When he got back to the United States, he sent his travel journal to a publisher, and it became the first book that publisher had accepted out of the slush pile in more than a decade. The book was called From Heaven Lake (1983), and it got great reviews.

Seth went on to publish several collections of poetry. He was reading a lot of book-length poems at the time, such as Byron's Don Juan and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, and it occurred to him that no one had ever written a book-length poem about contemporary American life. So he wrote an epic rhymed poem about California yuppies called The Golden Gate. It tells the story of the computer engineers working in Silicon Valley, developing the early version of the personal computer. He sent the finished product to every poetry publisher in America, but they all turned him down. He almost gave up hope, but a fiction editor happened to pick up the manuscript. Seth hadn't even thought of trying to sell the book as a novel, but that's how it got published in 1986, as a novel in verse.

Seth moved back to Calcutta, India, to live with his parents in the late 1980s. He wanted to write something that would capture the sweep of history from India's independence up to present day, so he invented four Indian families and told what happened to each of them in the wake of India's independence. After several years of writing, he sent the manuscript to his agent. It was 5,000 pages long. His editor helped him trim it down to about 1,500 pages, but the novel, A Suitable Boy (1993), became the longest single-volume work of fiction in English since 1747. It became a best-seller in India, England, and the United States.

It's the birthday of the historian Peter Gay, (books by this author) born in Berlin (1923). His parents were non-religious Jewish members of the middle class. His father had fought on the German side during World War I and had been decorated for his service. But in 1938, his father's business was shut down by the Nazis. Gay fled Germany with his parents, sailing on a ship to Cuba and then to the United States. He attended high school briefly, but had to drop out to get a job to help support the family. One of his high school teachers was so impressed by him that she offered to tutor him at night to help him get a high school diploma.

He went on to study at Columbia University where he became a historian of ideas, writing about the way history shapes how people think. He's best known for his books The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1966) and The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (1984). In his book Savage Reprisals (2003), he argues that novelists make bad social historians because they are so often inspired to criticize society by their own desire for revenge.

It was on this day in 1977 that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline began to pump oil for the first time. It was the largest private construction project ever completed in United States history.

Oil companies had been drilling for oil in Alaska for years, without much luck. Then the company that would become Exxon decided to drill one more hole before giving up, and they struck what turned out to be the largest oil discovery in North America. The only problem was that the oil field was 800 miles away from the nearest harbor where oil tankers could pick up the oil and transport it to the rest of the world.

So the oil companies decided to build a pipeline to transport that oil across the state of Alaska, 48-inches in diameter, stretching 800 miles, zigzagging over three mountain ranges and crossing 34 major rivers, including the Yukon. Once it began pumping, about 1.9 million barrels of crude oil began flowing through the pipe every day, traveling at about 7 miles an hour to the port of Valdez.

It was on this day in 1893 that the verdict was announced in the trial of Lizzie Borden, who had been accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an ax. It was one of the first murder trials in American history that got covered by the national press, not because it involved anybody famous, but just because of the sensational nature of the crime.

The case against Lizzie was entirely circumstantial. No one had witnessed the murders, no weapon was found, and there was no physical evidence linking her to the crime. All the police could prove was that Lizzie had been in the house at the time of the murders, she had a lot of money to gain, and she had recently tried to buy poison at the local pharmacy.

The trial lasted for two weeks, and Lizzie was found innocent on this day in 1893. No one else was ever tried for the murder. She told the press on the day of her acquittal that it was the happiest day of her life, but she refused to say anything else. After the trial, she bought herself a three-story mansion, where she had running water for the first time in her life. She never spoke about the murders in public again.

Most newspapers, including The New York Times, wrote at the time that the trial of Lizzie Borden had been an unjust and cruel persecution of an innocent woman. But a journalist named Edwin H. Porter wrote the first book about the trial, The Fall River Tragedy (1893), in which he distorted much of the evidence and testimony at the trial, in order to make Lizzie look guilty. There have been dozens of books written about the murders since then, most of which implicate Lizzie as the murderer. So even though she was acquitted, she's become the most famous murderess in American history.

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "I {Heart} My Wife" by Darlyn Finch, from Red Wax Rose. © Shady Lane Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I {Heart} My Wife

"I {Heart} My Wife"
the bumper sticker read
in the window of the pickup truck
ahead of me at the red light,
and I burst into tears
for no particular reason
I could explain
to the crossing guard on the corner
or even to the man driving the truck,
who looked quite ordinary,
and did not realize
those four happy words
could rip a woman's heart out
under certain circumstances,
when she's one man's abscessed tooth,
and another's dirty little secret.

