Poem: "Candles" by Carl Dennis, from New and Selected Poems 1974-2004. © Penguin Books, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
If on your grandmother's birthday you burn a candle
To honor her memory, you might think of burning an extra
To honor the memory of someone who never met her,
A man who may have come to the town she lived in
Looking for work and never found it.
Picture him taking a stroll one morning,
After a month of grief with the want ads,
To refresh himself in the park before moving on.
Suppose he notices on the gravel path the shards
Of a green glass bottle that your grandmother,
Then still a girl, will be destined to step on
When she wanders barefoot away from her school picnic
If he doesn't stoop down and scoop the mess up
With the want-ad section and carry it to a trash can.
For you to burn a candle for him
You needn't suppose the cut would be a deep one,
Just deep enough to keep her at home
The night of the hay ride when she meets Helen,
Who is soon to become her dearest friend,
Whose brother George, thirty years later,
Helps your grandfather with a loan so his shoe store
Doesn't go under in the Great Depression
And his son, your father, is able to stay in school
Where his love of learning is fanned into flames,
A love he labors, later, to kindle in you.
How grateful you are for your father's efforts
Is shown by the candles you've burned for him.
But today, for a change, why not a candle
For the man whose name is unknown to you?
Take a moment to wonder whether he died at home
With friends and family or alone on the road,
On the look-out for no one to sit at his bedside
And hold his hand, the very hand
It's time for you to imagine holding.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Labor Day, first celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. The holiday was the idea of the Central Labor Union in New York City, which organized a parade and a picnic featuring speeches by union leaders. It was intended to celebrate labor unions, call for the eight-hour workday, and to recognize the achievements of the American worker.
Many of the labor laws those early activists wanted were passed in the 1930s, including the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour workweek. Most sociologists predicted that in the coming decades Americans would work steadily fewer and fewer hours. But in fact, the opposite has happened. Today, more than 25 million Americans work more than 49 hours each week. And 11 million spend 60 hours or more at work each week. Americans also take fewer vacation days than employees in any other industrialized nation, making Americans the hardest-working (or most overworked) industrialized nation on the planet.
Most writers have worked day jobs at some point in their careers to support their writing, and many have been inspired by those day jobs. Salman Rushdie was an advertising man, and so was Allen Ginsberg. Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company. Charles Bukowski worked, among other things, as a janitor, a truck driver, and a bouncer for a brothel. Walt Whitman worked for a while as a teacher in series of windowless, poorly heated, one-room schoolhouses for almost no money. While teaching at one school, he wrote to a friend, "How tired and sick I am of this wretched, wretched hole! ... O, damnation, damnation! Thy other name is school-teaching."
It's the birthday of writer Sarah Orne Jewett (books by this author), born 1849 in South Berwick, Maine, renowned for her stories about the ships, fishermen, and coastal villages of 19th-century Maine. In her teens she started writing stories about the traditions of Maine village life. Of her 20 books, the best known is the short novel The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), which takes place in the fictitious town of Dunnet.
It's the birthday of American playwright, short-story writer, and essayist Sally Benson, born Sara Mahala Redway Smith in St. Louis (1900). She is best known for her novel Meet Me in St. Louis (1942), which was made into a movie musical in 1944. But she also wrote numerous stories and sketches for The New Yorker magazine. She published almost all of her work in The New Yorker, and she later said, "Editors of some of the [other] national magazines have asked for my stuff, but what they really want are healthy, clean-limbed, hearty young people on a raft and that isn't for me."
It's the birthday of novelist Alison Lurie (books by this author), born in Chicago, Illinois (1926). Her first big success was the novel The War Between the Tates (1974), about a college professor who has a mid-life crisis and his marriage begins to fall apart. Lurie went on to write several more novels about life in the world of academia, including Foreign Affairs (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize, about two American professors on sabbatical in England.
