MONDAY, 23 JULY, 2007
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Poem: "Kindness" by Naomi Shihab Nye, from The Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. © Eighth Mountain Press, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of crime novelist Raymond Chandler (books by this author), born in Chicago, Illinois (1888). He's known for his novels about the private detective Philip Marlowe such as The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1954). He started out writing second-rate poetry and essays, but couldn't get much published, so he gave up and took a bookkeeping class, got a job at a bank, and went on to become a wealthy oil company executive.

He lost his job when the stock market crashed in 1929. So at the age of 45 he began writing for pulp fiction magazines, which paid about a penny a word.

Chandler was one of the first detective novelists to become known for the quality of his prose, and he became famous for his metaphors. In one novel he wrote, "She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looked by moonlight." In another he wrote, "She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket."


It's the birthday of the novelist Vikram Chandra (books by this author), born in New Delhi (1961). He's gotten a lot of attention recently for a 900-page crime novel called Sacred Games, which came out this past January (2007). It's about a police detective and a crime boss in modern-day Mumbai, India (formerly Bombay).

Chandra said of Mumbai, "It's an overwhelming city ... 18 million people packed into a very small place. ... When you're away from it, you can miss it, physically you can ache for it — even for the stink of it."


It's the birthday of John Treadwell Nichols (books by this author), born in Berkeley, California (1940). After traveling in Central America and moving to New Mexico, he decided that he had to write a political novel about the lives of Latin American people. He worked on seven novels that never saw the light of day, and then finally came out with The Milagro Beanfield War (1974), about a poor man who diverts water from an irrigation canal so that he can raise beans to support his family. It was a great success, and Robert Redford made it into a movie.


It's the birthday of investigative reporter Nicholas Gage (books by this author), born in the mountain village of Lia, Greece (1939). His mother was tortured and killed by communist guerillas when he was eight years old. He moved to the United States and became a reporter, and after years of writing about corrupt politicians, crooked judges, drug dealers, and Mafia bosses, he finally decided to write a book about his mother's murder. The result was his book Eleni (1983), which became a best-seller and a movie.




TUESDAY, 24 JULY, 2007
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Poem: "Becoming" by Jim Harrison, from Saving Daylight. © Copper Canyon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Becoming

Nowhere is it the same place as yesterday.
None of us is the same person as yesterday.
We finally die from the exhaustion of becoming.
This downward cellular jubilance is shared
by the wind, bugs, birds, bears and rivers,
and perhaps the black holes in galactic space
where our souls will all be gathered in an invisible
thimble of antimatter. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Yes, trees wear out as the wattles under my chin
grow, the wrinkled hands that tried to strangle
a wife beater in New York City in 1957.
We whirl with the earth, catching our breath
as someone else, our soft brains ill-trained
except to watch ourselves disappear into the distance.
Still, we love to make music of this puzzle.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of French novelist Alexandre Dumas (books by this author), born in Villers-Cotterêts, France (1802). He wrote swashbuckling adventure novels like The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844).

He started writing fiction at a time when publishers used fiction to sell newspapers. When his first novel appeared in a newspaper, it generated 5,000 new subscriptions. More than 50 movies have been made from The Count of Monte Cristo and more than 60 from The Three Musketeers.


It's the birthday of mystery novelist John D. MacDonald (books by this author), born in Sharon, Pennsylvania (1916). He wrote a series of novels, including The Deep Blue Good-By (1964) and Nightmare in Pink (1964), featuring Travis McGee, a beach bum detective who lives on a houseboat that he won in a poker game.

While he was serving in the army during World War II, MacDonald entertained his wife by writing her fictionalized stories in his letters. She liked one story so much that she typed it up and sent it to the magazine Story, where it was published. MacDonald was so surprised and happy that he devoted himself to writing.

He had four months of severance pay when he came home from the Army, so he spent those four months writing seven days a week, 14 hours a day. Everyone but his wife thought he was shell-shocked. By the end of the year, he was making a living selling short stories to pulp fiction magazines. He published 73 stories in 1949 alone.

He used his mystery novels to criticize what he called American junk culture: fast food, bad TV, and land development. He wrote, "I am wary of a lot of things, such as ... time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants ... pageants, progress, and manifest destiny."


It's the birthday of Robert Graves (books by this author), born in Wimbledon, England (1895). He was just one week out of high school when World War I began, and he was shipped off to France to fight. The war was brutal for his generation; one third of his fellow high school graduates died in battle. Graves spent much of the war in the trenches, surrounded by mud, mustard gas, corpses, and rats. He was wounded so badly in one battle that he was mistakenly reported dead in London newspapers. When someone showed him a copy of his own obituary, he decided that he had been spared from death in order to write poetry.

Graves started publishing poems after the war, and he tried to write a novel about military life, but he suffered from recurring nightmares and paralyzing flashbacks of the fighting. He wrote, "Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight. ... Strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed." When he went for walks in the countryside and looked at the hills, he couldn't stop his brain from planning out military strategies on an imaginary battlefield.

But after Graves got married and had children, he began writing furiously to support the family. In just five years, between 1920 and 1925, he wrote three books of criticism, a ballad opera, a novel, a satire on contemporary poets, and half-dozen volumes of poetry. But many critics believe his masterpiece was his memoir Goodbye to All That (1929), about his childhood and his experiences in the war. It was a huge best-seller, and he was able to live off his writing for the rest of his life.


It's the birthday of Zelda Fitzgerald (books by this author), born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama (1900). She was the wife and muse of the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. She met F. Scott Fitzgerald at one of the military dances, and he stood out from the crowd in his fancy Brooks Brothers uniform and cream-colored boots. Zelda said, "He smelled like new goods." He told her that she looked like the heroine in the novel he was writing. They went on their first date on Zelda's birthday, July 24, 1918. She never forgot that day. Years later in a letter to Scott she wrote, "The night you gave me my birthday party ... you were a young Lieutenant and I was a fragrant phantom, wasn't I? And it was a radiant night, a night of soft conspiracy and the trees agreed that it was all going to be for the best."

Their marriage was difficult. Scott struggled with alcoholism and Zelda struggled with schizophrenia, but they were the quintessential literary couple of the Jazz Age. They were so famous that William Randolph Hearst hired a reporter whose only job was to cover their activities. They looked so much alike that people sometimes mistook them for brother and sister. Lillian Gish said, "They were both so beautiful, so blond, so clean and so clear." Dorothy Parker said, "[They] looked like they'd just stepped out of the sun."

After F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, Zelda sent a letter to his family in White Bear, Minnesota. She wrote, "Now that [Scott] won't be coming east again with his pockets full of promises and his notebooks full of schemes and new refurbished hope, life doesn't offer as happy a vista. My only consolation is that he died mercifully, without suffering whereas he might have spent years confined to his room [hemmed] in by the tiredness of a heart that had always felt so deeply. ... Life has a way of closing its books as soon as one's category is fulfilled; and I suppose the time has come."




WEDNESDAY, 25 JULY, 2007
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Poem: "Starfish" by Eleanor Lerman, from Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds. © Sarabande Books, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Starfish

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life's way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won't give you smart or brave,
so you'll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1814 that a man named George Stephenson made the first successful demonstration of the steam locomotive, an invention that would fuel the Industrial Revolution and dramatically affect the settlement of North America.

Stephenson had never had any formal schooling, but he taught himself how steam engines worked by taking them apart when they broke down, and eventually he learned how to build them from scratch. He made his first successful demonstration of the new invention on this day in 1814. His engine pulled eight loaded wagons of 30 tons about four miles an hour up a hill.

By the 1830s, trains were already traveling 60 miles an hour. When the first transcontinental railway lines were completed in the 1870s, a cross-country journey that had taken several months suddenly took only seven days. The railroads shrank distances and increased the speed of life, while fueling America's economic expansion and industrialization.


It's the birthday of Elias Canetti (books by this author), born in Ruse, Bulgaria (1905). He's best known for his novel The Tower of Babel (1935). As a child, he learned to love languages. He grew up in an area of Bulgaria that was so ethnically diverse that his grandfather had to speak 17 languages in order to succeed as a grocer.

He went to high school in Frankfurt, Germany, and it was there that he first saw a workers' street demonstration turn into a riot. He was so disturbed by the sight of a mob that it haunted him for years. Then, in 1927, he was passing by the Vienna Palace of Justice after an unpopular verdict had been announced. A crowd of people on the street suddenly erupted into a riot, and Canetti was surrounded. He later wrote, "I had become part of the crowd, I fully dissolved in it, I did not feel the slightest resistance to what the crowd was doing." He rushed forward with the others and participated in the burning down of the Palace of Justice.

Canetti later said that his experience participating in a riot was the most important day of his life, and he spent the rest of his career as a writer researching crowds and their effect throughout the history of civilization. Most of his plays and fiction are about mobs and riots, and he believed that the 20th century was defined by the mob mentality. He fled the Nazis and lived in England during World War II, and finally published his masterpiece, Crowds and Power, in 1960. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981.




THURSDAY, 26 JULY, 2007
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Poem: "Handyman" by Barton Sutter, from Farewell to the Starlight in Whiskey. © BOA Editions, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Handyman

The morning brought such a lashing rain
I decided I might as well stay inside
And tackle those jobs that had multiplied
Like an old man's minor aches and pains.
I found a screw for the strikerplate,
Tightened the handle on the bathroom door,
Cleared the drain in the basement floor,
And straightened the hinge for the backyard gate.
Each task had been a nagging distraction,
An itch in the mind, a dangling thread;
Knocking a tiny brass brad on the head,
I felt an insane sense of satisfaction.
Then I heard a great crash in the yard.
The maple had fallen and smashed our car.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of humorist Jean Shepherd (books by this author), born in Chicago, Illinois (1925). He's remembered for the autobiographical stories he told on the radio about a boy named Ralph Parker growing up in Hohman, Indiana. The stories he told on-air were always improvised, but he later wrote them down and published them in collections like In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash (1967) and Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters (1972).

In one of his stories, he remembered walking to school with a group of children in the winter. He said, "Kids plodded ... through forty-five-mile-an-hour gales, tilting forward like tiny furred radiator ornaments, moving stiffly over the barren clattering ground with only the faint glint of two eyes peering out of a mound of moving clothing. ... All were painfully plodding toward the Warren G. Harding School, miles away over the tundra [so they could learn] geography lessons involving the exports of Peru."


It's the birthday of Carl Jung (books by this author), born in Kesswil, Switzerland (1875). His father was a pastor, and as a boy Jung was shocked to find out that his father was losing his faith. He decided to become a scientist instead of a minister so that he could scientifically prove that religion was important. He was the founder of analytic psychology. He noticed that myths and fairytales from all kinds of different cultures have certain similarities. He called these similarities archetypes, and he believed that archetypes come from a collective unconscious that all humans share. He said that if people get in touch with these archetypes in their own lives, they will be happier and healthier.

He became a psychologist at a time when Sigmund Freud was the most important psychologist in the world. When the two men met for the first time, they talked for 13 hours straight. They collaborated for a few years, but finally decided that they disagreed with each other's ideas. Jung thought Freud was too obsessed with sex, and Freud thought Jung was too obsessed with God.


It's the birthday of writer Aldous Huxley (books by this author), born in Surrey, England (1894). Huxley wanted to be a scientist like his grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley. But when he was 17 years old, he came down with a disease of the eyes, which rendered him almost blind. So Huxley decided to become a writer. His first successful novel was Point Counter Point (1928), which was an extremely ambitious book, with numerous characters and a complex interweaving structure. So Huxley decided that his next book would be something light. He had been reading some H.G. Wells and thought it would be interesting to try to write something about what the future might be like. But once he got started, he got caught up in the excitement of his own ideas. He wound up writing a much more serious book than he'd intended.

The result was Brave New World (1932), about a future in which most human beings are born in test-tube factories, genetically engineered to belong in one of five castes: Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. There are no families; people have sex all the time and never fall in love, and they keep themselves happy by taking a drug called "soma."

Brave New World was one of the first novels to predict the future existence of genetic engineering, test-tube babies, anti-depression medication, and virtual reality. When George Orwell's 1984 came out a few years later, many critics compared the two novels, trying to decide which one was more likely to come true. Huxley argued that his imagined future was more likely, because it would be easier to control people by keeping them happy than it would be by threatening them with violence.