Then I stopped to wonder,
as I blew my nose
and wiped my eyes,
whether the man had bought the bumper sticker
at all, or if his wife had perhaps
stuck it there,
in the window behind his head,
as a message to women like me,
whom she surely knows are sitting
at every red light
in every town,
wishing they could one day be
very best thing.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the summer solstice and the first day of summer in the northern hemisphere. For those of us in the north, today will be the longest day of the year and tonight will be the shortest night. The entire earth is about 3 million miles farther from the sun at this time of the year. The difference in the temperature is due to the fact that our planet is tilted on its axis, and at this time of year, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, receiving more direct radiation for longer periods of time each day. It is that slight tilt, only 23 1/2 degrees, that makes the difference between winter and summer. The rise in temperature allows most of the plants we eat to germinate. Wheat and many other plants require an average temperature of at least 40º F to grow. Corn needs a temperature of 50º F, and rice needs a temperature of 68º F.

It's the birthday of novelist Ian McEwan, (books by this author) born in Aldershot, England (1948). His father was a Scottish soldier in the British Army, and McEwan grew up in various places around the world, including Singapore and North Africa. He liked to read, but he'd never even thought of being a writer until he heard about a creative writing program in East Anglia, taught by the writer Malcolm Bradbury, that would allow him to write fiction for credit. As soon as McEwan began to write, he found it came very easily to him. He wrote 20 short stories in his first year in the program, most of which he later published. He said it was like a lid blowing off a tin.

At that time, McEwan said, "Contemporary English fiction was so nicely modulated and full of observation about class and furniture. ... I wanted much more vivid colors. I wanted something savage."

He filled his first book, First Love, Last Rites (1975), with short stories about incest, infanticide, and bestiality. His first novel, Cement Garden (1978), is about a group of children who hide their dead mother in the basement by covering her with cement, so they can go on living without parents. His novel The Innocent (1988) featured one of the lengthiest scenes of human dismemberment in contemporary literature. Critics in England were shocked. They made jokes that he kept a jar full of pickled body parts on his writing desk, and they started calling him Ian Macabre.

McEwan's recent novels have grown progressively less grisly, but he still doesn't shy away from violence and suspense in his work. He said, "I want something to happen in my stories, and I want to sort of push them to the edge. ... Most threats in life come from the unpredictable, random, cruel behavior of other people. ... [Suspense is] not the only thing one wants in a novel, but I hold to quite old-fashioned beliefs in the power of the story, our need for story."

McEwan said of writing fiction, "You enter a state of controlled passivity, you relax your grip and accept that even if your declared intention is to justify the ways of God to man, you might end up interesting your readers rather more in Satan."

It's the birthday of author Mary McCarthy, (books by this author) born in Seattle, Washington (1912). She published several novels — including The Group (1963) about a group of Vassar students — but she had a hard time making things up, so most of her novels are autobiographical.

Most critics believe that her best book is the memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). She is also remembered for her literary criticism. The writer Gore Vidal said, "She was our most brilliant literary critic, [because she was] uncorrupted by compassion."

FRIDAY, 22 JUNE, 2007
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Thistles" by Louise Erdrich, from Original Fire: Selected and New Poems. © HarperCollins Publishers, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


for Persia

Under ledge, under tar, under fill
under curved blue stone of doorsteps,
under the aggregate of lakebed rock,
under loss and under hard words,
under steamrollers
under your heart,
it doesn't matter. They can live forever.
The seeds of thistles
push from nowhere, forming a rose of spikes
that spreads all summer until it
stands in a glory of
needles, blossoms, blazing
purple clubs and fists.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1944 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the GI Bill of Rights. It was one of the most important and influential pieces of legislation ever signed by an American president, but the newspapers barely covered the story at the time. They were too busy reporting on the Allied invasion of Europe.

The law was originally designed as unemployment compensation for returning veterans, in case there weren't a lot of jobs available at the end of the war. A congressional committee threw in the idea that veterans should get money to go to college if they wanted to.

Even the supporters of the bill didn't think very many GIs would really want to go to college. Most of the soldiers came from working-class families, and there was no reason to think they wouldn't go back to those same working-class jobs on farms and in factories. Experts predicted maybe 8 to 12 percent of veterans would actually use the money for higher education.

In fact, about a million veterans applied for the money within the first year after the war, and ultimately 2.2 million veterans used the money to obtain higher education, many of them becoming the first members of their families to receive a college diploma. Before the war, about 10 percent of Americans attended college. After the war, that figure rose to about 50 percent.

