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Poem: excerpts from "In Memoriam" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Public Domain

excerpts from In Memoriam


Dark house, by which once more I stand
   Here in the long unlovely street,
   Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasped no more—
   Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
   And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
   The noise of life begins again,
   And ghastly through the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.


Love is and was my Lord and King,
   And in his presence I attend
   To hear the tidings of my friend,
Which every hour his couriers bring.

Love is and was my King and Lord,
   And will be, though as yet I keep
   Within his court on earth, and sleep
Encompassed by his faithful guard,

And hear at times a sentinel
   Who moves about from place to place,
   And whispers to the worlds of space,
In the deep night, that all is well.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1945 that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. It was the first time that a nuclear weapon was used in combat, only the second time that one had been exploded. It was an attack which led to the end of World War II.

It's the birthday of the man who discovered penicillin, the Scottish bacteriologist Sir Alexander Fleming, born in Lochfield in Ayr, Scotland (1881). In 1928, he noticed that one culture of Staphylococcus bacteria had been accidentally contaminated by a green mold called Penicillium notatum, and around the mold there was a circle where the bacteria could not grow.

Sir Alexander Fleming once said, "A good gulp of hot whiskey at bedtime—it's not very scientific, but it helps."

It's the birthday of the poet Alfred Tennyson (books by this author), born in Lincolnshire, England (1809), who gave us such long poems as In Memoriam and Idylls of the King. At the height of his career, he was one of the most famous men in England.

Tennyson loved poetry, and wrote almost nothing else. He never wrote an essay or a review. He kept a diary, wrote no memoir, and wrote no autobiography at all. He hated writing letters.

He lived at a time when authors such as Dickens, others were turning the novel into the most popular form of literature, and he was one of the last poets who could sell as many books as a novelist. Nearly every English household of people who could read owned at least one copy of Tennyson.

He was a friend of Queen Victoria, wrote public poems, including the "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" and "Charge of the Light Brigade" in 1854. He lived with his wife Emily on the Isle of Wight in a big secluded house. He took long walks along the chalk cliffs overlooking the sea, composing his poems.

In 1864, he published Enoch Arden, which had the largest sales of any book during his lifetime, more than 40,000 copies on publication. He was followed in the streets by his admirers. Tourists came all the way to the Isle of Wight to line up at the walls of his country estate.

At the age of 75, he was offered a lordship in honor of his poetry, the first time any Englishman had been given a title for literary achievement alone. And that is why we now call him Alfred Lord Tennyson.

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Poem: "The Bachelor" by Leslie Monsour, from The Alarming Beauty of the Sky © Red Hen Press. Reprinted with permission.
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The Bachelor

No family pictures on the wall, no books,
A drafting desk, a travel magazine;
No children, one divorce, a satellite dish—
A cold, efficient exercise machine,

And in the corner with the firewood, stacks
Of videos. The fridge comes with "lite" beer
And non-fat milk for the granola stored
In jars. I've looked, but there's no sugar here.

Platoons of running shoes camp by the door;
His Boston fern, neglected, pays the price;
His one unfriendly cat purposefully saunters
Across the threshold, searching hard for mice.

As he begins to age, and his gray beard
Inaugurates the thinning of his hair,
He'll pale with each sensation in his chest,
Each flutter, every pain and numbness there—

No cardiologist, nor any chart
Will ever find the trouble with his heart.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the journalist Jane Kramer (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1938). She's known for the many long pieces she's written for the New Yorker magazine about teenagers in Morocco and cowboys in Texas and Allen Ginsberg and Europe. Her most recent book, Lone Patriot: The Short Career of an American Militiaman came out a couple of years ago.

It was on this day in 1912 that Teddy Roosevelt was nominated by the Progressive Party to run for President, an election that went on to define the Republican Party for the rest of the 20th Century.

Republicans had dominated politics ever since the Civil War. A Republican had been in the White House for 44 of the previous 52 years. They were the party of civil rights and, under the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican Party became the party of environmental conservation, antitrust laws, and consumer protection.

Teddy Roosevelt was one of the most popular presidents in history, the youngest too. He was 42 when he took office. He was the first president to ride in an automobile and in an airplane, and the first to visit a foreign country while in office. He was a naturalist. He was an author of history. He published almost 50 books (books by this author).

After he'd served two terms, he announced that he would not seek a third term. He handpicked his successor, William Howard Taft, and then went off on an African safari. But when he got back, Teddy Roosevelt found that Taft had moved away from progressive principles and aligned himself with the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

Teddy Roosevelt ran against Taft in the primaries, won the primary in Taft's home state of Ohio, but eventually it was party insiders who picked the nominee, and they gave it to Taft. And so Roosevelt called for the creation of a new progressive party and accepted its nomination on this day in 1912. It was nicknamed the Bull Moose Party because Roosevelt said, "I am as strong as a bull moose, and you can use me to the limit."