Poem: "Jet" by Tony Hoagland, from Donkey Gospel. © Graywolf Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Sometimes I wish I were still out
on the back porch, drinking jet fuel
with the boys, getting louder and louder
as the empty cans drop out of our paws
like booster rockets falling back to Earth
and we soar up into the summer stars.
Summer. The big sky river rushes overhead,
bearing asteroids and mist, blind fish
and old space suits with skeletons inside.
On Earth, men celebrate their hairiness,
and it is good, a way of letting life
out of the box, uncapping the bottle
to let the effervescence gush
through the narrow, usually constricted neck.
And now the crickets plug in their appliances
in unison, and then the fireflies flash
dots and dashes in the grass, like punctuation
for the labyrinthine, untrue tales of sex
someone is telling in the dark, though
no one really hears. We gaze into the night
as if remembering the bright unbroken planet
we once came from,
to which we will never
be permitted to return.
We are amazed how hurt we are.
We would give anything for what we have.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the novelist Richard Wright (books by this author), born in Roxie, Mississippi (1908). He grew up in the Jim Crow South, the son of a sharecropper and a schoolteacher. In 1927, he followed the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban centers in the North, winding up in Chicago. His early stories were about characters suffering under racism in the South, and his first book was called Uncle Tom's Children (1938). It was a big success, but Wright worried that the readers only liked it because it was full of black victims. He later wrote, "I had written a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book ... it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears."
He moved to New York City and began writing his next novel on a yellow legal pad while sitting on a bench in Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park, overlooking the brownstones and tenement houses below. He called the book Native Son (1940), the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man who gets hired by his white slumlord, Mr. Dalton, to work as a chauffeur. Bigger catches the eye of Mr. Dalton's free-thinking daughter Mary, but when he takes Mary out on the town, she gets so drunk that he has to carry her home. He helps her into bed, but when she begins to make noise, he is terrified that he'll be caught with her, so he covers her mouth with a pillow, and accidentally smothers her. He tries to cover up the death, but after fleeing police he is eventually caught and put on trial for murder and sentenced to death.
While working on the book, Wright told friends that he didn't think it would ever be published. But once he toned down some of the more explicitly sexual scenes from the novel, it became a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection and became a big best-seller. Today, many critics consider Wright's masterpiece to be his memoir Black Boy (1945).
It was on this day in 1886 that Geronimo, the last major Native American warrior, surrendered after 30 years of fighting in Arizona. The Apaches had largely been defeated by American troops. Their chief, Cochise, was dead, and the U.S. government forced them to live on a barren reservation in San Carlos, Arizona. But Geronimo organized a group of warriors to fight one last war of resistance. He fought for five years, and many military historians believe he was one of the most brilliant guerilla warfare strategists in history. He started out with a group of about 700 men, women, and children. He surrendered his forces twice, but each time he managed to escape.
For the last five months of the campaign, Geronimo led a band of only 37 warriors, pursued by 5,000 U.S. soldiers for five months without being captured. But Geronimo and his men finally got tired of living in the mountains, and so they surrendered on this day in 1886 in a place called Skeleton Canyon. He was essentially a prisoner of war for the rest of his life, but he was allowed to travel around the country, and he made a living by selling the buttons off his jacket and autographed photos of himself. He appeared at an exhibit at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, but he never saw Arizona again.
Poem: "Keys" by Nancy Henry, from Our Lady of Let's All Sing. © Sheltering Pines Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.
When things got hard
I used to drive and keep on driving
once to North Carolina
once to Arizona
I'm through with all that now, I hope.
The last time was years ago.
But oh, how I would drive
and keep on driving!
The universe around me
all well in my control;
anything I wanted on the radio,
the air blasting hot or cold;
sobbing as loudly as I cared to sob,
screaming as loudly as I needed to scream.
I would live on apples and black coffee,
shower at truck stops,
sleep curled up
in the cozy back seat I loved.
The last time, I left at 3 a.m.
By New York state,
I stopped screaming;
I stopped sobbing;
by the time I pulled into Flagstaff
I was thinking
about the Canyon,
I was so empty.