And contrary to most expectations, the grade-point averages at most colleges went up with the influx of veterans, and dropout rates went way down. Professors at the time said that the veterans were the most serious and disciplined students they'd ever seen. The cost to taxpayers for the GI Bill was about $5.5 billion, but the result was 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, 17,000 writers and editors, and thousands of other professionals. It helped spur one of the greatest economic booms in American history.

It's the birthday of novelist Erich Maria Remarque, (books by this author) born in Osnabrück, Germany (1898). He's the author of the classic novel about World War I All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). The novel was a huge success: It sold more than a million copies in Germany in less than a year, and the next year it was made into a Hollywood movie. The Nazis were rising to power in Germany at the time, and they didn't like the novel because of its negative portrayal of World War I. It was one of the books they publicly burned in 1933. In 1938, Remarque lost his German citizenship, and eventually ended up in the United States.

It's the birthday of novelist Dan Brown, (books by this author) born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1964). He's the author of one of the best-selling books of all time: The Da Vinci Code (2003). Brown grew up on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy, where his father was a math teacher. From an early age, he and his family members loved to invent and communicate through codes. Every Christmas, Brown and his sister were given poems that provided clues to the locations of their gifts.

Brown wrote his first novel, Digital Fortress (1998), about the culture of NSA cryptographers, and he went on to write Angels & Demons (2000) and Deception Point (2001). The three novels sold about 20,000 copies combined.

Brown got the idea for The Da Vinci Code when he heard about some conspiracy theories that there were secret messages in Leonardo da Vinci's painting of The Last Supper. The day before the book came out it got a great review on the front page of the New York Times arts section. It sold 6,000 copies on the day it hit bookstores, and by the end of the week, it had sold about 25,000 copies, enough to put it on the top of the best-seller list. It's estimated that there are now more than 60 million copies of The Da Vinci Code in print worldwide.

It's the birthday of the theater producer Joseph Papp, born in Brooklyn, New York (1921). He founded the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1954 at the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church at 729 East 6th Street in New York City. The early productions were staged on almost no budget, and in many cases the actors worked without pay. Because Papp believed that art should be available to everyone, the admission was free.

Eventually, the Shakespeare Festival moved to Central Park, and became known as Shakespeare in the Park. Papp said, "When the moon is out and the wind begins to whisper, it's theater at its best. You can't beat it."

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Field Notes" by Galway Kinnell, from Strong Is Your Hold. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Field Notes

When we were out at dinner
last night and a dim mood
from the day hung on in me
that neither the quenelles
de brochet nor the Pignan
2000 could quite lift,
she disappeared and plucked
out of the air somewhere
some amusement or comfort
and, quickly back again,
laid it in our dinner talk.

When it was time to leave
and she scanned the restaurant
for the restroom, she went up
on her toes, like the upland plover,
and in the taxi home we kissed
a mint from the maitre d's desk
from my mouth to hers,
like cedar waxwings.

When I squished in bare feet
up to the bedroom, I found her
already dropped off, bedside lamp still on,
Theodore Xeonphon Barber's
The Human Nature of Birds
lying open face-down under her chin.

Gazing at her I saw
that she was gazing back,
having been sleeping awake
as the tree swallow does.

I went around the foot
of the bed and climbed in
and slid toward the side lined
with the warmth and softness
of herself, and we clasped each other
like no birds I know of.

Our cries that night were wild,
unhinged, not from here,
like the common loon's.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Tonight is Midsummer Night's Eve, also called St. John's Eve. St. John is the patron saint of beekeepers. It's a time when the hives are full of honey. The full moon that occurs this month was called the Mead Moon, because honey was fermented to make mead. That's where the word "honeymoon" comes from.

It's a time for lovers. An old Swedish proverb says, "Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking." Midsummer dew was said to have special healing powers. Women washed their faces in it to make themselves beautiful and young.

It's the birthday of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, (books by this author) born in a suburb of Odessa in 1889. She was a beautiful, fashionable, 22-year-old woman when she published her first collection of poetry in 1912. The book was filled with love poems inspired by her affair with the then-unknown Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, and no Russian woman had ever written so frankly about love. Akhmatova became a celebrity overnight.

But within a few years, life in Russia became much more complicated, and Akhmatova had a lot more to write about than love affairs. In her poem "In Memoriam July 19, 1914" — about the start of World War I — she wrote, "We grew a hundred years older in a single hour." After the Bolshevik Revolution, most writers and intellectuals tried to flee the country, but Akhmatova and her husband decided to stay. Her husband was shot in 1921 for allegedly participating in an anti-Bolshevik plot, and the following year, the government informed Akhmatova that she would no longer be able to publish her poetry. She began working on translations and more or less stopped writing her own poems.

