Poem: excerpts from "Perpetuum Mobile: The City" by William Carlos Williams from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I 1909-1939. © New Directions, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
excerpts from Perpetuum Mobile: The City
in the night
in the distance
a little false
All at once
in the east
as a flower
a locust cluster
a shad bush
Over the swamps
On the black
than a little
We have bred
we have dug
we have figured up
we have bought
an old rug
We batter at our
There is no end
Let us break
and go there
on a summer's day
the hard grey
in a wall of
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Frank O'Connor, (books by this author) who was born Michael O'Donovan in Cork, Ireland (1903). He started writing stories at the age of 12, even though he originally wanted to be an artist. He said, "I was intended by God to be a painter, but I was very poor and pencil and paper were the cheapest. Music was out for that reason as well. Literature is the poor man's art."
He joined the Irish Republican Army while he was still a teenager and fought in the Civil War. He was arrested and imprisoned, got out of prison, got a job at a library, and began writing stories about the war. He made his name with a short story called "Guests of a Nation" (1932), about a group of Irish soldiers who become friends with the British soldiers they are holding hostage, only to learn that those British hostages will be executed.
O'Connor's work was banned in Ireland, so he moved to the United States, where he published many of his short stories in The New Yorker magazine. His readership was mostly American, but he said, "I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people merely because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said."
It's the birthday of Hank Williams, (albums by this musician) born in Mount Olive, Alabama (1923). He was a radio star and a successful recording artist, but he kept playing roadhouses big smoky places where people came to drink beer and dance.
It's the birthday of Robert Brown Parker, (books by this author) born in Springfield, Massachusetts (1932). He created a private eye named Spenser who spends his free time making gourmet food, including "buffalo tenderloin marinated in red wine and garlic served with fiddle head ferns, corn pudding, and red potatoes cooked with bay leaf," and "German sausages with green apples sliced dipped in flour and fried in the sausage fat. Served with coarse rye bread and wild strawberry jam."
The newest Spenser mystery, entitled Now & Then, will come out this October (2007).
Ken Kesey (books by this author) was born on this day in La Junta, Colorado (1935). He was a champion wrestler in high school and voted most likely to succeed. He married his high school sweetheart and almost went to Hollywood to be an actor and then accepted a fellowship in creative writing at Stanford, where, as part of a VA experiment, for $75 a day, which was good money, he became one of the first Americans to be exposed to a new drug called LSD.
The experience changed his life. He became fascinated by the idea of sanity and insanity and who decides and what the boundary is, and he took a job as the night attendant on the psychiatric ward of a hospital, which inspired his novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), the story of a struggle between a powerful nurse named Miss Ratched and a con man named Randle Patrick McMurphy, who feigns insanity to get out of a jail sentence.
Kesey's novel was hailed as a masterpiece, and people predicted a great career for him. But two years later, his novel Sometimes a Great Notion didn't do nearly as well. Kesey got involved in the counterculture, and it was 15 years before he wrote another novel. In 1969, he moved back to his family's farm in Oregon and spent much of the rest of his life raising cattle and sheep and growing blueberries. He joined the local school board and coached wrestling and taught a creative writing class. His last novel was Last Go Round (1994), an old-fashioned Western based on the pulp fiction he'd loved reading when he was a kid. He died in 2001.
Ken Kesey said, "The trouble with super heroes is what to do between phone booths."
It's the birthday of the poet William Carlos Williams, (books by this author) born in Rutherford, New Jersey (1883). He went to medical school and then moved back to Rutherford and opened a doctor's office at his house at number 9 Ridge Road. His clientele was Italian and Polish and German immigrant families. In his spare time, he kept up with all the avant-garde movements in poetry and art, and he wrote many books of his own poetry. He said, "The goal of writing is to keep a beleaguered line of understanding which has movement from breaking down and becoming a hole into which we sink decoratively to rest."
Poem: "Highway Five Love Poem" by Ruth L. Schwartz, from Dear Good Naked Morning. © Autumn House Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Highway Five Love Poem
This is a love poem for all the tomatoes
spread out in the fields along Highway Five,
their gleaming green and ruddy faces like a thousand
moons prostrate in praise of sun.
And for every curd of cloud,
clotted cream of cloud spooned briskly
by an unseen hand into the great blue bowl,
then out again, into a greedy mouth.