Thinking about the canyon
I sat on the rim at dawn,
let all the colors fill me.
It was cold. I saw my breath
like steam from a soup pot.
I saw small fossils in the gravel.
I saw how much world there was
how much darkness
could be swept out
by the sun.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1957 that Jack Kerouac's book On the Road was published. His inspiration for the book came 10 years earlier, when he decided to follow his friend Neal Cassady west across the country. Cassady was an ex-convict from Denver who had actually been born in a car, and who became a car thief when he was 14 years old. By the time Kerouac met him, Cassady had stolen more than 500 cars and had been arrested 10 times. Kerouac later wrote, "All my other current friends were intellectuals ... [but Cassady] was a wild yea-saying overburst of American Joy."
Kerouac was stuck in New York trying to finish a novel, while Cassady had headed back to Denver. They kept up a correspondence, and Kerouac began to fantasize about heading out on the open road to find his friend. He started reading histories of the great American migrations out West. He studied maps of the new highways that ran all the way from the East Coast to California. He was particularly attracted to Route 6, drawn in a red line on his map, which led from Cape Cod to Los Angeles. He made up his mind to follow it all the way to Denver. He scraped up enough money for the journey and set out in July of 1947.
Kerouac's journey did not start out well. He rode a trolley to the edge of Yonkers and then hoped to hitchhike the rest of the way across the country. But when he reached Route 6, at the border of Connecticut, he got caught in a rainstorm and there were no cars to pick him up. He finally gave up, made his way back to New York and used almost all his money to buy a bus ticket to Chicago.
Kerouac didn't start hitchhiking for real until he got outside of Chicago. He spent nights in YMCAs and broken-down hotels, and he ate almost nothing but apple pie and ice cream along the way. When he crossed the Mississippi River, he began to feel that he was really part of the American tradition of migration. In Omaha, he saw his first real cowboy, a man in boots and a 10-gallon hat. Riding through Nebraska, a rancher told him stories about the great Dust Bowl migration. He rode all the way from Nebraska to Wyoming on the back of a flatbed truck with a group of hobos.
He arrived in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at night and slept in a bus station. He later wrote, "I woke up with a big headache [and] I went outside. And there in the blue air I saw for the first time, far off, the great snowy tops of the Rocky Mountains." When he finally made it to Denver, he met up with Cassady and then went by himself to San Francisco, where he worked odd jobs for a while. He finally took a bus back to New York City in October, and he was so broke that he had to panhandle for bus fare to get to his mom's house in Ozone Park.
Kerouac knew he wanted to use the experience for a novel, but it took him a long time to get started. Finally, in April of 1951, he sat down at his kitchen table, wound a continuous roll of paper into a typewriter, tuned his radio to an all-night jazz station, and in 20 days wrote the first draft of his new novel. He changed Cassady's name to Dean Moriarity and his own name to Sal Paradise, and he told the basically true story of their adventures together. The result was his first successful novel, On the Road (1957).
Jack Kerouac wrote, "In America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it ... and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen."
Poem: "For My Daughter" by David Ignatow, from Against the Evidence: Selected Poems 1934-1994. © Wesleyan University Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
For My Daughter
When I die choose a star
and name it after me
that you may know
I have not abandoned
or forgotten you.
You were such a star to me,
following you through birth
and childhood, my hand
in your hand.
When I die
choose a star and name it
after me so that I may shine
down on you, until you join
me in darkness and silence
Literary and Historical Notes:
On this day in 1522, the ship Vittoria reached port in Spain, completing the first successful circumnavigation of the globe. The trip was originally undertaken by Ferdinand Magellan in 1519, and the purpose was to claim the valuable Spice Islands for Spain. Magellan set sail with 237 men on five ships. He had no idea how far he would have to travel. A Spanish historian at the time had written that the Spice Islands were no great distance from Panama. In fact, they were thousands of miles away.
They managed to sail around South America and when they reached the ocean on the other side, Magellan is said to have declared, "We are about to sail into an ocean where no ship has ever sailed before. May the ocean be always as calm and benevolent as it is today. In this hope I name it the Pacific Ocean."
Magellan estimated that they would reach the Spice Islands in a few days. The weather was perfect for sailing, and everyone was hopeful. But days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, and the ships began to run out of food. Somehow, Magellan managed to sail past nearly every single island in the South Pacific, so there was no way to get more supplies. The men were reduced to eating ox hides and llama skins, and many died of starvation. They finally reached their destination in March, three and a half months after rounding the tip of South America.
Magellan himself died on one of the islands, trying to convert the local people to Christianity by force. Of the five original ships, only one made the entire journey back to Spain, carrying 17 men, the only survivors of the original 237.
It's the birthday of writer Robert M. Pirsig, (books by this author) born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1928). In 1968, he decided to take a trip by motorcycle from Minneapolis to California with his twelve-year-old son. He thought he'd write a travel essay about the journey, but the travel essay turned into a book about using Eastern philosophy to come to terms with his life. He called the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). It was rejected by 121 publishers before one publisher finally took a chance on it. It went on to become the best-selling non-fiction book of the 1970s, selling more than 4 million copies.
Robert Pirsig said: "I think metaphysics is good if it improves everyday life; otherwise forget it."
It's the birthday of the novelist Alice Sebold, (books by this author) born in Madison, Wisconsin (1963). She was a freshman in college when one night she was attacked while she was walking home, dragged into an underground tunnel, and raped. She thought that she was going to be murdered throughout the experience. When she later talked to the police, they said that a girl had recently been murdered in that same tunnel, and so she should consider herself lucky for having survived. A few weeks later, Sebold spotted the rapist on the street, and she went to the police. He was arrested, and Sebold testified against him at the trial. The rapist was convicted and received the maximum sentence, and Sebold thought that the end of the trial would put the experience behind her.
But for the next 15 years she struggled to have relationships with other people, and she struggled to write. She moved to New York and started drinking a lot and dabbling in drugs. She wrote numerous stories and two novels, but she couldn't get anything published. In the back of her mind, Sebold had always thought about that other girl who had been murdered in the tunnel where she'd been raped. Sebold wanted to give that girl a voice, so one day she sat down at her desk and in one sitting Sebold wrote the entire opening of what would become her novel The Lovely Bones, about a murdered 14-year-old girl looking down from heaven as her family tries to recover from the grief of her death. It begins, "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."
The Lovely Bones was published by Little, Brown, and it became a word-of-mouth sensation among booksellers and critics before it was even published. It came out in June of 2002, a few months before Sebold's 39th birthday, and sold more than 2 million copies, becoming the best-selling book in 2002.
Alice Sebold said, "It's very weird to succeed at 39 years old and realize that in the midst of your failure, you were slowly building the life that you wanted."
Poem: "Three Songs at the End of Summer" by Jane Kenyon, from Collected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Three Songs at the End of Summer
A second crop of hay lies cut
and turned. Five gleaming crows
search and peck between the rows.
They make a low, companionable squawk,
and like midwives and undertakers
possess a weird authority.
Crickets leap from the stubble,
parting before me like the Red Sea.
The garden sprawls and spoils.
Across the lake the campers have learned
to water ski. They have, or they haven't.
Sounds of the instructor's megaphone
suffuse the hazy air. "Relax! Relax!"
Cloud shadows rush over drying hay,
fences, dusty lane, and railroad ravine.
The first yellowing fronds of goldenrod
brighten the margins of the woods.
Schoolbooks, carpools, pleated skirts;
water, silver-still, and a vee of geese.
The cicada's dry monotony breaks
over me. The days are bright
and free, bright and free.
Then why did I cry today
for an hour, with my whole
body, the way babies cry?
