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Poem: "Marcus Millsap: School Day Afternoon" by Dave Etter, from Alliance, Illinois. © Spoon River Press, 1983. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Marcus Millsap: School Day Afternoon

I climb the steps of the yellow school bus,
move to a seat in back, and we're off,
bouncing along the bumpy blacktop.
What am I going to do when I get home?
I'm going to make myself a sugar sandwich
and go outdoors and look at the birds
and the gigantic blue silo
they put up across the road at Motts'.
This weekend we're going to the farm show.
I like roosters and pigs, but farming's no fun.
When I get old enough to do something big,
I'd like to grow orange trees in a greenhouse.
Or maybe I'll drive a school bus
and yell at the kids when I feel mad:
"Shut up back there, you hear me?"
At last, my house, and I grab my science book
and hurry down the steps into the sun.
There's Mr. Mott, staring at his tractor.
He's wearing his DeKalb cap
with the crazy winged ear of corn on it.
He wouldn't wave over here to me
if I was handing out hundred dollar bills.
I'll put brown sugar on my bread this time,
then go lie around by the water pump,
where the grass is very green and soft,
soft as the body of a red-winged blackbird.
Imagine, a blue silo to stare at,
and Mother not coming home till dark!

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, (books by this author) born in Plains, Georgia (1924), who served only one term as the governor of Georgia before he ran for president in the wake of the Watergate scandal as an ordinary, honest peanut farmer. On Inauguration Day, he walked to the ceremony rather than riding in a limousine. He often appeared in public in casual clothes, sold off the presidential yacht, and even banned the playing of "Hail to the Chief" when he entered a room. He had Democratic majorities in Congress, but he had a hard time dealing with rising inflation and the energy crisis because he didn't like compromising with other politicians. He was defeated in a landslide in 1980, and went back to his hometown in Georgia, feeling like a failure.

He wasn't sure what to do, so he started gathering papers for a memoir, and then he decided to just go out into the world to solve problems. He became one of the most active ex-presidents in American history, traveled all over the world talking about human rights, fair elections, new farming techniques, and water safety; brokered several cease fires, wrote numerous books, and got into carpentry, helping to build houses for the poor with Habitat for Humanity. He even carved his own four-poster bed for himself and his wife. He said, "As president, I wouldn't have had time to do all the things I'm doing now." He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 — Jimmy Carter, who said, "America did not invent human rights. In a very real way, human rights invented America."

It's the birthday of Tim O'Brien, (books by this author) born in Worthington, Minnesota (1946), who had just finished college and was planning to go on to grad school at Harvard when he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. He said, "Even when I was getting on the plane for boot camp, I couldn't believe any of it was happening to me, someone who hated Boy Scouts and bugs and rifles." He was stationed near the village of My Lai, and he was constantly aware that the villagers hated the Americans. He only later learned that most of the inhabitants of that village had been massacred by American soldiers just before he arrived in the country.

He published his first essay about the war in Playboy magazine before he even came home, and he wrote a memoir of his experiences called If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973). Since then almost all his books have touched on Vietnam in one way or another. He likes writing war stories because, he said, "In a war story there is a built-in life and death importance, one that a writer would have to construct otherwise. When you start a story saying, 'It was a hot day,' and you know it's a war story, the hot day has all sorts of reverberations that wouldn't be there if it were set on a beach in Miami."

Tim O'Brien's most recent novel July, July came out in 2002.

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Poem: "The Hunkering" by Donald Hall, from White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Hunkering

In October the red leaves going brown heap and
over hayfield and dirt road, over garden and circular

and rise in a curl of wind disheveled as
at recess, school just starting and summer done,

white quiet beginning in ice on the windshield, in
hard frost
that only blue asters survive, and in the long houses
that once

more tighten themselves for darkness and
hunker down.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of comedian Groucho Marx, born in New York City (1890), who said, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."

It's the birthday of writer Graham Greene, (books by this author) born in Hertfordshire, England (1904), who said he was an agnostic, but he converted to Catholicism in order to marry his wife, and after publishing a series of lightweight thrillers, he began to work Catholic themes into his books. In 1938, he went to Mexico to cover the persecution of Catholics by socialist revolutionaries. He saw religious icons being destroyed and priests being assassinated, and that inspired his first great novel, The Power and the Glory (1940), about a fallen, alcoholic priest, who once fathered a child with a parishioner, but who risks his life going to from village to village to hear confessions and give baptisms. His novel The End of the Affair (1951) is about a devoutly Catholic man having an adulterous affair in the middle of the London Blitz. Greene based the novel on his own life. He should have been killed during the London Blitz when a bomb fell directly on his house, but he was visiting his mistress at the time, saved by his own infidelity.

Graham Greene realized early in his writing career that if he wrote just 500 words a day, he would have written several million words in just a few decades. So he developed a routine of writing for exactly two hours every day, and he was so strict about stopping after exactly two hours that he often stopped writing in the middle of a sentence. And at that pace, he managed to publish 26 novels, as well as numerous short stories, plays, screenplays, memoirs, and travel books. He said, "We are all of us resigned to death: it's life we aren't resigned to."

It's the birthday of poet Wallace Stevens, (books by this author) born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1879), who worked for years as an executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, before he ever published any poetry. He woke up early every day and read for a few hours and then composed his poems in his head while walking to work. Almost no one at his office knew that he was a poet, but he occasionally wrote down an obscure word on a piece of paper and asked someone to go look it up in the biggest dictionary they could find and copy out every single definition. No one ever asked him why.

Stevens published his first book of poems Harmonium in 1923 when he was 45 years old. The book got almost no attention at the time, but many of the poems have become classics, including "Sunday Morning," "Disillusionment of Ten O'clock," "Peter Quince at the Clavier," and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

We don't know much about Stevens's personal life because his wife destroyed most of his letters and journals after his death. But literary critics interviewed a lot of the people who knew Stevens, including his company chauffeur, who said that Stevens often got big shipments of gramophone records from Europe, he liked to go to greenhouses to look at exotic flowers, and he rarely spoke. The chauffeur said, "He was just looking around all the time — the scenery and stuff like that."

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Poem: "Marriage" by Marie Howe. Used with permission of the poet.


My husband likes to watch the cooking shows, the
building shows,
the Discovery Channel, and the surgery channel.
Last night, he told us about a man who came into
the emergency room

with a bayonet stuck entirely through his skull and
Did they get it out? We all asked.
They did. And the man was O.K. because the blade
went exactly between

the two halves without severing them.
And who had shoved this bayonet into the man's
head? His wife.
A strong woman, someone said. And everyone else

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American novelist Gore Vidal, (books by this author) born Eugene Luther Vidal, in West Point, New York (1925), whose grandfather Thomas Gore was the first U.S. Senator from Oklahoma. Vidal spent a lot of time reading to the old man from the Congressional Register and from books about the Constitution, and he fell in love with American politics and history. His writing career was almost ruined by a scandal about his 1948 novel The City and the Pillar, which discussed homosexuality a little too frankly for most readers at the time. But he made a comeback with a series of novels about historical figures, including Lincoln (1984), a novel about the president from the collective point of view of his family and colleagues. Gore Vidal has also run for political office twice, once as a candidate for the House of Representatives and once as a candidate for Senate, on a platform of taxing churches, nationalizing natural resources, and reorganizing the United States government as a parliamentary system. He lost both times. His book Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia came out in 2004.

It's the birthday of the veterinarian and author James Herriot, (books by this author) born James Alfred Wight in Sunderland, England (1916), who became a veterinarian in rural Yorkshire and loved it so much that he decided to write a book about it. He spent 25 years making plans for the book, but didn't start writing it until the day his wife told him that he never would. He went out and bought some paper that same day, published two books in two years, If Only They Could Talk (1970) and It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet (1972), and they became best-sellers when they were packaged together as one volume called All Creatures Great and Small (1972). James Herriot said, "If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans."

It's the birthday of Emily Post, (books by this author) born in Baltimore (1873), whose marriage broke up when her husband lost his fortune in a stock panic, and then it came out that he was having an affair. Post became one of the first divorcees in her high-society circle, and she started writing to support her two children. She published several novels, and an editor suggested that she write an etiquette manual when he noticed that her novels were full of observations about etiquette. She thought etiquette manuals were awful, so she set out to write a different kind of etiquette manual, more about treating people decently than just following rules. The result was her book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home (1922), and she wrote about etiquette for the rest of her life — Emily Post, who said, "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

It's the birthday of the memoirist and novelist Bernard Cooper, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles (1951), who struggled with his sexuality while he was growing up and finally decided to go into therapy, hoping for a cure. His doctor was trying out an experimental therapy, so he injected Cooper with the truth serum sodium pentothal to help him talk about his repressed desires and get them out of his system. It didn't work, but Cooper said it was a wonderful experience, and it helped inspire him to write his first memoir, The Truth Serum (1996). His most recent book The Bill from My Father (2006) is about a bill he received in the mail from his father itemizing every expense he had incurred on his father's bank account since the day he was born. The bill totaled 2 million dollars.

It's the birthday of John Ross, born near Lookout Mountain, North Carolina (1790), who became acting Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1827. He spent his early life trying to design a new government for the Cherokees, based on the U.S. government, with a constitution and three separate but equal branches and democratically elected leaders. He respected the American justice system so much that when the state of Georgia tried to force Cherokees off their land, John Ross chose not to go to war, but instead took Georgia to court. It was the first time that an Indian tribe had ever sued the U.S. over treaty rights, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The case was decided in 1832, and Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in his opinion that the state of Georgia did not have jurisdiction over Cherokees and therefore could not force the Cherokees to leave their land. But President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the decision. He said, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it."

Six years later, 15,000 Cherokees were forced out of their homes at gunpoint by American soldiers, gathered together in camps and then forced to walk to the new "Indian Territory" west of the Mississippi, an event that became known as The Trail of Tears. The camps had horrible hygienic conditions, and an epidemic of dysentery killed an estimated 8,000 Cherokees, including John Ross's wife.

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Poem: "#22" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from Pictures of a Gone World. © City Lights Books, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


        to be alive in such a strange
with the band playing schmaltz
                in the classic bandshell
                    and the people
    on the benches under the clipped trees
                                and girls
        on the grass
            and the breeze blowing and the
        and a fat man with a graflex
        and a dark woman with a dark dog she called
        and a cat on a leash
        and a pekinese with a blond baby
        and a cuban in a fedora
        and a bunch of boys posing for a group
    and just then
        while the band went right on playing
    a midget ran past shouting and waving his hat
                at someone
    and a young man with a gay campaignbutton
came up and said
        Are you by any chance a registered

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of humorist Roy Blount Jr., (books by this author) born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1941). His most recent book Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from up South came out this year (2007).

It's the birthday of the novelist Anne Rice, (books by this author) born in New Orleans (1941), whose first novel, Interview with the Vampire (1974), didn't sell many copies at first, but became a cult classic and is now just the first volume in Rice's popular Vampire Chronicles series.

It's the birthday of Edward L. Stratemeyer, (books by this author) born in Elizabeth, New Jersey (1862), one of the first American writers to capitalize on the new market in children's literature created by universal primary school. At the time, most children's books taught moral lessons, but Stratemeyer said, "A wide awake lad has no patience with that which is namby-pamby. ... He demands real flesh and blood heroes who do something." Stratemeyer also figured that his books would sell better if they had recurring characters, so he created one series after another, the Motor Boys, the Outdoor Girls, the Bobbsey Twins. His work was so popular that he couldn't keep up with the demand, so he created the Stratemeyer Syndicate, incorporated in 1910, a kind of fiction factory with dozens of writers banging out dozens of novels under numerous pseudonyms. Stratemeyer wrote the outline for each book and made sure that each had exactly 25 chapters and that every chapter ended with a good cliffhanger.

When detective fiction took off in the 1920s, Stratemeyer created a detective series for kids called the Hardy Boys, and it was his most popular series yet. He followed the Hardy Boys with a series about a girl detective named Nancy Drew. Publishers believed that books for boys always sold more than books for girls, but the Nancy Drew books were the most popular books that Stratemeyer ever published. Nancy Drew was also the last character Stratemeyer created himself. He died of a heart attack in 1930, the same year that the first Nancy Drew mystery came out. The title of the book was The Secret of the Old Clock. His syndicate ultimately published more than 700 titles, and it still sells about 6 million books a year.

It's the birthday of journalist Brendan Gill, born in Hartford, Connecticut (1914), who wrote for The New Yorker for more than 60 years, publishing fiction, essays, and criticism. He said, "Fiction is my chief interest, followed by architectural history, followed by literary and dramatic criticism. If these fields were to be closed to me, I would write copy for a bird-seed catalogue. In any event, I would write." Gill loved his job and he loved New York. He said, "You feel, in New York City, the energy coming up out of the sidewalks, you know that you are in the midst of something tremendous, and if something tremendous hasn't yet happened, it's just about to happen."

