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Poem: "Monkey Mind" by Steve Orlen, from The Elephant's Child: New and Selected Poems 1978–2005. © Ausable Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Monkey Mind

When I was a child I had what is called an inner life.
For example, I looked at that girl over there
In the second aisle of seats and wondered what it was like
To have buck teeth pushing out your upper lip
And how it felt to have those little florets the breasts
Swelling her pajama top before she went to sleep.
Walking home, I asked her both questions
And instead of answering she told her mother
Who told the teacher who told my father.
After all these years, I can almost feel his hand
Rising in the room, the moment in the air of his decision,
Then coming down so hard it took my breath away,
And up again in that small arc
To smack his open palm against my butt.
I'm a slow learner
And still sometimes I'm sitting here wondering what my father
Is thinking, blind and frail and eighty-five,
Plunged down into his easy chair half the night
Listening to Bach cantatas. I know he knows
At every minute of every hour that he's going to die
Because he told my mother and my mother told me.
I didn't cry or cry out or say I'm sorry.
I lay across his lap and wondered what
He could be thinking to hit a kid like that.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, (books by this author) born in the Prussian village of Röcken (1844), who was a young professor of Greek literature when he got sick and had to take a medical leave from his professorship. He spent the next 15 years suffering from terrible headaches and stomach problems and deteriorating eyesight, living in a series of increasingly shabby rented rooms. But he wrote to distract himself, and it was in those 15 years that he wrote all his most famous books, including Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), about a prophet who comes down from the mountains to tell everyone that God is dead and we have killed him. Nietzsche thought that the absence of God from the world was a tragedy, but he felt that people had to learn to live in a world without God and without absolute morality.

Today is the birthday of the poet Virgil, (books by this author) born Publius Vergilius Maro near Mantua, Italy (70 B.C.), who became famous for writing poems about the beauty and simplicity of farm life at a time when Rome was being torn apart by civil wars. When those wars were finally over, the government asked Virgil to write a poem that would persuade Romans who had left the countryside to return home and become farmers again. So Virgil wrote The Georgics, a kind of poetic farming manual about grain production, trees, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. The poems provided instruction, but they were also entertaining and full of beautiful descriptions of nature.

Virgil's work impressed the emperor Augustus, so Virgil was given a generous stipend to live on for the rest of his life, and he spent the rest of his life writing his epic poem The Aeneid, about the soldier Aeneas, traveling home from the Trojan war to found a new city that would become Rome. Virgil had been working on it for 11 years when he took a trip to Greece for some final research, caught a fever and died before he could finish. His final request before his death was that his incomplete poem be burned, but Augustus ordered it preserved, and it became the basis of standard curriculum in Roman schools. It's now been in print for more than 2,000 years.

It's the birthday of English novelist P. G. (Pelham Grenville) Wodehouse, (books by this author) born in Guildford, England (1881), who moved to the United States in 1909 and began to publish the stories that made him famous in the Saturday Evening Post about a cartoonish England, full of extremely polite but brain-dead aristocrats.

Wodehouse is best known for a series of books about a servant named Jeeves who is constantly saving his employer, Bertie Wooster, from all kinds of absurd situations: My Man Jeeves (1919); Carry On, Jeeves (1927); Thank You, Jeeves (1934), and Right Ho, Jeeves (1934). Over the course of his life Wodehouse wrote almost a hundred books of fiction, as well as 16 plays and lyrics for 28 musicals. He was once asked if he was ever surprised by any of the books he had written, and he said, "Oh, yes. I'm rather surprised that they're so good."

It's the birthday of novelist Italo Calvino, (books by this author) born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba (1923), but grew up in Italy. He started out writing realistic novels about ordinary Italians living in poverty after World War II, but in the 1950s he began collecting old Italian folktales, hoping to do for Italy what the brothers Grimm had done for Germany. And the magic of those stories began to seep into his own novels, including Baron in the Trees (1957), about a young man who decides to live in the trees to avoid everything he dislikes about the world. Calvino went on to write numerous strange and allegorical novels, including Cosmicomics (1962), narrated by an energy particle, and Invisible Cities (1972), which consists entirely of descriptions of imaginary cities.

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Poem: "Losing a Language" by W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. Reprinted with permission.

Losing a Language

A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
yet the old still remember something that they could say

but they know now that such things are no longer believed
and the young have fewer words

many of the things the words were about
no longer exist

the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree
the verb for I

the children will not repeat
the phrases their parents speak

somebody has persuaded them
that it is better to say everything differently

so that they can be admired somewhere
farther and farther away

where nothing that is here is known
we have little to say to each other

we are wrong and dark
in the eyes of the new owners

the radio is incomprehensible
the day is glass

when there is a voice at the door it is foreign
everywhere instead of a name there is a lie

nobody has seen it happening
nobody remembers

this is what the words were made
to prophesy

here are the extinct feathers
here is the rain we saw

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American playwright Eugene O'Neill, born in a Broadway hotel room in New York City (1888), who had been at various times a gold prospector, sailor, actor, and journalist, when he caught TB and had to spend six months in a sanatorium. While recovering, he read classic playwrights and modern innovators like Ibsen and Strindberg, and suddenly began writing plays. American stages were full of melodramas and comedies at the time, and O'Neill wrote some of the first real American tragedies, full of murder, substance abuse, dark sexuality, and dysfunctional families. Sinclair Lewis later said, "Eugene O'Neill has done nothing much in American drama save to transform it utterly, in ten or twelve years, from a false world of neat and competent trickery to a world of splendor and fear and greatness." O'Neill became the only American playwright ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.

Though many of his plays were successful in his lifetime, they're extremely difficult to stage. The first act of his play Marco Millions (1928) takes place in Venice, Syria, Persia, India, Mongolia, and China. His play Lazarus Laughed (1928) calls for 165 actors, each wearing several different masks. His play Strange Interlude (1928) runs for nine acts. O'Neill was always disappointed when he saw his plays on the stage, because they never lived up to his imagination. He once wrote, "Before long I think I shall permanently resign from all production and confine my future work to plays in books for readers only." Ironically, his most frequently revived play is Long Day's Journey into Night, which was first performed in 1956, two years after O'Neill's death, even though he had specifically requested that it never be produced as a play.

Eugene O'Neill said, "One should either be sad or joyful. Contentment is a warm sty for eaters and sleepers." And he said, "There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now."

It's the birthday of novelist Günter Grass, born in Danzig, (now Gdansk) Poland (1927), who got swept up in World War II, became a member of the Hitler youth when he was 14, and fought with the Nazis in the last few months of the war. Most of the men in his division were killed, but he was captured. He had always believed the Nazi propaganda, but as part of a POW reeducation program, he was taken to visit the concentration camp at Dachau, and he was horrified to realize what he'd been a part of. He went back to his hometown of Danzig and found that it had been completely destroyed in the war.

He worked for a while as a stonemason and then got involved with an avant-garde literary group. He was at a party one night when he noticed that one of the children of the house was hiding under a table, ignoring the adults in the room, living in his own fantasy world, and that gave Grass the idea for his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959), about a boy who deliberately stops growing when he's three years old to avoid participating in the Nazi regime. His most recent book is the memoir Peeling the Onion (2007).

It's the birthday of Oscar Wilde, born in Dublin (1854), who was already a successful playwright when he fell into a love affair with the young aristocrat Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was married with two children at the time, and the affair ruined his reputation in society. He later wrote, "I curse myself night and day for my folly in allowing him to dominate my life." But it was the most creative period of his life. He wrote three plays in two years about people leading double lives, including A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), about two men who use an imaginary person named Earnest to get themselves out of all kinds of situations, until their invented stories and identities get so complicated that everything is revealed.

The actor who played Algernon Moncrieff later said, "In my fifty-three years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest." But that same year, Wilde was accused of sodomy by the father of his lover. Wilde might have let the accusation pass, but he chose to sue his accuser for libel, because he thought he could win the case by his eloquence alone. Private detectives had dug up so much damning evidence on Wilde that he was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to two years of hard labor. His plays continued to be produced on the stage, but his name was removed from all the programs. He was released from prison in 1897 and died three years later in a cheap Paris hotel.

Oscar Wilde, who said, "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling." And, "An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all."

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Poem: "At Becky's Piano Recital" by Carl Dennis, from New and Selected Poems 1974–2004. © Penguin Poets, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

At Becky's Piano Recital

She screws her face up as she nears the hard parts,
Then beams with relief as she makes it through,
Just as she did listening on the edge of her chair
To the children who played before her,
Wincing and smiling for them
As if she doesn't regard them as competitors
And is free of the need to be first
That vexes many all their lives.
I hope she stays like this,
Her windows open on all sides to a breeze
Pungent with sea spray or meadow pollen.
Maybe her patience this morning at the pond
Was another good sign,
The way she waited for the frog to croak again
So she could find its hiding place and admire it.
There it was, in the reeds, to any casual passerby
Only a fist-sized speckled stone.
All the way home she wondered out loud
What kind of enemies a frog must have
To make it live so hidden, so disguised.
Whatever enemies follow her when she's grown,
Whatever worry or anger drives her at night from her room
To walk in the gusty rain past the town edge,
Her spirit, after an hour, will do what it can
To be distracted by the light of a farmhouse.
What are they doing up there so late,
She'll wonder, then watch in her mind's eye
As the family huddles in the kitchen
To worry if the bank will be satisfied
This month with only half a payment,
If the letter from the wandering son
Really means he's coming home soon.
Even old age won't cramp her
If she loses herself on her evening walk
In piano music drifting from a house
And imagines the upright in the parlor
And the girl working up the same hard passages.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Wally Lamb, (books by this author) born in Norwich, Connecticut (1950), who took nine years to write his first novel, She's Come Undone (1992), about a woman looking back on her life after a failed marriage. The advance for the novel was just enough that he and his wife could buy their first car with air conditioning. The book only sold a few thousand copies, but Lamb was just glad to have published anything. And then, a few years later, Lamb got a phone call from Oprah Winfrey telling him that she'd picked his book for her book club, and it went on to sell 3 million copies. Lamb's second novel, I Know This Much Is True, was an even bigger best-seller in 1998.

It's the birthday of novelist Nathanael West, (books by this author) born Nathan Weinstein in New York City (1904), who wrote two great novels that mixed tragedy and comedy: Miss Lonely Hearts (1933), about an advice columnist who's overcome by the sadness of the world, and The Day of the Locust (1939), about the Hollywood subculture of failed actors who become stuntmen, extras, criminals, and prostitutes. West had terrible luck as a writer, and his books sold few copies. In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, he wrote, "Somehow or other I seem to have slipped in between all the 'schools.' ... I forget the broad sweep, the big canvas, the shot-gun adjectives, the important people, the significant ideas, the lessons to be taught ... and go on making ... private and unfunny jokes." Eight months after he got married, he and his wife were killed in a car accident. Most of his work is collected in Novels and Other Writings, published by Library of America in 1997. Nathanael West said, "Forget the epic, the masterwork ... you only have time to explode."

It's the birthday of Arthur Miller, (books by this author) born in New York City (1915), who wrote Death of a Salesman (1949), based loosely on the life of his uncle, Manny Newman, who was a salesman and a big talker, full of schemes and hope for the future, even though he struggled to make ends meet. Miller said, "In [my uncle Manny's] house ... something good was always coming up, and not just good but fantastic, transforming, triumphant ... his unpredictable manipulations of fact freed my mind to lope and skip among fantasies of my own, but always underneath was the river of his sadness."

Death of a Salesman has gone on to be one of the most widely produced plays in the world, playing in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Argentina. It has been particularly popular in China and Japan.

Arthur Miller died on February 11, 2005. He said, "Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets."

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Poem: "After Challenging Jennifer Lee to a Fight" by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, from At the Drive-In Volcano. © Tupelo Press, Inc., 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

After Challenging Jennifer Lee to a Fight

I hesitate, because what would my father say? My aunts in India
are swathed in sarees, glass bangles and crimson nails.
Their perfect ropes of hair, oiled and glossy black, never
betray them to the wind or the chase of a chicken

in the courtyard. They'd watch my grandmother
shape bricks of dark halva, wrap each one
in tight plastic they'd chill for days.
Always calm, serene.

At least, that's how my father
tells it, but I know when pressed,
my aunts would have done the same thing.
Jenny Lee called my younger sister

Shrimp in front of the whole group of Bus Kids—
no way I could let Jenny just swing her pink backpack
all the way home. Once the bus pulled away
from our stop on Landis Lane, I tapped her

on the shoulder and, and-we were a mess
of ribbons and slaps. She was easy to scare
from my nail marks drawing tiny pinpricks
of blood on her arms, her puffy cheeks. I told her

the red dots meant she had rabies, that
she shouldn't tell anyone because then she'd infect
them and most of all, she better say sorry to my sister,
else I'd push her face into the barrel cacti littering

the sidewalks. My first rage, my first fire. Jenny
sniffled Sorry and I was relieved: I wasn't sure
I could hit much more and my skinny legs
were spent with dust and sweat. My sister

and I walked home in silence. If we wore sarees,
all the yards and yards of shiny sateen would've
unwound from our tiny bodies, too light to drag
in the dust, too proud and taken with wind, like flags.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Rick Moody, (books by this author) born in New York City (1961), who wanted to be a writer as a young man but struggled with alcoholism and had a hard time even holding down a job. He finally checked himself into a mental hospital, got sober, and then wrote his first novel, Garden State. But even though he worked at a publishing house, he couldn't get his own book published. He had all but given up on the book, when he came back to his desk one day found a "While You Were Out" note telling him that his novel had won a the Pushcart Prize for manuscripts that had been rejected by major publishers. It came out in 1991. Moody has since written several more novels, including The Ice Storm (1994), which was made into a movie in 1997, and The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions (2002). His novel The Diviners came out in 2005.

It's the birthday of Terry McMillan, (books by this author) born in Port Huron, Michigan (1951). Her novel Waiting to Exhale (1992) was one of the first novels ever published about the lives of affluent African-Americans, and it spent 38 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. When asked why she's so successful, McMillan said, "I don't write about victims. They just bore me to death. I prefer to write about somebody who can pick themselves back up and get on with their lives."

It's the birthday of the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1950), best known for her play The Heidi Chronicles (1988), about a woman who hangs on to her all her feminist ideals while all of her friends have given them up. After a sold-out run off-Broadway, the play moved to Broadway and became the first play written by a woman to win a Tony Award. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Wendy Wasserstein died in 2006.

It's the birthday of A.J. (Abbott Joseph) Liebling, (books by this author) born in New York City (1904), a staff writer for The New Yorker whose favorite subjects were journalism, food, and boxing. But he also wrote about seal trainers at the circus, his nostalgia for speakeasies, Greco-Roman wrestlers, aquariums, hat-check concession stands, cigar stores, coon dogs, race cars, and the most populous city block in the United States, which in 1937 was located between Seventh and Lenox avenues and 142nd and 143rd streets in Harlem, with a population of 3,823 residents. Liebling wrote, "[The block] covers 150,000 square feet, and this means that the average density of population is 1,000 to the acre. If all the people of the United States were moved equally close together, they would fit in about half the area of the City of New York, leaving a couple of boroughs vacant for parking space."

A. J. Liebling said, "Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience."

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Poem: "A Disappointment" by Louis Jenkins, from North of the Cities. © Will O' The Wisp Books, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

A Disappointment

The best anyone can say about you is that you are a
disappointment. We had higher expectations of you.
We had hoped that you would finish your schooling.
We had hoped that you would have kept your job at the
plant. We had hoped that you would have been a better
son and a better father. We hoped, and fully expected,
that you would finish reading Moby Dick. I wish that,
when I am talking to you, you would at least raise your
head off your desk and look at me. There are people
who, without your gifts, have accomplished so much
in this life. I am truly disappointed. Your parents, your
wife and children, your entire family, in fact, everyone
you know is disappointed, deeply disappointed.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the anniversary of the surrender that effectively ended the American Revolutionary War, in Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. That summer, the British had expected Washington to attack New York City. But when he learned that he might be able to capture the British forces on the Yorktown Peninsula in Virginia, he executed one of the boldest moves of the entire war, moving his army 400 miles in order to catch his enemy by surprise. He had to march his troops toward New York City first, to scare the British into hunkering down for an attack. Then he quickly moved south. The British commander only realized what Washington was doing two days after he'd already gone.

Washington's men and their French allies marched every day from 2:00 a.m. until it grew too hot to continue. It was a hot summer, and on one day, more than 400 men passed out from the heat. Few armies in history had ever moved so far so fast. By the second week of October, they had reached Yorktown and surrounded Cornwallis. He agreed to a surrender that began at 2:00 a.m. on this day in 1781. The one soldier who didn't surrender was Cornwallis himself. He sent his sword with his second-in-command to be offered to the French general, signifying that the British had been defeated by the French, not the Americans. Washington was furious, but it didn't matter. England didn't have enough money to raise another army. Two years later, the Treaty of Paris was signed, and the war was officially over.

It's the birthday of the spy novelist who writes under the name John le Carré, (books by this author) born David Cornwell in Poole, England (1931), who joined the British secret service as a young man because he thought it would be exciting, but he said, "[It was] spectacularly undramatic." So he entertained himself by writing novels. He chose the pen name John le Carré because he said, "I wanted something three-syllabled and exotic." Spy novels at the time were full of sexy, daring heroes, modeled on James Bond, but le Carré created a new kind of spy novel about spies who are tired, lonely men, who don't trust their own government any more than they trust their enemies.

Le Carr&ecaute;'s third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), was so successful that le Carré quit his job as a spy and began to write full time. But he continues to research his books like a spy, traveling alone to various cities, checking into cheap hotels, and carrying out surveillance, interviewing the local police and politicians without ever disclosing that he's actually just a novelist.

Le Carré said, "Most of us live in a condition of secrecy: secret desires, secret appetites, secret hatreds and relationship with the institutions which is extremely intense and uncomfortable. These are, to me, a part of the ordinary human condition. So I don't think I'm writing about abnormal things. ... Artists, in my experience, have very little center. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception."

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Poem: "Hum" by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems: Volume Two. © Beacon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The text of this poem is no longer available.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1892 that the city of Chicago officially dedicated the World's Columbian Exposition. Though it was formally dedicated on this day in 1892, the planning ran behind schedule, so the fair wasn't actually held until the following summer. A giant "white city" was built in the style of classical architecture along the shore of Lake Michigan, and at night, everything was lit up with a string of electric lights, the first time electric lights were used on such a large scale in America. In fact, in was at the Chicago World's Fair that most Americans saw electricity in use for the first time.

The Chicago World's Fair was also the place where most Americans first saw postcards, fiberglass, the zipper, the ice cream cone, Cracker Jack, Quaker Oats, Shredded Wheat, belly dancing, spray paint, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Ferris wheel. The Ferris wheel at the fair was 264 feet high, carried 2,000 passengers at a time, driven by two 1,000 horsepower steam engines turning on a 45-foot axel — the largest single piece of steel ever forged at that time. It was the most successful world's fair ever held in the United States. In its half-year of existence, it drew 27 million visitors, or about half the American population at the time. The novelist Hamlin Garland wrote to his parents, "Sell the cookstove if necessary and come. You must see the Fair!"