He was in a three-way race with Taft and Woodrow Wilson, campaigning on a platform that called for income taxes, inheritance taxes, the eight-hour workday, and voting rights for women. He drew huge crowds wherever he went. In Milwaukee, October 14, 1912, on the way to give his speech, he was shot by a man six feet away, the bullet deflected by the speech in his pocket, along with a metal eyeglasses case. Roosevelt went on to give the speech, but Woodrow Wilson won the election. Despite Roosevelt making the best showing of any third party candidate in American history. He came in second.

And one of the results of his Progressive Party campaign was splitting the Republican Party between conservatives and progressives, and the progressives have never been in charge since.

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Poem: "Endymion (extract)" by John Keats. Public Domain

Endymion (extract)

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases, it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er—darkened ways
Made of our searching; yes, in spite of all
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (books by this author), born in Washington D.C. (1896). She spent her early life traveling around the country as a newspaper reporter. When she was 30, she went to Florida and fell in love with it. She started an orange grove and learned to cope with mosquitoes and poison ivy. She learned how to build fences, slaughter hogs, and make moonshine.

She had written two novels before, and in 1938, she came out with her novel The Yearling, the story of a boy in backwoods Florida who keeps a pet fawn named Flag. It is now considered a children's book, but at the time it was a best-seller among adults and won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

It was on this day in 1974 that Richard M. Nixon resigned the office of the presidency, the first American president in history to do so. His policies as president had been rather liberal. He began arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. He eased relations with China. He established the Environmental Protection Agency, expanded Social Security and state welfare programs and tried to create a national health insurance system.

He won re-election in 1972 in a landslide, but in that same year a group of men broke into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, and in that break-in were the seeds of his downfall.

And today is the anniversary of the end of one of the last truly happy periods of John Keats's life. It was on this day in 1818, Keats finished a long walking tour through England. John Keats was 23 years old. He'd planned to become a surgeon, but he realized his real vocation was poetry, and in the spring of 1818, he published his first major long poem Endymion. And then he set out on a hike through the countryside with his friend Charles Brown. Wordsworth was one of Keats's favorite poets, and he knew that Wordsworth had been inspired by walking around England, so Keats decided to do the same that summer.

Keats was a London boy. He had never seen the mountains. He had never seen a waterfall. He wrote letters back to his brother about the wonderful things that he saw, but gradually on his hike he realized he was no Wordsworth, that he did not want to write about scenery. He hated descriptions. He was more interested in the people whom he saw along the way. He was fascinated by the peasants who walked barefoot on the roads, carrying their shoes and stockings so they would look nice when they got to town. He saw an old woman being carried along the road in a kind of a cage like a dog kennel, smoking a pipe.

He came back to London and learned that the reviews of his last book of poetry, Endymion, were coming in and critics had written ferocious attacks on him. He was crushed. And his brother had come down with a serious case of tuberculosis. His brother died in December, and by the end of that year, John Keats had contracted tuberculosis himself. He would die three years later, in 1821. It was in those last three years of his life that he wrote most of his greatest poems.

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Poem: "The Mower" by Philip Larkin, from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus, Giroux. Reprinted with permission.
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The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 378 A.D., the Romans were routed by the Visigoths at the Battle of Adrianople, a victory of barbarian horsemen over Roman infantry. It was one of the most decisive battles in what is now the nation of Turkey. Two-thirds of the Roman army, 40,000 men, including Emperor Valens himself, were overrun and slaughtered by the Visigoths which set the stage for the fall of the Roman Empire.

It's the birthday of Izaak Walton (books by this author), (1593). He was the author of The Compleat Angler: Or, The Contemplative Man's Recreation, a guide to the joys of fishing.

It was on this day in 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden; or, Life in the Woods; the first edition was 2,000 copies, and it took five years to sell them off.

It's the birthday of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (books by this author), born in 1896. He dedicated his life to the question of how a child learns. He was a tall, portly man with white hair, wore rumpled suits, and he spent long hours on his hands and knees playing marbles with children.

It's the birthday of P(amela) L(yndon) Travers (books by this author), the penname of Helen Lyndon Goff, born in Mayborough, Queensland, Australia (1899). P.L. Travers, famous as the author of Mary Poppins.

She grew up in Australia. In her 20s, she moved to Dublin and created the character for her own amusement, a prim, somewhat ill-humored, magical British nanny who appears at a household in a high wind and floats away when the wind changes. Mary Poppins came out in 1934. It was a big success in Britain and the U.S., and P.L. Travers wrote seven sequels.

It's the birthday of the poet Philip Larkin (books by this author), born in Coventry, England (1922). He was considered one of the great English poets of his time, though he only published four slim books of poetry, a total of only 117 poems. He grew up in the English mid-lands. His father was a governmental official and a Nazi sympathizer who decorated the house with Nazi regalia throughout the '30s until the war started.

Larkin went to Oxford and met Kingsley Amis there. They became life-long friends. He worked as a professional librarian for more than 40 years, writing in his spare time. He was a poet who managed to write very beautiful poems that incorporated all sorts of four-letter words.

In 1966, he wrote in a letter, "I feel I am landed on my 45th year as if washed up on a rock, not knowing how I got here or ever had a chance of being anywhere else... Anyone would think I was Tolstoy, the value I put on writing, but it hasn't amounted to much."

From 1974 to 1977, Larkin worked on a single 50-line poem, the last major poem he wrote called "Aubade," about watching the sunrise in a bedroom and thinking about the fear of death. It's the poem that most critics considered to be his masterpiece.

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Poem: "Night Flight" by Marjorie Saiser, from Lost in Seward County. © The Backwaters Press. Reprinted with permission.
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Night Flight

From 18F I see only the wing,
see only metal and rivets and painted black arrows
and partially worn-off letters saying things like NO STEP.
From 18F, or anywhere on this plane,
I could see, if I want to, the video.
I could, evidently, watch ads for Buzz Lightyear, the series.
But I am watching us, the community
of 1090 to Denver. We are facing forward
as though in a tunnel or tube,
dots of light in a row above our heads.
We are ranks of readers, sleepers.

or we are the cast of Our Town;
we are cast as the dear departed,
sitting onstage on our chairs-supposed to be graves—
looking straight ahead, talking among ourselves,
never looking at Emily, the living,
when she comes to visit the cemetery.
We are not turning toward Emily;

we are numbers and letters facing forward.
From 18F I see we are regular in our posture,
regular in our habits.

In my row we are raising similar cups from similar trays,
oddly comforting:
now this head, now that one, lowers to drink.
One by one we sip our mutual nectar;
one by one we set it down.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1842 that Herman Melville left the Marquesas Islands and hopped a whale ship back home, an experience that became the subject of his first book. He had signed onto a whaling ship in 1841, he was in need a job. It was a great adventure at first. He got to see sperm whales, sailed along the coast of South America, and saw the Galapagos Islands. He was looking forward to the Pacific Islands. He had heard it was like a paradise. The weather was perfect, and the women were beautiful and scantily clad. But by the time the ship reached there, the captain had grown sick and he was treating his men worse and worse. And so Herman Melville jumped ship and went off on his own. He snuck over the side of the ship in a downpour, swam to shore, and headed into the jungle, knowing only a few of the native words and phrases.

He came upon a village of friendly people and lived with them for four months. He came to believe they were far more civilized than any Europeans or Americans. Men and women wore the same clothing. Both went bare-chested, a skirt of cloth, wore jewelry, loved to dance, and were free with their sexuality.

And he noticed that though they were forced to live off the land and build their own homes, there were no poor people. Nobody went hungry. He wrote, "There seemed to be no cares, griefs, troubles, or vexations... There were no foreclosures of mortgages, no bills payable...or to sum it all up in one word—no money."

He found his life luxurious, but he was worried if he stayed too long he'd never leave. So on this day in 1842, he found an Australian ship in need of crew, and he hopped aboard. It took him more than a year to get back to the U.S., and when he got home, he told his sister a sanitized version of what had happened to him in the Marquesas. She urged him to write it down, and that became his first book, Narrative of a Four Months' Residence Among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands, which was a huge success, but it plagued Melville for the rest of his life—his readers always expected him to write more tales of exotic adventures in the Pacific.

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Poem: "Take Care" by Heather McHugh, from Hinge & Sign I Prefer © Wesleyan University Press. Reprinted with permission.
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Take Care

When a man dies, it's not only of his disease;
he dies of his whole life. -Charles Péguy

Our neighbor Laura Foley used to love
to tell us, every spring when we returned
from work in richer provinces, the season's
roster of disease, bereavement, loss. And all
her stars were ill, and all her ailments worth
detailing. We were young, and getting up
into the world; we feigned a gracious
interest when she spoke, but did
a wicked slew of imitations, out
of earshot. Finally her bitterness drove off
even such listeners as we, and one by one the winters nailed
more cold into her house, until the decade crippled her,
and she was dead. Her presence had been
tiresome, cheerless, negative, and there was little
range or generosity in anything she said. But now that I

have lost my certainty, and spent my spirit in a waste
of one romance, I think enumerations have their place,
descriptive of what keeps on
keeping on. For dying's nothing
simple, single. And the records of the odd
demises (stone inside an organ, obstacles to brook,
a pump that stops, some cells that won't,
the fevers making mockeries of lust)
are signatures of lively
interest: they presuppose
the life to lose. And if the love of life's
an art, and art is difficult, then we
were less than laymen at it (easy come
is all the layman knows). I mean that maybe
Laura Foley loved life more, who kept
so keen an eye on how it goes.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the short story writer Andre Dubus (books by this author), born in Lake Charles, Louisiana (1936).

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Roots, Alex Haley (books by this author), born in Ithaca, New York (1921). Roots came out in 1976. It was a fictionalized history of seven generations of his family from Africa through slavery in the United States. He spent more than seven years doing research for it. And in order to imagine the slaves' passage across the Atlantic Ocean, he booked a trip on a boat from West Africa and spent every day on the second level of the boat in a cramped bunk bed wearing only his underwear.

It's the birthday of playwright David Hwang (books by this author), born in Los Angeles (1958), best known for his play M. Butterfly in 1988.

It's the birthday of short story writer and novelist Angus Wilson (books by this author), born in Sussex, England (1913), author of The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos.

It's the birthday of Scottish poet who wrote under the name Hugh MacDiarmid (books by this author). He was born Christopher Murray Grieve, in Langholm, Scotland (1892). He started out writing poetry in English but then felt more at home writing in the Scottish dialect that he had spoken as a child. His masterpiece was A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, published in 1926.

It's the birthday of poet Louise Bogan (books by this author), born in Livermore Falls, Maine (1897). Louise Bogan said, "I have no fancy idea about poetry. It's not like embroidery or painting or silk. It doesn't come to you on the wings of a dove. It's something you have to work hard at."

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Poem: "Thinking about the Past" by Donald Justice, from Selected Poetry and Prose © Middlebury College Press. Reprinted with permission.
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Thinking about the Past

Certain moments will never change, nor stop being—
My mother's face all smiles, all wrinkles soon;
The rock wall building, built, collapsed then, fallen;
Our upright loosening downward slowly out of tune—
All fixed into place now, all rhyming with each other.
That red—haired girl with wide mouth—Eleanor—
Forgotten thirty years—her freckled shoulders, hands.
The breast of Mary Something, freed from a white swimsuit,
Damp, sandy, warm; or Margery's, a small, caught bird—
Darkness they rise from, darkness they sink back toward.
O marvelous early cigarettes! O bitter smoke, Benton...
And Kenny in wartime whites, crisp, cocky,
Time a bow bent with his certain failure.
Dusks, dawns; waves; the ends of songs...

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Katherine Lee Bates (books by this author), born in Falmouth, Massachusetts (1859), who wrote the poem that begins,

"O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!"

She was a poet and professor of English at Wellsley, who, in the summer of 1893, traveled with a group of teachers to Colorado, hiked to the top of Pikes Peak, and said, "I was looking out over the expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, [when] the opening lines of [a poem] floated into my mind." And by the time she left Colorado, she had written four stanzas in her notebook of "America the Beautiful," which was published on the 4th of July, 1895. It was set to music about ten years later.

It's the birthday of classics scholar Edith Hamilton (books by this author), born in Dresden, Germany (1867), to American parents. She grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her father believed in education for young ladies, so she started learning Latin and Greek as a child. She went on to study classics in Europe. She was the head mistress of a prep school. After her retirement, she wrote a book about Greek civilization called The Greek Way, followed in 1942 by her book Mythology. For many years, American children first learned about Hercules and Medusa and Odysseus from the book by Edith Hamilton.

It's the birthday of the poet Donald Justice (books by this author), born in Miami (1925). He grew up in Florida during the Great Depression. His father was an itinerant carpenter, but his parents gave their boy piano lessons, which inspired Donald Justice to try to become a composer. He eventually switched to writing.

He started out as a minimalist poet. He came out with a book about once every ten years. And then in 1982, went back to his home state of Florida and found the landscape so different that he suddenly began to write poem after poem about his childhood. He died in 2004, just a few weeks before his collected poems came out.

It's the birthday of novelist Wallace Markfield (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1926). He is author of You Could Live If They Let You, Teitelbaum's Window, and To An Early Grave.



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