Then Akhmatova's son was arrested by the government. She was horrified. For 17 months, she went to the prison in Leningrad every day to try to get news about her son's well-being. There were crowds of other women there, doing the same thing, and one day a woman recognized Akhmatova as the formerly famous poet. Akhmatova later described the incident, writing, "A woman with bluish lips standing behind me ... woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear, 'Can you describe this?'"

That woman's question helped inspire Akhmatova to begin writing her 10-poem cycle "Requiem," which many Russians consider the greatest piece of literature written about Stalinist Russia.

Even though she wasn't allowed to publish her poetry, the government remained suspicious of her activities. To take precautions that her poetry would be preserved, she developed a system. Whenever she wrote a new poem, she would invite a friend over to read and memorize it. Then, she would burn the only copy.

By the end of her life, she had gained more freedom, and she'd become one of the most renowned poets in the world. She died on the 13th anniversary of Stalin's death, on March 5, 1966. A complete collection of her poetry didn't come out in Soviet Union until the late 1980s.

SUNDAY, 24 JUNE, 2007
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Celebration for June 24" by Thomas McGrath, from Movie at the End of the World. © Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1972. Reprinted with permission.

Celebration for June 24

For Marian

Before you, I was living on an island
And all around the seas of that lonely coast
Cast up their imitation jewels, cast
Their fables and enigmas, questioning, sly.
I never solved them, or ever even heard,
Being perfect in innocence: unconscious of self;
Such ignorance of history was all my wealth—
A geographer sleeping in the shadow of virgins.

But though my maps were made of private countries
I was a foreigner in all of them after you had come,
For when you spoke, it was with a human tongue
And never understood by my land-locked gentry.
Then did the sun shake down a million bells
And birds bloom on bough in wildest song!
Phlegmatic hills went shivering with flame;
The chestnut trees were manic at their deepest boles!

It is little strange that nature was riven in her frame
At this second creation, known to every lover—
How we are shaped and shape ourselves in the desires of the other
Within the tolerance of human change.
Out of the spring's innocence this revolution,
Created on a kiss, announced the second season,
The summer of private history, of growth, through whose sweet sessions
The trees lift toward the sun, each leaf a revelation.

Our bodies, coupled in the moonlight's album,
Proclaimed our love against the outlaw times
Whose signature was written in the burning towns.
Your face against the night was my medallion.
Your coming forth aroused unlikely trumpets
In the once-tame heart. They heralded your worth
Who are my lodestar, my bright and ultimate North,
Marrying all points of my personal compass.

This is the love that now invents my fear
Which nuzzles me like a puppy each violent day.
It is poor comfort that the mind comes, saying:
What is one slim girl to the people's wars?
Still, my dice are loaded: having had such luck,
Having your love, my life would still be whole
Though I should die tomorrow. I have lived it all.
—and love is never love, that cannot give love up.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of essayist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce, (books by this author) born near Horse Cave Creek, Ohio (1842). He was the second person in his county to volunteer for the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War, and he fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, including the Battle of Shiloh. After the war, he headed west to San Francisco, a boomtown of 60,000 people, full of outlaws, gamblers, sailors, and goldmine millionaires. It was also a city full of writers, with six newspapers covering city life. One of the writers who had gotten started around the same time as Bierce was Mark Twain. But Bierce managed to make a name for himself almost immediately.

Bierce made a living as a journalist, writing social criticism, but he also began to write short stories about the Civil War, some of the bleakest war stories ever written. They were stories with no heroes and no happy endings. The main characters often died because of freak accidents or stupidity. He had a hard time getting the stories published, but when they finally came out many of them were called masterpieces. His most famous story is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," (1890).

He's also remembered for his Devil's Dictionary (1906), a collection of ironic definitions, such as, "Love. A temporary insanity curable by marriage." And, "Saint. A dead sinner revised and edited."

It's the birthday of poet Stephen Dunn, (books by this author) born in Forest Hills, New York (1939). He published more than 10 books of poetry before his collection Different Hours won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. His collection Local Visitations came out in 2003. He said, "I think one of my early motivations for writing was that other people's versions of experience didn't gel with my own. It was a gesture toward sanity to try to get the world right for myself. I've since learned that if you get it right for yourself, it often has resonance for others."



  • “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
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “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
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning