Poem: "Learning to Love America" by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, from What the Fortune Teller Didn't Say. © West End Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Learning to Love America
because it has no pure products
because the Pacific Ocean sweeps along the coastline
because the water of the ocean is cold
and because land is better than ocean
because I say we rather than they
because I live in California
I have eaten fresh artichokes
and jacaranda bloom in April and May
because my senses have caught up with my body
my breath with the air it swallows
my hunger with my mouth
because I walk barefoot in my house
because I have nursed my son at my breast
because he is a strong American boy
because I have seen his eyes redden when he is asked who he is
because he answers I don't know
because to have a son is to have a country
because my son will bury me here
because countries are in our blood and we bleed them
because it is late and too late to change my mind
because it is time.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald, (books by this author) born in St. Paul (1896), who was a student at Princeton University when he fell in love with a beautiful rich girl named Ginevra King. She got engaged to somebody else because Fitzgerald didn't have many prospects. He later said, "She was the first girl I ever loved ... [and] she ended up by throwing me over with the most supreme boredom and indifference."
But that experience gave Fitzgerald an idea for a novel about a young man named Amory Blaine, who falls in love with a beautiful blond debutante named Rosalind Connage and then loses her because she doesn't want to marry someone with so little money. Fitzgerald struggled to write the book in his parents' home in St. Paul, pinning revision notes to his curtains and eating all his meals in his bedroom. He called the novel This Side of Paradise, sent it out for publication in early September of 1919, and a couple of weeks later got word that it would be published. Fitzgerald was so excited that he ran outside his house and shouted the news to passing cars and people in the street. He later wrote, "That week, the postman rang and rang, and I paid off my terrible small debts, bought a suit, and woke up every morning into a world of ineffable toploftiness and promise."
The publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920 made Fitzgerald famous almost overnight, and it won him the heart of a woman named Zelda Sayre, whom he'd met while he was in the military. He finally got the girl, he got to be a star, and he got to be rich. He went off to Paris to write his great masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), about a wealthy bootlegger who wears pink suits and throws extravagant parties and is obsessed with winning back the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald was never entirely satisfied with the main character, Jay Gatsby. He said, "I never at any one time saw him clear myself for he started as one man I knew and then changed into myself." The novel got good reviews, but it flopped with readers and never even sold out its first printing. By the time the stock market crashed in 1929, Fitzgerald's marriage was falling apart and his books weren't selling anymore.
When Fitzgerald's last complete novel, Tender is the Night, came out in 1934, it got mixed reviews. He died in 1940 at the age of 44. That year, all of his books sold a total of 72 copies, with royalties of $13. Today, The Great Gatsby sells about 300,000 copies a year.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story."
Poem: "Autobiography of the Cab Driver Who Picked Me Up at a Phoenix Hotel to Catch a Four A.M. Flight and Began to Speak in (Almost) Rhyming Couplets" by Rebecca McClanahan, from Deep Light: New and Selected Poems, 1987–2007. © Iris Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Autobiography of the Cab Driver Who Picked Me Up At a Phoenix Hotel to Catch a Four A.M. Flight and Began to Speak in (Almost) Rhyming Couplets
I got two problems. One,
I never see the sun
and two, if I did,
I couldn't take it, never could.
Now, my sister? Out one day
and brown the next. That's the way
my father was. We never
took vacations but he used to steer
on Sundays with one arm
out the window. Get dark as a black man.
Something in his blood, I guess.
Once I bought me a mess
of tanning cream, but something
kept me from using it.
He's been dead a whole
year. They say there's not a soul
on the streets this hour,
but the souls are just now rousing.
Yes Ma'am, when I see daylight I slide
into my coffin and close the lid.
Cooler that way. They say if you can survive
a summer in this heat, you're a native.
My brother's child? She claims to be one,
but I tell her she's got Made in Japan
stamped all over her keister.
Hey lady, you still on Eastern
time? You can have it. Yesterday
the TV reporter in Cincinnati
was three feet in snow. I phoned
my old drinking buddy back home
to rub it in. Lied and said I was out
today without a shirt. Barefoot.
He said you can keep those hundred
degrees. I said you don't have to shovel
a heat wave. Young lady, you okay?
Looks like you're fading. The longest day
I ever lived was the night
I left for Vietnam. What a sight,
would you look at that? Damn
jackhammers at three a.m.
They sure like to play in the dirt here.
Yes Ma'am. It's the same everywhere.
The shortest distance between
two points is always under construction.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of William Faulkner, (books by this author) born in New Albany, Mississippi (1897), who took a long time to figure out what to do with himself after high school. He was rejected for military service by the U.S., went to the University of Mississippi for a year, where he got a D in his English class, went to New York City, where he was fired from a job at a bookstore because he told the customers they were reading trash, and then he worked for a while at a post office, until he lost that job because he failed to deliver the mail and often closed down early to go golfing. He finally started writing poetry and fiction, but he didn't find his subject until he met the writer Sherwood Anderson, who advised him to write about his hometown. So Faulkner began looking into the history of Oxford, Mississippi, its inhabitants, their feuds, and their connections to each other, going back for generations, and he began to invent an imaginary version of Oxford he called Jefferson, located in an imaginary county he called Yoknapatawpha.
Faulkner said, "I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and by sublimating the actual into apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top."
In the next four years, Faulkner wrote some of his best novels: Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), and Light in August (1932). He went on writing through the 1930s, but he never really broke through to popular success. By 1944, all but one of his books was out of print. But in 1945, the critic Malcolm Cowley helped publish a Portable Faulkner edition, which brought attention back to his work. Then in 1949, he won the Nobel Prize for literature. He is now one of the most studied authors in the English language. More than 1,300 books have been written about him and his work.
It's the birthday of the cartoonist, poet, songwriter, and playwright Shel Silverstein, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1932), whose first big success was The Giving Tree, which came out in 1964, the story of a tree that sacrifices its fruit, branches, and finally its trunk to a little boy in order to make him happy. Silverstein's publishers told him that it wouldn't sell very well because it wasn't really a children's book or an adult book, and at first those publishers were right. But The Giving Tree became the subject of church sermons and Sunday school reading lists, and its sales doubled every year for about 10 years. It's become a standard gift for Mother's Day and for weddings. It still sells more than 250,000 copies a year, more than 40 years after it was first published. Silverstein's other books include Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) and A Light in the Attic (1981). Shel Silverstein, who was a recluse, rarely gave interviews, did not go on any book tours, and lived in a houseboat full of musical instruments in Key West, Florida. He never owned a car, and he walked everywhere he went. He died in 1999.
Poem: "To the Man in a Loden Coat" by Deborah Garrison, from The Second Child. © Random House, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
To the Man in a Loden Coat
man in a loden coat
standing in front of me
on the escalator and blocking my
I'm self absorbed,
particularly at this hour,
5:22 to be precise and I need
to make the 5:25 home
don't you know that in this city,
in this life, we
walk on the left,
stand on the right?
Don't tell me to chill out,
don't tell me to "breathe,"
I hate breathing
I mean unless it is happening
without my knowing it,
which is, thank God, most of the time,
and don't tell me life is long
because it actually isn't
it's all I can do not to
give you a sweet shove
on your rich loden back,
same as all the bottled-up
behind me want to do
to my own navy-clad shoulder,
a nice blue to your green,
like water for the earth,
sky for the forest,
green and blue a tea for two,
etc., among the vistas
that call me home now,
at 5:23, about to miss the bus,
so would you please
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of composer George Gershwin, born in Brooklyn (1898), who made his name as a composer with the piece Rhapsody in Blue (1924), which he was forced to write on short order because his friend Paul Whiteman wanted to put on a jazz concert and decided to advertise that the concert would include a new piece by the young George Gershwin. Gershwin only learned about the concert when he saw the newspaper advertisement, and he suddenly had only six weeks to produce something. He came up with the main theme while playing piano for friends at a party.
The concert began at 2:30 p.m. on February 12, 1924, and it consisted of 23 pieces of music. The orchestra parts were finished, but the piano part was left blank, so that Gershwin could improvise on stage. In the middle of the concert, the ventilation system broke down, and people were getting restless. Several people had gotten up to leave when "Rhapsody in Blue" was announced, and Gershwin came out on stage to play the piano with the orchestra. When the opening clarinet part was played, the people who had been getting ready to leave went back to their seats. Rhapsody in Blue soon became one of the most famous and popular pieces of serious music ever composed by an American.
Gershwin also wrote Concerto in F (1925) and An American in Paris (1928). And he wrote the famous folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935), which opened in New York on October 10, 1935, but it wasn't truly successful until after Gershwin died of brain cancer in 1937. He was just 38.
It's the birthday of Jane Smiley, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles (1949), who wanted to be a jockey when she was a girl because she loved horses more than anything. But she grew to be more than six feet tall, so she had to give up on that dream and become a writer. Her first big success was the novel A Thousand Acres (1991), a modern retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, set on an Iowa farm and told from the daughters' perspective. For her research, she drove a combine and read the agribusiness section of The Des Moines Register for a year. A Thousand Acres begins, "At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute." The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and its success enabled Smiley to quit teaching and fulfill her dream of owning thoroughbred horses. After she bought a dozen horses, she wrote her novel Horse Heaven (2000), about the world of horse breeding and racing. It was one of the happiest periods of her life. She said, "I'd get up, read something about horses, then go feed the horses. I'd get rid of the children by sending them off to school, then I'd write about horses and read more about horses. Ride the horses, feed the horses again ... it was really wonderful." Her most recent novel is Ten Days in the Hills (2007).
It's the birthday of T. S. (Thomas Stearns) Eliot, (books by this author) born in Saint Louis (1888), who wrote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915) and "The Waste Land" (1922), inspired mainly by his very unhappy marriage. Virginia Woolf said, "He was one of those poets who live by scratching, and his wife was his itch."
Poem: "The Fabric of Life" by Kay Ryan, from Say Uncle: Poems. © Grove Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
The Fabric of Life
It is very stretchy.
We know that, even if
many details remain
sketchy. It is complexly
woven. That much too
has pretty well been
proven. We are loath
to continue our lessons
which consist of slaps
as sharp and dispersed
as bee stings from
a smashed nest
when any strand snaps
hurts working far past
the locus of rupture,
far beyond anything
we would have said
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the poet Kay Ryan, (books by this author) born in San Jose, California (1945), who went for a 4,000-mile cross-country bicycle trip just before her 30th birthday to take stock of her life. She was somewhere in the middle of Colorado when the rhythmic movement of pedaling got her thinking about the poetry she occasionally wrote in her spare time, and she suddenly decided to devote her life to becoming a professional poet. So she got a job teaching composition at a local college, and made sure that she would only have to teach two days a week, so she could spend all the rest of her time writing. She pared her life down to the barest essentials to live on her meager salary, and for the next couple decades, she lived that way, publishing four books of poetry, including Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends (1983) and Flamingo Watching (1994). Her books got very little attention, and she didn't go out of her way to attract any attention. She was happy to live her private simple life, writing poems.
Then someone gave a copy of one of Ryan's books to the poet and literary critic Dana Gioia, and he fell in love with it. He believed she was the best new poet he'd ever come across. He wrote the first article about her work for a literary journal, and he began including her work in literary anthologies. Within a few years, her work was appearing in The New Yorker and she went on to win several major awards. Her collection The Niagara River came out in 2005. Kay Ryan said, "I think poetry should sort of poke through your skin, shouldn't fit you quite right. I don't think that poetry should be ingested easily." She also said, "What keeps me writing is that I can only know through writing my major sense organ is apparently a pencil."
It's the birthday of lawyer and novelist Louis Auchincloss, (books by this author) born in Lawrence, New York (1917), who grew up in one of the most prestigious families in New York City, and spent his childhood in private schools and private clubs, surrounded by debutants and servants, and went on to write about the New York City upper class in books like Portrait in Brownstone (1962), A World of Profit (1968), and Diary of a Yuppie (1987).
It's the birthday of statesman and patriot Samuel Adams, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1722), who was a failed businessman and a not-very-effective tax collector when the British passed the Sugar Act of 1764, and Adams finally found his purpose in life. He was one of the first members of the colonies to speak out against taxation without representation and one of the first people to argue for the colonies' independence from Great Britain. He had a genius for agitating people. He organized riots and wrote propaganda, describing the British as murderers and slave drivers. He went on to become one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and participated in the Continental Congress. It was Samuel Adams, who said, "It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds."
Poem: "Vancouver to Edmonton" by Barbara Bloom, from On the Water Meridian © Hummingbird Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Vancouver to Edmonton
Some of the passengers read; others sleep.
Beside me, my husband fills in the squares of his crossword
word after word taking shape
as fast as he can write. No one
looks out the windows; even the children
are busy doing something else.
But outside, it's like we're in heaven,
with the puffy white clouds,
sun playing along the surface
so bright it's almost impossible to look,
but I look anyway. Then the clouds
give way to a glacial lake,
the aquamarine of a tropical ocean,
and forests so green they are almost black.
The man on the aisle seat
folds up his newspaper. My husband
adds another word
before closing his book.
An announcement comes on
to set our watches ahead an hour.
The toy fields, houses, and barns
take on more reality
as we begin our descent.
There's a green tractor! A barn with a red roof,
cows and horses grazing together. A dog
running out to meet a car.
Whether we were in heaven or not up there
seems beside the point now, as the plane lowers
over fields and highways,
and bumps down on the runway.
Soon we will be rushing out to hail cabs
or scanning the crowds in the airport
for the one familiar face, and the day
will push us forward, with its traffic,
its Mountain Time, its ordinary joys.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Kate Douglas Wiggin, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, (1856), who wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1910) and many other novels. She also started the first free kindergarten on the West Coast, in San Francisco. She spent much of her own life working as a teacher, and she once said, "Every child born into the world is a new thought of God, an ever-fresh and radiant possibility."
It's the birthday of cartoonist Al Capp, born Alfred Gerald Caplin in New Haven, Connecticut (1909), who created the cartoon strip Li'l Abner, about a hillbilly named Abner Yokum who lives with his parents Pansy and Lucifer Yokum, in Dogpatch, Kentucky, and who spends all his time trying to win the heart of Daisy Mae Scragg.
It's the birthday of Ed Sullivan, born in Manhattan, New York City (1902), a gossip columnist for the New York Daily News who occasionally moonlighted as a master of ceremonies for local variety shows and dance contests. He was working at a giant dance competition called the Harvest Moon Ball when someone asked him if he'd like to try hosting a show on this new thing called television. He was 46 years old.
The Ed Sullivan Show, originally called Toast of the Town, premiered live on CBS in 1948, and within a few years about 50 million people watched it every Sunday night. Television was so new at the time that people didn't know what to do with it. Sullivan modeled it on vaudeville and did a little of everything, throwing together opera singers, rock stars, novelists, poets, ventriloquists, magicians, pandas on roller skates, and elephants on water skis. Sullivan had always hated that he was required to "dish dirt" in his gossip columns, so he decided that on his variety show, everything would be positive. He told every performer that they were wonderful.
Sullivan was a shy, awkward man offstage, couldn't tell jokes or sing or dance. A car accident in 1956 severely damaged his face and his teeth, and he was often in terrible pain on stage, suffering from ulcers. But he loved performers, and he personally chose every guest for his show. He spent most of his free time searching for talent in nightclubs, often staying out until 4:00 in the morning.
Sullivan was one of the first television hosts to invite African-American performers and celebrities onto his show when it was still controversial to do so. Jackie Robinson, Duke Ellington, Richard Pryor, and James Brown all came on his show. His producers sometimes objected to his choices, but the only thing Sullivan cared about was talent.
He said his formula for success was, "Open big, have a good comedy act, put in something for children, and keep the show clean."
Poem: "On Faith" by Cecilia Woloch, from Late. © BOA Editions Ltd., 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
How do people stay true to each other?
When I think of my parents all those years
in the unmade bed of their marriage, not ever
longing for anything elseor: no, they must
have longed; there must have been flickerings,
stray desires, nights she turned from him,
sleepless, and wept, nights he rose silently,
smoked in the dark, nights that nest of breath
and tangled limbs must have seemed
not enough. But it was. Or they just
held on. A gift, perhaps, I've tossed out,
having been always too willing to fly
to the next love, the next and the next, certain
nothing was really mine, certain nothing
would ever last. So faith hits me late, if at all;
faith that this latest love won't end, or ends
in the shapeless sleep of death. But faith is hard.
When he turns his back to me now, I think:
disappear. I think: not what I want. I think
of my mother lying awake in those arms
that could crush her. That could have. Did not.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is believed to be the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes, (books by this author) born near Madrid (1547), whose life was a series of misfortunes. As a young man, he fought in a war against the Ottoman-Turkish Empire, and he became a war hero, receiving special recognition from the king. But on the way home from the war, he was captured by pirates, held for ransom for five years, and chained to a wall for months at a time. He finally made it back to Spain, where nobody even remembered the battle he had fought in. So he took one of the only government jobs he could find: confiscating agricultural goods for the king. He had to travel around the countryside in all kinds of weather, arguing with shopkeepers and farmers, accused of corruption everywhere he went. Then in 1595, he was charged with embezzlement, even though he was probably one of the only honest employees working for the government at the time. Having escaped five years of captivity in Africa, Cervantes now found himself imprisoned in his own country for a crime he didn't commit.
And it was in prison that Cervantes first got the idea for his masterpiece, Don Quixote (1605), a parody of the popular romance novels of the era full of monsters, wizards, and beautiful princesses. Cervantes's novel was about a middle-aged man named Don Quixote who has read so many romance novels that he comes to believe they are true. So he embarks upon a career as a knight and takes as his squire a farmer he knows named Sancho Panza. The two go off on a series of misadventures, arguing constantly about whether they live in a world full of romance and enchantment, as Don Quixote sees it, or whether they live in a world of bandits and beggars, as Sancho Panza sees it.
The first volume of the novel was a best-seller, though it didn't make Cervantes much money, because there was no copyright at the time, and pirated editions were published all over Europe. So Cervantes wrote a second volume, in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza learn that they have become famous since someone has published a book about them. They travel around the country, correcting the falsehoods that have been spread about them, and they struggle to prove that they are indeed the real Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, not the fictional versions. Most critics consider the second volume even better than the first.
Miguel de Cervantes said, "Too much sanity may be madness and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be."
It's the birthday of the physicist Enrico Fermi, born in Rome (1901), the man who used Einstein's theories to build the first functioning nuclear reactor. He was studying radioactivity in the 1930s, and if he hadn't wrapped his uranium in tin foil, he might have discovered nuclear fission then, and his work might have fallen into the hands of the Nazis. But he won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938, and he used the prize as an opportunity to defect with his wife to the United States. He got involved in the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, and he moved to the University of Chicago, where he built the first reactor there on a squash court under the stands of the university football field in late 1942.
Fermi and his team conducted the first nuclear reaction on the morning of December 2, 1942. Fermi's experiment lasted 28 minutes, and it was a complete success. News of the successful experiment was conveyed to Washington, D.C., in a coded message that said, "The Italian navigator has landed in the new world." Three years later, in the desert outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico, Fermi watched as the first atomic bomb was exploded.
Poem: "Yesterday" by W.S. Merwin. Used with permission of the author.
My friend says I was not a good son
I say yes I understand
he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know
even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes
he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father
he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me
oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father's hand the last time
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me
oh yes I say
but if you are busy he said
I don't want you to feel that you
just because I'm here
I say nothing
he says my father
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don't want to keep you
I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet W.S. Merwin, (books by this author) born in New York City (1927). He is the author of many collections of poetry, including Travels (1993), The River Sound (1999), and Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005). He said, "I think there's a kind of desperate hope built into poetry. ... One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there's still time."
It's the birthday of American writer Truman Capote, (books by this author) born Truman Persons in New Orleans (1924), who dropped out of school when he was 17 and got a job as an errand boy in the art department at The New Yorker. He published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), when he was just 24 years old, but after writing a few more novels, Capote said that he worried about being too imaginative. So he decided to try writing journalism, which he'd never really done before.
Then, in November of 1959, Capote read a brief article in The New York Times about the murder of an entire family in Holcomb, Kansas, and he decided that this was the subject he'd been looking for. He'd never been to Kansas, and so he thought he'd be able to see it with fresh eyes. He arrived in Holcomb just three days after the murders had occurred, and he began to talk to people who had known the victims. He wound up living there for six years, talking to nearly everyone in the town, as well as the detectives involved in the case, and the murderers themselves, who were arrested for the crime a month after it had taken place. He never once tape-recorded or took notes during an interview, but instead went home after each one and wrote down everything he remembered. He gathered 6,000 pages of notes for the book he was writing, 80 percent of which he threw away. The result was his book In Cold Blood (1966).
It's the birthday of writer Elie Wiesel, (books by this author) born in a small village in northern Transylvania near the Ukrainian border (1928). He was 15 years old when he was taken with his family to Auschwitz, where his mother and sister were killed upon arrival in the camp. He and his father stayed together for the next year, but after they were forced to move to Buchenwald, his father died of malnutrition and dysentery. Wiesel believes he would have died soon after his father if the camp hadn't been liberated by American soldiers on April 11, 1945.
He refused to return to his homeland and went instead to Paris. He had a tattoo on his arm, A-7713, but he said, "I made a vow: not to speak, not to touch upon the essential for at least ten years." He became a journalist, and one day he was interviewing the French novelist François Mauriac, when suddenly he found himself telling Mauriac about his experiences at Auschwitz. It was the first time he'd ever told anyone what had happened to him, and Mauriac told him to write down everything he remembered.
So Wiesel sat down and wrote a 900-page memoir in Yiddish called And the World Has Remained Silent (1956). But while translating the book into French, he found himself editing it ruthlessly until he had cut the 900 pages down to just 127. He said, "I was inspired by the marvelous example of Giacometti, the great sculptor. He always said that his dream was to do a bust so small that it could enter a matchbook, but so heavy that no one could lift it. That's what a good book should be." Wiesel called the edited version of his memoir Night. Dozens of publishers turned it down because they said nobody wanted to read such a sad book. But when it came out in 1958, it went on to become the first widely read book written by a Holocaust survivor.