Cotton baled up beside the road,
altars to the patron saint of dryer lint.
Moist fudge of freshly-planted dirt.
Shaggy neglected savage grasses
bent into the wind's designs.
Sheep scattered over the landscape like fuzzy confetti,
or herded into stubbled funnels, moving like rough water
toward its secret source.
Egrets praying in the fields like
A dozen wise and ponderous cows
suddenly spurred to run, to gallop, even,
down a flank of hill.
Horses for sale, goats for sale, nopales for sale, orange groves for sale,
topless trailers carrying horses,
manes as loose and lovely as tomorrow in our mouths,
and now a giant pig, jostling majestic in the open
bed of a red pickup,
and now a fawn-colored coyote
framed between the startled fruit trees
who looks directly at me before loping back
into the world he owns.
Even the bits of trash are alive,
and chase each other in the wind, and show their underwear.
Even the sparrows hop like the spirit,
sustain themselves on invisible specks,
flutter and plummet, rise straight up like God.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1851 that the first edition of The New York Times was published in a dirty, candlelit office just off Wall Street by Henry J. Raymond. Raymond had been fired by Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune, and he intended The New York Times to put the Tribune out of business, which it did, but not in Raymond's lifetime. Raymond decided to model his paper on the London Times, which was known for its integrity and lack of sensationalism. They put out 5,000 copies, which were sold for a cent apiece. The Times soon had a circulation of 10,000, did well among the educated and affluent, but it fell on hard times in the 1890s and was bought on the cheap by Adolph Ochs who turned it into the most influential paper in the country, though it remained conservative in style, rarely using big headlines. It only began to use color photographs in the last decade.
It was on this day in 1793 that President George Washington laid the cornerstone of the United States Capitol building. It was designed as a much smaller building than the one we know because the senators and representatives had no offices, they simply worked at their desks on the floor of the House or Senate, and the public area under the dome was a flea market, where people sold everything from silk to light machinery. The wings were later extended, and then a larger dome was installed in proportion to the wings. The building as we know it was finished in the middle of the Civil War. Some people opposed spending money on a construction project in the middle of a war, but Abraham Lincoln thought the Capitol was a symbol that the Union would be preserved.
It's the birthday of Samuel Johnson, (books by this author) born in Lichfield, England (1709), who wrote a dictionary of the English language that was more comprehensive than rival dictionaries and also more interesting to read. It included 114,000 quotations to illustrate word usage, including quotations from Samuel Johnson himself.
Samuel Johnson said, "The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good."
Poem: "Letter to N.Y." by Elizabeth Bishop from The Complete Poems 1927-1979. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Letter to N.Y.
For Louise Crane
In your next letter I wish you'd say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you're pursuing:
taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,
and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves
and suddenly you're in a different place
where everything seems to happen in waves,
and most of the jokes you just can't catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so terribly late,
and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.
Wheat, not oats, dear. I'm afraid
if it's wheat it's none of your sowing,
nevertheless I'd like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Roger Angell, (books by this author) born in New York City (1920), who went to baseball games with his father as a kid and got to see Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back home runs. He grew up reading the sports sections of four newspapers. His mother, Katherine White, was an editor at The New Yorker. Angell took a job as fiction editor there in 1956, and in 1962 he began writing about baseball. Angell said, "[Baseball is] perfect for a writer, so full of specifics. ... One trap in writing about baseball is excessive nostalgia. I think it may be because we all came to the game through our fathers and at a time when we were children and everything in the world seemed good. But the quality of most experience is not confined to when we were young. Tomorrow I could see the best game I'll ever see." His most recent book is a collection of personal essays, Let Me Finish, which came out last year (2006).
It was on this day in 1991 that a 5,300-year-old corpse was found frozen in a glacier in the Alps, between Austria and Italy, the most ancient human being ever found completely intact. He was between 25 and 35 years old, about five feet, two inches tall. His hair was cut; he had several tattoos. He wore a fur robe, whipstitched in a mosaic pattern, a woven grass cape, and size 6 shoes. He carried a copper axe and a fur quiver for his arrows, which had sharp flint points and feathers to make the arrows spin in flight, and several mushrooms strung on leather cord, a mushroom known to fight infections. But the mushrooms didn't do him much good because he had an arrowhead in his back. He was apparently murdered.