He also said, "Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious."

It's the birthday of Damon Runyon, (books by this author) born Alfred Damon Runyon, in Manhattan, Kansas (1884). He started out as a newspaper man but made his breakthrough as a fiction writer during the prohibition era, when he began to write about gamblers, bookies, fight managers, theater agents, bootleggers, and gangsters in New York City. He wrote semi-fictional sketches of real people, and he gave them names like Dave the Dude, Harry the Horse, Nathan Detroit, Benny Southstreet, Dream Street Rose, Big Julie from Chicago, and Izzy Cheesecake. He helped popularize the slang of the era, in which a woman was called "a doll," a gun was called "a rod," money was called "scratch," and people didn't die, they "croaked." His short stories were collected in books such as Blue Plate Special (1934) and More than Somewhat (1937), but he's best remembered for the musical Guys and Dolls, based upon several of his stories and characters he created.

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Poem: "Execution" by Edward Hirsch, from The Night Parade © Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


The last time I saw my high school football coach
He had cancer stenciled into his face
Like pencil marks from the sun, like intricate
Drawings on the chalkboard, small x's and o's
That he copied down in a neat numerical hand
Before practice in the morning. By day's end
The board was a spiderweb of options and counters,
Blasts and sweeps, a constellation of players
Shining under his favorite word, Execution,
Underlined in the upper right-hand corner of things.
He believed in football like a new religion
And had perfect unquestioning faith in the fundamentals
Of blocking and tackling, the idea of warfare
Without suffering or death, the concept of teammates
Moving in harmony like the planets — and yet
Our awkward adolescent bodies were always canceling
The flawless beauty of Saturday afternoons in September,
Falling away from the particular grace of autumn,
The clear weather, the ideal game he imagined.
And so he drove us through punishing drills
On weekday afternoons, and doubled our practice time,
And challenged us to hammer him with forearms,
And devised elaborate, last-second plays — a flea-
Flicker, a triple reverse — to save us from defeat.
Almost always they worked. He despised losing
And loved winning more than his own body, maybe even
More than himself. But the last time I saw him
He looked wobbly and stunned by illness,
And I remembered the game in my senior year
When we met a downstate team who loved hitting
More than we did, who battered us all afternoon
With a vengeance, who destroyed us with timing
And power, with deadly, impersonal authority,
Machine-like fury, perfect execution.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Denis Diderot, born in Langres, France (1713), who served as the chief editor of his great Encyclopedia from 1745 to 1772. His was the first encyclopedia to subject all the entries to rational analysis, debunking a lot of ancient wisdom along the way, including an entry on Noah's Ark that tried to estimate how many man-hours Noah and his sons must have spent shoveling manure off their boat. Previous encyclopedias restricted themselves to serious topics like theology and philosophy and science, but Diderot tried to cover everything he could think of: emotions, coal mines, fleas, duels, bladder surgery, stockings, the metaphysics of the human soul, and how to make soup.

It's the birthday of the Czech playwright and former president Václav Havel, born in Prague (1936), who wrote a series of absurdist plays that attacked his country's Communist government, including The Garden Party (1964) and The Memorandum (1965). His plays were banned; he was arrested twice, thrown in jail, and then forced to earn a living stacking barrels in a brewery. But he kept protesting the government, refusing to go into exile the way so many other writers and artists in the country did. He spent the 1980s in and out of prison, writing plays that he couldn't see performed in his own country. But by the '80s, he had become a national hero. After the collapse of the Communist regime, he helped negotiate the transition to democracy, and in December of 1989, he was elected president, the first non-communist leader of his country since 1948. He stepped down from power in 2003. Václav Havel said, "If you want to see your plays performed the way you wrote them, become President."