It's the birthday of playwright George Bernard Shaw (books by this author), born in Dublin, Ireland (1856). He wrote dozens of plays, including Man and Superman (1905) and Saint Joan (1923). But he's best known for his play Pygmalion (1912), about what happens when a phonetician named Henry Higgins teaches a cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle to pass as a lady.

He had an opinion about everything, and eventually became famous more for his personality than for his writing. He said, "Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week." He was a vegetarian and a pacifist, he didn't drink, and he believed Christmas should be abolished. In 1925, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died 25 years later in 1950 at the age of 94.

He is now one of the most widely quoted writers in the English language.

He said, "I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it." And he said, "All great truths begin as blasphemies." And he said, "Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children."




FRIDAY, 27 JULY, 2007
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Poem: "The Friday Night Fights" by Ronald Wallace, from Long for This World: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Friday Night Fights

Every Friday night we watched the fights.
Me, ten years old and stretched out on the couch;
my father, in his wheelchair, looking on
as Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson
fought and won the battles we could not.
Him, twenty-nine, and beat up with disease;
me, counting God among my enemies
for what he'd done to us. We never touched.

But in between the rounds we'd sing how we'd
Look sharp! Feel sharp! & Be sharp! With Gillette
And Howard Cosell, the Bela Lugosi of boxing.
Out in the kitchen, my mother never understood
our need for blood, how this was as close as we'd get
to love-bobbing and weaving, feinting and sparring.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1940 that Bugs Bunny made his debut in a short animated film called A Wild Hare. Bugs Bunny was designed to be the epitome of cool, modeled on Groucho Marx, with a carrot rather than a cigar. He is never fazed by what the world throws at him. He nonchalantly chews on his carrot in the face of all his enemies, speaking in a Brooklyn accent. A Wild Hare, which premiered on this day, told the story of Elmer Fudd's attempt to hunt rabbits, only to have Bugs Bunny thwart him at every turn. Bugs Bunny's first line in the cartoon, when he meets Elmer Fudd, is, "What's up, doc?" It was a phrase that one of the writers remembered people saying where he grew up in Texas. It got such a big laugh in the theaters that the writers decided to make it a catchphrase.


It's the birthday of Joseph Mitchell (books by this author), born in Fairmont, North Carolina (1908). He wrote mainly about eccentric people living on the fringe in New York City, including gypsies, alcoholics, the homeless, fishmongers, and a band of Mohawk Indians who had no fear of heights and worked as riveters on skyscrapers and bridges. Most of his journalism is collected in the book Up in the Old Hotel (1992).

He interviewed all kinds of criminals, evangelists, politicians, and celebrities. He wrote about the Fulton Fish Market, the clammers of Long Island, and the oystermen of Staten Island. He wrote about gin-mill owners, con artists, a flea-circus operator. He believed that he was a good interviewer because he had lost the ability to detect insanity. He listened to one and all, no matter how crazy, as if they were sane. He said, "The best talk is artless, the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves."

In 1965, Mitchell published Joe Gould's Secret, about a man who claimed to have learned the language of seagulls and was translating the poetry of Longfellow into their language. Critics called it one of the strangest and most interesting nonfiction character portraits ever written. It was Mitchell's last book. He kept going to his New Yorker office every day for the next 30 years, but he never published another word.


It's the birthday of poet Hilaire Belloc (books by this author), born in Paris, France (1870). In his lifetime, he was known for his more serious works of journalism and essays. He wrote almost 150 books for adults. But he's known to us today for his books of humorous verse about naughty children, including The Bad Child's Book of Beasts (1896) and Cautionary Tales for Children in 1907, about a series of children who die violently, because they have chewed string, told lies, slammed doors, or thrown stones.

It was on this day in 1793 that Maximilien de Robespierre, became the head of the Committee of Public Safety, which led to the Reign of Terror in France. Robespierre had started out as an idealistic lawyer, defending the poor people in court, and he often spoke out against the absolute authority of the king. But after the French Revolution, there was fear of civil war. In order to keep French citizens in line, Robespierre came up with a program that became known as the Terror, and he advocated the use of the new guillotine. At first Robespierre executed people who had supported the monarchy. But then he began to execute revolutionaries who were too moderate. And finally, he began to execute people who had merely insulted him or opposed him on one issue or another. And when he singled out someone as a political enemy, he often executed that person's whole family. In a single year, more than 2,000 people were beheaded for having opposed the French Revolution.