A white, indifferent morning sky,
and a crow, hectoring from its nest
high in the hemlock, a nest as big
as a laundry basket...
In my childhood
I stood under a dripping oak,
while autumnal fog eddied around my feet,
waiting for the school bus
with a dread that took my breath away.
The damp dirt road gave off
this same complex organic scent.
I had the new bookswords, numbers,
and operations with numbers I did not
comprehendand crayons, unspoiled
by use, in a blue canvas satchel
with red leather straps.
Spruce, inadequate, and alien
I stood at the side of the road.
It was the only life I had.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1927 that a man named Philo T. Farnsworth transmitted the first ever all-electronic television picture in history. Farnsworth had gotten the idea for television when he was just 14 years old, living on a potato farm in Idaho. His high school science teacher had gotten him interested in electricity, and he studied electrical engineering in his spare time. One day, he was tilling a potato field, walking with the horse back and forth, when he suddenly had a vision of a machine that could break an image down, line by line, and then reconstruct it on a screen.
He finished high school in just two years and then went to Brigham Young University. But he dropped out to pursue his dream of creating the electric television. He got some investors together and set up a laboratory in San Francisco. And it was there, on this day, that he pointed his Image Dissector at a picture of a single line and turned on the receiver, which showed the same picture of a single line. Farnsworth then rotated the picture 90 degrees, and the people watching the receiver saw it rotate. When the demonstration was complete, Farnsworth said, "There you are, electronic television."
But Farnsworth never got much credit for his invention. He turned down offers from both RCA and General Electric because he wanted to be an independent. But he had little business expertise, and instead of spending his time developing television for a mass audience, he got bogged down in a series of lawsuits. The biggest battle of Farnsworth's life was a court battle with RCA over the control of his patent. RCA claimed that one of their engineers already held a patent on the technology Farnsworth had developed. Farnsworth finally won the case in 1934, but RCA decided to just wait until Farnsworth's patents ran out before they began manufacturing televisions without paying Farnsworth anything.
Farnsworth never became famous for his invention, and later felt that he'd created a kind of monster. He never owned a television himself, and refused to let his son watch it.
Poem: "The Dreams of the Old" by Timothy J. Nolan. Used with permission of the author.
The Dreams of the Old
So they are around our tablemy mother,
my father, an uncleand we begin to talk
about our dreamswith some urgency
as if our dreams could pinpoint our psychic
dangersour unrealized goalsour
ordinary fear of death and the future.
My mother talks about her dreams of flying
over the little town where she grew up
over the old Opera Housedown Main Street
with all the people she knew below her
then towards the gently flowing river
that seemed to flow into the sunset
toward which she soaredshe lingered
with us on that imageas if she had said
enoughthenmy uncle talked about
his recurring dreamhe's going to be
in a playbut no one's bothered
to rehearse the sceneshe's standing
in the wings waiting to go onhe doesn't
know what he will sayall through this
my father is silenthe is closest to death
we all know thiswe forgive him his silence
his silencehas his presenceas in a dream.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Michael Frayn, (books by this author) born in London, England (1933), who's best known as the author of the play Noises Off (1982), about a group of amateur actors performing a sex comedy called Nothing On. In the first half of the play, the audience sees what's happening on the stage; in the second half of the play, the audience sees what's happening backstage. Some of the actors are alcoholics and some are having affairs with each other and everything falls apart. One of the characters says, "That's what it's all about. Doors and sardines. Getting on - getting off. Getting the sardines on getting the sardines off. That's farce. That's the theater. That's life."
It's the birthday of Ann Beattie, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C. (1947). Her work has been compared to other so-called "minimalist" short-story writers like Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason. Her stories have been collected in books such as Distortions (1976), Where You'll Find Me (1986), and What Was Mine (1991). Her most recent book is Follies: New Stories (2005).
It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway came out with his last novel, The Old Man and the Sea. He had been working on a long novel that he called The Sea Book, about different aspects of the sea. He got the idea for it while looking for submarines in his fishing boat. The book had three sections, which he called "The Sea When Young," "The Sea When Absent," and "The Sea in Being," and it had an epilogue about an old fisherman. He wrote more than 800 pages of "The Sea Book" and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn't seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue about the old fisherman, which he called The Old Man and the Sea.
The novel begins, "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." It tells the story of an old man who catches the biggest fish of his life, only to have it eaten by sharks before he can get back to shore.
It was on this day in 1900 that the worst hurricane in American history hit Galveston, Texas. At the time Galveston was a beautiful resort town on the eastern end of a barrier island, just off the Texas coast. But the highest point of the island was only 8.7 feet above sea level, and when the storm approached all the bridges off the island were flooded and people were trapped on high ground. The storm hit that evening and by the end of it, more than a third of the entire city was gone. There was barely any trace of the houses or even the streets that had been there before. In total, more than 3,600 houses were completely destroyed. About 37,000 people were on the island when the storm hit. More than 12,000 were still missing weeks later. The official death toll was about 8,000, but most historians think that number is much too low.
Poem: "The Book of Hours" by Joyce Sutphen. Used with permission of the author.
The Book of Hours
There was that one hour sometime
in the middle of the last century.
It was autumn, and I was in my father's
woods building a house out of branches
and the leaves that were falling like
thousands of letters from the sky.
And there was that hour in Central Park
in the middle of the seventies.
We were sitting on a blanket, listening
to Pete Seeger singing "This land is
your land, this land is my land," and
the Vietnam War was finally over.
I would definitely include an hour
spent in one of the galleries of the
Tate Britain, looking up at the
painting of King Cophetua and
the Beggar Maid, and, afterwards
the walk along the Thames, and
I would also include one of those
hours when I woke in the night and
couldn't get back to sleep thinking
about how nothing I thought was going
to happen happened the way I expected,
and things I never expected to happen did
just like that hour today, when we saw
the dog running along the busy road,
and we stopped and held on to her
until her owner came along and brought
her homethat was an hour well
spent. Yes, that was a keeper.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (books by this author), born on his family's estate in the province of Tula, near Moscow (1828). As a young man, he loved to drink and gamble, but he always felt guilty about it. He started keeping a diary, and wrote his first diary entry about his fear that he had contracted a venereal disease. He wrote pages and pages wondering why he couldn't help breaking all the rules that society had made for him, and he became fascinated by the idea that people are always trying to stop themselves from doing what they really want to do.
He volunteered to fight in a war against the Chechen mountain tribes, and went on to fight in the Crimean War. He wrote stories about the battles he witnessed, and he was one of the first writers to describe battles as chaotic and insane and meaningless. At the end of one story, he wrote that none of the characters in the story were heroes; the only hero in the story was the truth.
In the 1850s, Russia was still operating under a medieval economic system with most of the peasants enslaved as serfs. Tolstoy opened a school for peasants on his family's estate, and helped open more than 20 schools in surrounding villages. He even liked to live like a peasant, with no upholstered furniture and no carpets on the floor, something that disturbed his wife when she first married him. But it was in those early happy years of his marriage that Tolstoy wrote his first masterpiece, War and Peace (1868), about Russian war against Napoleon's invasion. It was the longest and most ambitious novel he'd ever written, and he was only willing to attempt it because he now had his wife to work as his secretary. He would scribble corrections all over a rough draft, and she was the only person who could decipher what his corrections said. She ultimately copied by hand the 1,400-page manuscript four times.
In 1872, Tolstoy heard about a woman who had thrown herself in front of a train after the end of an affair, and he went to view the body at the train station. He never forgot what he saw that day, and it gave him an idea for a novel about a woman whose life is destroyed by adultery. That novel was Anna Karenina (1875), about a beautiful, highly respected married woman named Anna who arrives at her brother's house to help him reconcile with his wife, only to find herself falling into an adulterous affair with a dashing military man named Count Vronsky. It begins, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."