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Poem: "Habitation" by Margaret Atwood, from Selected Poems II. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Marriage is not
a house or even a tent

it is before that, and colder:

the edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back where we squat
outside, eating popcorn

the edge of the receding glacier

where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
this far

we are learning to make fire

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1930, William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying came out. Faulkner wrote the book while working nights in the power plant of the University of Mississippi, listening to the hum of the generator, and he finished it in just a few months. He later said, "Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first word, I knew what the last word would be and almost where the last period would fall." It's the story of the Bundren family and their journey to fulfill their mother's last request to be buried in her family's cemetery. Anse Bundren helps his children bury his wife even though he has long believed that he will die if he ever breaks a sweat. His son Darl is mentally disturbed, his daughter Dewey Dell hopes that the trip will give her a chance to get an abortion, and his son Jewel is furious at everybody for not taking the situation more seriously.

On the way to bury their mother, the Bundrens have to deal with a flood that has washed out all the bridges, their mules are drowned in a river, they are almost thrown out of town by a marshal due to the smell of their wagon, they barely save their mother's body from a barn fire, and they are followed everywhere by a flock of birds. When they finally reach the cemetery, Anse Bundren realizes he forgot to bring a shovel, borrows one from a little old lady, and marries her. He also takes the money his daughter was hoping to use for her abortion and buys himself a set of false teeth. The story is told in the voices of all the people involved, including the Bundrens, the neighbors, the doctor, the preacher, and even strangers passing by. One chapter is narrated by the dead mother, Addie, who says, "The reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time."

It was on this day in 1847 that Charlotte Brontë published her novel Jane Eyre, about a poor orphan girl — raised by her cruel aunt, Mrs. Reed — who never gets along with her prettier cousins, but works her way up to a position as a governess at the mysterious Thornfield Hall, where she begins to fall in love with her employer, Edward Rochester, only to learn that he is actually married, and his wife, Bertha, is locked away on the third floor of the house, living like an animal. Jane runs away, but after Bertha's death, Rochester persuades her to marry him after all.

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Poem: "Reconsidering the Seven" by Peter Pereira from What's Written on the Body. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Reconsidering the Seven

Deadly Sins? Please — let's replace Pride
with Modesty, especially when it's false.

And thank goodness for Lust, without it
I wouldn't be here. Would you?

Envy, Greed — why not? If they lead us
to better ourselves, to Ambition.

And Gluttony, like a healthy belch, is a guest's
best response to being served a good meal.

I'll take Sloth over those busybodies
who can't sit still, watch a sunset

without yammering, or snapping a picture.
Now that makes me Wrathful.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Thomas M. Keneally, (books by this author) born in Sydney, Australia (1935), who was a successful novelist in Australia when he traveled to Hollywood to talk to some movie people, and while he we was there he happened to buy a briefcase in Beverly Hills from a Holocaust survivor. He got to talking to the man, and it turned out he had been saved from the concentration camps by a Polish factory owner named Oskar Schindler. Keneally thought that was interesting, so he began to research Schindler, who'd been a wealthy playboy with no apparent interest in human rights until the Nazis invaded Poland, and then suddenly decided to use his factory as a refuge for Jews, employing them so that they would not be sent to concentration camps. Keneally interviewed 50 of the people saved by Schindler in order to write his book Schindler's Ark (1982), which helped popularize the story of Oskar Schindler and became the basis of the Steven Spielberg movie Schindler's List in 1993.

It's the birthday of the poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, (books by this author) born Diane Fink in Waukegan, Illinois (1948), who has always been more interested in the outside world than her own life. She wrote her first book of poetry, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (1976), entirely about astronomy. Her book A Natural History of the Senses (1990) is a collection of essays about her own thoughts and experiences of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. It begins, "Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary, and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the Poconos, when wild blueberry bushes teemed with succulent fruit and the opposite sex was as mysterious as space travel." Her most recent book is The Zookeeper's Wife, which came out last month (2007).

On this day in 1955, poet Allen Ginsberg read his poem "Howl" for the first time at a poetry reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco. He had never given a public reading before, but he wanted to read the poem out loud before people read it in a book, so he organized a reading with five other poets at a converted auto-repair shop in downtown San Francisco called the Six Gallery. Ginsberg was the second-to-last reader. He was a little nervous, but after a few lines of the poem, he began to chant the words like a preacher, and the audience began to cheer at the end of every line. Kenneth Rexroth, the emcee of the event, was in tears by the end of the poem, and he later told Ginsberg, "This poem will make you famous from bridge to bridge." Rexroth was right. Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Howl and Other Poems in 1956, and an obscenity trial made it a huge best-seller.



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