Eventually, members of the National Convention began to realize that no one was safe, and even they could be the next victims. So they turned on Robespierre. For more than a year Robespierre had been executing people in the public square to cheering crowds. When Robespierre went to his own death at the guillotine, onlookers said the crowd cheered just as loudly as ever.




SATURDAY, 28 JULY, 2007
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Poem: "Spring and Fall" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Public domain

Spring and Fall
To a Young Child

Margaret, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's spríngs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the philosopher Karl Popper (books by this author), born in Vienna (1902). He was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. He came up with the theory that what defines a scientific idea is that it can be falsified. He realized that the real work of scientists is not to look for evidence that their theories are correct, but to look as hard as they can for evidence that their theories are false. The closest a scientist can ever come to proving that his or her theory is true is failing to find evidence that the theory is false. Popper used this same theory to argue that astrology, metaphysics, Marxist history, and Freudian psychoanalysis were not sciences, because there is no way they could ever be falsified.

Popper had just taken a job as a secondary school teacher when he published his ideas about science in his first book, The Logic of Discovery (1934). The book created a big stir in Europe, and Popper was invited to lecture in Paris, London, Cambridge, and Copenhagen. He became even more famous when he wrote his book The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), an analysis of totalitarianism that he began writing at the start of World War II. He argued that political leaders like Stalin and Hitler shared a mindset with philosophers like Plato and Marx in that they all believed that ideas were more important than individual people.

Popper spent much of his career arguing that too many philosophers were focused on arcane discussions of abstract ideas rather than problems that affected people in the real world. In 1946, he got into a famous debate with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein at the Cambridge Moral Science Club. There are differing accounts of what exactly happened, but according to Popper, the debate grew so heated that Wittgenstein pulled a poker out of the fire and began using it to punctuate his arguments in a threatening manner. Wittgenstein then challenged Popper to give an example of a universal moral principle. Popper responded, "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers."

Karl Popper said, " Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve."


It's the birthday of British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (books by this author), born in Stratford, England (1844). He loved poetry as a kid, but when he was in college in 1866, he gave up poetry for Lent. That summer, he converted to Catholicism. Less than a week later, he burned all of his own poems and didn't write again for seven years. He went into a kind of exile, joined the Jesuits, and traveled to rural Wales to be ordained as a priest. Those months in Wales would be one of the happiest periods of his life. It was while he was there, in 1877, preparing for his ordination, that he realized he could continue to write poetry as long as he was using his poetry to praise God. And so, in that single year of 1877, Hopkins wrote most of the poems for which he is remembered today, poems like "God's Grandeur" (1877), "Pied Beauty" (1877), and "The Starlight Night," (1877). He wrote in his diary at the time, "This world is ... a book [God] has written ... a poem of beauty."

But after his ordination, the Jesuits sent him to teach the poor children of industrial cities in Northern England, Scotland, and Ireland. Hopkins had looked forward to a life of hard work and sacrifice, but he had no idea how much he would hate living in these polluted, ugly cities. He wrote less and less, and finally, at the age of 44, he died from typhoid, which he'd caught from the polluted water in Dublin. He had published very few of his poems in his lifetime, and he might have been forgotten, except that he had kept up a lifelong correspondence with a friend from college: the poet Robert Bridges.

Hopkins had sent Bridges many of his poems, and after Hopkins's death, Bridges began to publish Hopkins's poetry.


It's the birthday of poet John Ashbery (books by this author), born in Rochester, New York (1927). He said, "I've always felt myself to be a rather frustrated composer who was trying to do with words what musicians are able to do with notes. The importance of meaning that's beyond expression in words is what I've always been attracted to."

He also said, "To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist's chief concern."