It's the anniversary of the day in 1846 that poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning eloped, after a ferocious courtship in which they wrote 574 letters back and forth in just 20 months. Barrett's father was opposed to her marrying anybody, so she and Robert eloped and went to Florence and her father never spoke to her again.
It's the birthday of the man who wrote Lord of the Flies (1954), William Golding, (books by this author) born in Cornwall, England (1911). He wrote Lord of the Flies after fighting in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II. The novel tells the story of a group of boys stranded on a desert island who struggle for survival. One of the boys tries to establish a democracy, but a bunch of boys break off from the main group and it turns into violent anarchy. The book was rejected by 21 publishers before it finally came out in 1954.
It was on this day in 1995 that The New York Times and The Washington Post published the Unabomber's Manifesto. The Unabomber had murdered and injured several people around the country with homemade bombs, including some that he sent through the mail. He promised that he would stop the bombings if his manifesto could be published in a major publication. The manifesto was a 35,000-word broadside against technology. The first line read, "The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race." There was a lot of controversy about the decision to publish it, but the FBI hoped that it might produce some leads. And in fact, a man named David Kaczynski happened to read it, and he was horrified to recognize it as the work of his brother, Ted. David contacted authorities and turned his brother, Ted Kaczynski, in to the FBI.
Ted Kaczynski was a 55-year-old former Berkeley math professor. He had attended Harvard, taught at Berkeley, and spent 26 years living in a rural cabin in Lincoln, Montana. When federal authorities arrested him there in April of 1996, they found piles of writings and letters, as well as bomb-making ingredients. Kaczynski pled guilty to all charges and is now serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.
Poem: "The judge was decent, but..." by Donald Hall, from The Old Life. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
The judge was decent, but...
The judge was decent, but
judge's chambers were judge's chambers,
yellow and municipal
in downtown Ann Arbor. My kids
were dear and anxious.
Jane's brother and sister-in-law, mother,
and father stood up
with us for the rapid legality
we followed with lobster
and champagne at the Gandy Dancer.
Depressed the next
morning, I knew it was a mistake. I was
wrong. We remarried
five years later in New Hampshire, joyful
in a wooden church,
a Saturday afternoon in April,
only Jack Jensen our
friend and minister with us, saying
the prayer book's words
among lilies and wine in holy shadow.
It didn't matter that
I had toasted the Queen at Oxford
while Jane crayoned
into her Coronation Coloring Book.
Married in the spring,
we flew to London in September, ate
pub lunches, visited
friends in Cambridge, and found a Maltese
restaurant in Kensington.
We learned how to love each other
by loving together
good things wholly outside each other.
We took the advice of my
dear depressed and heartsick Aunt Liz,
who wrote us at our flat
in Bloomsbury: "Have fun while you can."
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the poet Donald Hall, (books by this author) born in New Haven, Connecticut (1928) who spent summers on his grandfather's farm in New Hampshire, listening to his grandfather recite poems like "Casey at the Bat" as he milked his Holsteins. Hall moved back to that farm in 1975 with his wife, Jane Kenyon, and they lived there for 20 years until her death from leukemia. His book Without (1998) is about taking care of his wife, and the second part about living without her.
His collection White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946–2006 came out last year.
Donald Hall said, "I try every day to write great poetry as I tried when I was 14. ... What else is there to do?"
It's the birthday of Upton Sinclair, (books by this author) born in Baltimore (1878), who as a young socialist in Chicago set out to expose the exploitation of meatpacking workers. He spent seven weeks around the stockyards doing research and wrote The Jungle (1906), in which he described the lives of meatpackers, their horrific working conditions, surrounded by rats, losing their fingers. The book was a sensation, and Sinclair hoped it would lead to new federal worker protections. Instead, Congress enacted legislation to protect the meat for consumers.
It's the birthday of Maxwell Perkins, born in New York City (1884), who made his name as a young editor at Scribner's when he bought the first novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, which came out in 1920. Perkins was a hard-working mild-mannered man who was never heard to use profanity, but he edited some tough-talking, hard-drinking writers, including Ring Lardner and Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe and Perkins had a difficult relationship. Wolfe's manuscript for his novel Of Time and the River was more than 3,000 pages long when Wolfe turned it in, and he kept adding to it. He did not like the changes Perkins wanted to make and often screamed obscenities at Perkins while they were working together. But in the end, Wolfe dedicated the novel to Perkins, calling him "a great editor and a brave and honest man."