SUNDAY, 29 JULY, 2007
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Poem: "The Clasp" by Sharon Olds, from The Unswept Room. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Clasp
She was four, he was one, it was raining, we had colds,
we had been in the apartment two weeks straight,
I grabbed her to keep her from shoving him over on his
face, again, and when I had her wrist
in my grasp I compressed it, fiercely, for a couple
of seconds, to make an impression on her,
to hurt her, our beloved firstborn, I even almost
savored the stinging sensation of the squeezing, the
expression, into her, of my anger,
"Never, never again," the righteous
chant accompanying the clasp. It happened very
fast-grab, crush, crush,
crush, release-and at the first extra
force, she swung her head, as if checking
who this was, and looked at me,
and saw me-yes, this was her mom,
her mom was doing this. Her dark,
deeply open eyes took me
in, she knew me, in the shock of the moment
she learned me. This was her mother, one of the
two whom she most loved, the two
who loved her most, near the source of love
was this.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, born in Paris (1805). He's remembered for the book Democracy in America (1835), which he wrote after he took a trip to the United States when he was just 26 years old. He wanted to write about the American style of government as a way of improving the government of France. After a brief stop in Newport, he arrived in Manhattan at sunrise May 11, 1831. Over the course of the next nine months, he traveled more than 7,000 miles, using every vehicle then in existence, including steamer, stagecoach, and horse, going as far west as Green Bay, Wisconsin, and as far south as New Orleans.

More than anything else, Tocqueville was impressed by the fact that American democracy actually worked. He wrote, "America demonstrates invincibly one thing that I had doubted up to now: that the middle classes can govern a State. ... Despite their small passions, their incomplete education, their vulgar habits, they can obviously provide a practical sort of intelligence and that turns out to be enough."

He also believed that one of the fundamental characteristics of all Americans was a certain kind of restlessness. He wrote, "An American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and rent it just as the trees are coming into bearing ... he will take up a profession and leave it, settle in one place and soon go off elsewhere. ... In the end, death steps in and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit of happiness, which always escapes him."


It's the birthday of newspaper columnist, playwright, and short-story writer Don Marquis (books by this author), born Donald Robert Perry Marquis in Walnut, Illinois (1878). He said, "Upon entering the newspaper business all the troubles of my earlier years disappeared as if by magic, and I have lived the contented, peaceful, unworried life of the average newspaperman ever since."

Marquis created the characters Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the alley cat. Archy was a former free verse poet who "sees life from the underside now." He wasn't able to reach the shift key so everything he wrote was in lower case. And Mehitabel was an alley cat with questionable morals who insisted that she was Cleopatra in one of her former lives.

After using Archy and Mehitabel in columns for 10 years, Marquis made books out of their writing, beginning with Archy and Mehitabel (1927)


It's the birthday of novelist Booth Tarkington ( books by this author), born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1869). He wrote a whole string of popular novels, including Gentleman from Indiana (1900), The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), and Alice Adams (1921). In 1921, Publishers Weekly polled booksellers who rated Tarkington number one, above Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg.


It's the birthday of the poet Stanley Kunitz (books by this author), born in Worcester Massachusetts (1905). He died in 2006, just a few months shy of his 101st birthday.

His breakthrough as a writer finally came when his mother and sisters had all died. He said, "The disappearance of my family liberated me. It gave me a sense that I was the only survivor and if the experiences of my life, whatever it meant, were to be told, it was within my power to do so, and only within my power. And that gave me strength." He had spent his life writing metaphysical and philosophical poems, but at the age of 65, he published The Testing-Tree, his first book full of poems about his life.

He won the National Book Award when he was 90, for his collection Passing Through, and when he was 95, he became the first U.S. poet laureate of the 21st century. When asked about his longevity, he said, "I don't understand it ... I've had every affliction you can name. I'm curious. I'm active. I garden and I write and I drink martinis. And I love and I care for others. I have so many dear friends, well, I don't want to lose them. I want to see what they do next — and what I do next. I'm not done with my changes."

When asked what his advice was for younger poets, Stanley Kunitz said, "Do something else, develop any other skill ... turn to any other branch of knowledge. Learn how to use your hands. Try woodworking, birdwatching, gardening, sailing, weaving, pottery, archaeology, oceanography, spelunking, animal husbandry — take your pick. Whatever activity you engage in, as a trade or hobby or field study, will tone up your body and clear your head. At the very least it will help you with your metaphors."




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  • “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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