When Maxwell Perkins died, he still had a pile of manuscripts next to his bed.
It's the birthday of Stevie Smith, (books by this author) in Hull, Yorkshire, England (1902), a novelist and also a writer of light verse about dark subjects, such as her poem Not Waving but Drowning, with the lines "Nobody heard him, the dead man, / But still he lay moaning; / I was much further out than you thought / And not waving but drowning."
Poem: "Family Reunion" by Maxine Kumin from Our Ground Time Here will Be Brief. © Viking Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
The week in August you come home,
adult, professional, aloof,
we roast and carve the fatted calf
in our case home-grown pig, the chine
garlicked and crisped, the applesauce
hand-pressed. Hand-pressed the greengage wine.
Nothing is cost-effective here.
The peas, the beets, the lettuces,
hand sown, are raised to stand apart.
The electric fence ticks like the slow heart
of something we fed and bedded for a year,
then killed with kindness's one bullet
and paid Jake Mott to do the butchering.
In winter we lure the birds with suet,
thaw lungs and kidneys for the cat.
Darlings, it's all a circle from the ring
of wire that keeps the raccoons from the corn
to the gouged pine table that we lounge around,
distressed before any of you was born.
Benign and dozy from our gluttonies,
the candles down to stubs, defenses down,
love leaking out unguarded the way
juice dribbles from the fence when grounded
by grass stalks or a forgotten hoe,
how eloquent, how beautiful you seem!
Wearing our gestures, how wise you grow,
ballooning to overfill our space,
the almost-parents of your parents now.
So briefly having you back to measure us
is harder than having let you go.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1937 that J.R.R. Tolkien published his first novel, The Hobbit. He was a professor at Oxford, and in the summer of 1928, he was in the middle of grading a stack of student papers when he wrote the sentence, "In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit." He had no idea where the word "hobbit" came from. It had just popped into his head. He later wrote: "[Hobbits] are (or were) a little people ... inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow naturally leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it)."
The novelist H.G. (Herbert George) Wells (books by this author) was born on this day in Bromley, England (1866). In his late 20s, he got a respiratory disease and thought he was going to die. So he left his wife, ran away with another woman, and began writing furiously. In about five years, he'd written all of the novels for which he is remembered: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). And then he went on living and writing more science fiction and also a history of the world.
H.G. Wells said, "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."
The novelist Stephen King (books by this author) was born on this day in Portland, Maine (1947). He's the author of The Shining (1977), Pet Sematary 1983), and From a Buick 8 (2002). He decided early on that it was more fun to write about giant man-eating rats than to write about the life of a gas station attendant or a high school English teacher, which was what he did before his stuff started to sell. As a teacher, King had witnessed the cruelty of teenagers, so he wrote about a weird, miserable, high school girl with psychic powers named Carrie White, who takes revenge on all her classmates.
Carrie was published in 1973 and King got $400,000 for the paperback rights and went on to become one of the most popular novelists of all time. It was King's contribution to the genre to take horror novels out of deserted castles and put them into small towns and fast food restaurants and libraries.
King says he draws on his own fears to write his books, and he claims to be afraid of spiders, closed-in places, the dark, flying, sewers, funerals, cancer, heart attacks, and being buried alive, among other things.
Stephen King said, "I'll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn't work, I'll try to horrify you, and if I can't make it there, I'll try to gross you out. I'm not proud."
It's the birthday of Allen Lane, born in Bristol, England (1902), one of the first people to publish high-quality literature at low prices when he founded Penguin Books. Other publishers at the time thought that the public wanted the classics in beautifully bound editions, and Lane thought more people might read good books if they were cheaper. He designed Penguin books to fit in a pocket, and they were a big success. He retired in 1969 after publishing the three thousandth Penguin title, an edition of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922).
Poem: "Frederick Douglass" by Robert E. Hayden from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden. © Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1966. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1862 that President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in rebel states free as of January 1 the following year. The war was not going well and the emancipation of the slaves was meant to build morale in the North. Lincoln waited for a Union victory before he announced it. The Union Army beat back the Confederates at Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the war. Five days later, on this day in 1862, Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet. By the end of the war, more than 500,000 slaves had fled to freedom behind Northern lines. About 200,000 black soldiers and sailors, many of them former slaves, served in the armed forces. They helped the North win the war.
A few months before he died, Lincoln said, "[The Emancipation Proclamation] is the central act of my administration, and the greatest event of the 19th century."
It was on this day in 1961 that President John F. Kennedy signed legislation that created the Peace Corps. In the first five years, the number of volunteers grew from 500 to more than 15,000. There's been an average of about 10,000 volunteers each year since then, including the writer Paul Theroux, who taught school in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. He wrote, "In this schoolroom there is a line of children, heads shaved like prisoners, muscles showing through their rags. They are waiting to peer through the tiny lens of a cheap microscope so they can see the cells in a flower petal."
On this day in 1776, a 21-year-old Yale graduate, Nathan Hale, was executed in New York City for espionage by the British. George Washington needed a spy to go behind British lines and map their fortifications and asked for a volunteer, and Nathan Hale was the only soldier who stepped forward. He was caught by the British and on the day of his execution he stood on the gallows and uttered his famous last words: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
Poem: "My Daughter's Morning" by David Swanger from Wayne's College of Beauty. © BkMk Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
My Daughter's Morning
My daughter's morning streams
over me like a gang of butterflies
as I, sour-mouthed and not ready
for the accidents I expect
of my day, greet her early:
her sparkle is as the edge of new
ice on leafed pools, while I
am soggy, tepid; old toast.
Yet I am the first version
of later princes; for all my blear
and bluish jowl I am welcomed
as though the plastic bottle
I hold were a torch and
my robe not balding terry.
For her I bring the day; warm
milk, new diaper, escapades;
she lowers all bridges and
sings to me most beautifully
in her own language while
I fumble with safety pins.
I am not made young
by my daughter's mornings;
I age relentlessly.
Yet I am made to marvel
at the durability of newness
and the beauty of my new one.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of a writer who had the worst publishing deal in history, William Holmes McGuffey, born near Claysville, Pennsylvania (1800). He wrote and edited a series of schoolbooks called "McGuffey's Readers," used in schools for 50 years. The books sold over 125 million copies, but McGuffey was paid only $1,000.
On this day in 1806, Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis from their two-year expedition to the Pacific Coast. People were shocked to see them. There had been rumors that they had been killed, or that they'd been captured by the Mexicans and forced into slave labor. They were running out of food the last few days and were living on plums they picked along the river. A thousand residents of St. Louis stood on the banks of the river to watch them arrive. There were gunfire salutes, and church bells rang. Lewis and Clark carried with them maps of the West and detailed journals that gave Americans their first authoritative account of what was out there.
It's the birthday of the tragic poet Euripides, born near Athens in 480 B.C.E. Of the three poets of Greek tragedy whose plays survive, Euripides' plays survive in the greatest number. He probably wrote 92 plays, and 19 of them have been preserved. Compared to other tragedians, Euripides portrayed the gods as much more petty and uncaring, and he made his characters more human, flawed and fully rounded. He was also one of the first writers to treat women as major characters in his plays. He's perhaps best known for his tragedy Medea (431 B.C.), about a woman who murders her own sons to get back at the husband who left her.
It's the birthday of Bruce Springsteen, (albums by this musician) born in Freehold, New Jersey. He is 58 today. His father did odd jobs; his mother was a secretary to support the family. The boy didn't do well in school and people thought he had no ambition. Then one day, he saw Elvis on TV and he put together $18 to buy a second-hand guitar. He said, "Music was my way of keeping people from looking through and around me. I wanted the heavies to know I was around." By the time he was 14, he was playing in local bands on the bar circuit, bands with names like the Rogues, the Castiles, the Steel Mill, and Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. He played at private parties, firemen's balls, trailer parks, prisons, state mental hospitals, a rollerdrome, and even a shopping center parking lot. His first album was Greetings from Asbury Park (1973).
Bruce Springsteen said, "If I have a good trait, it's probably relentlessness, I'm a hound dog on the prowl. I can't be shook!"
It's the birthday of John Coltrane, (albums by this musician) born in Hamlet, North Carolina (1926). When asked to describe his style, he said, "I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once."