It's the birthday of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, (books by this author) born in Charleville, France (1854), who began writing poems when he was just 16 — poems that became the talk of Paris literary society. One of his admirers was the elder poet Paul Verlaine, and the two started living together and fell in love. But they had a bitter break-up. Verlaine tried to murder Rimbaud with a pistol, shooting him in the arm. Verlaine went to prison and Rimbaud went back to live with his mother, where he wrote one of his last books, A Season in Hell (1873), which some critics consider his farewell to poetry. He had started writing when he was 16, and he was just 19 years old when he took off to travel the world and wound up in Africa, where he became an arms dealer. As far as we know, he never wrote another poem.

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Pinsky, (books by this author) born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940). His poetry collections include Sadness and Happiness (1975), The Want Bone (1990), and Jersey Rain (2000). He said, "The longer I live, the more I see there's something about reciting rhythmical words aloud — it's almost biological — that comforts and enlivens human beings."

It's the birthday of the novelist Monica Ali, (books by this author) born in Dhaka, in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) (1967), whose novel Brick Lane was an international best-seller in 2003. It's about two Bangladeshi sisters, one of whom moves to London after being married off to a man twice her age, and the other, who stays home in Bangladesh. Monica Ali said, "[Writing a novel is] like creeping along on your belly with shells exploding around you. It's only occasionally that there's a ceasefire and you can get up and run."

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Poem: "Making Things Right" by Barbara Bloom from On the Water Meridian. © Hummingbird Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Making Things Right
     for my father

Driving through the apple orchards
heavy with fruit,
I realize I have let the anniversary of your death
slip by-ten years already, or is it eleven?
It's a gray morning, and the clouds press down,
obscuring the sun.

I wonder if you knew
when you had to be helped on with your shoes
for the ride to the hospital
that you would never again
stroke your cat
or walk into your lab room
with its walls lined with antique instruments and books.

What I remember most from that time
is standing by your bed
as you grew smaller and smaller,
less and less of you
who had so frightened me as a child,
and looking down at you
lying there quietly
when it was too late to talk.

I just held your hand
and told you I loved you.
I don't know what you heard
or what you knew,
but those words were all that was left
that could matter
before you leapt off
from your bed
in that tiny white room
into something huge.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (books by this author) born in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England (1772), who was an extremely ambitious young man, giving lectures on religion, writing journalism, and single-handedly trying to launch his own magazine. But he was exhausting himself and falling into a depression until he was introduced to the poet William Wordsworth. They met only briefly in 1795, but they struck up a correspondence and began exchanging poems. Wordsworth encouraged Coleridge to stop writing journalism and focus on poetry, and Coleridge took the advice. His poetry made him happier and happier, and one day in the summer of 1797, after finishing a long poem, he decided he needed to see Wordsworth in the flesh. So he set out to walk to Wordsworth's house, miles away. The walk took several days and when he approached Wordsworth's home, he got so excited that he jumped over the gate and ran down the field to Wordsworth's house.

That first year of their friendship was the most productive period of Coleridge's life. They both liked to compose their poetry while walking, so they took long walks together. That winter, they went for a hike along the coast, and to pass the time they made up a gothic ballad about a tragic sea voyage. Coleridge became obsessed with the poem when he got home, filling it with images from nightmares he'd had since he was a kid, and it became his masterpiece, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," (1798), the story of a sailor who brings a curse on his ship when he kills an albatross, and for the rest of his voyage he is tormented by sea monsters and the ghosts of his dead shipmates.

Wordsworth and Coleridge published a collection of poems together called Lyrical Ballads in 1798, which included "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and which helped inspire the Romantic Movement in poetry. But within a few years, Coleridge had become addicted to opium, which killed his creativity and ruined his friendship with Wordsworth. He wrote a great book of literary criticism called Biographia Literaria (1817), but he failed to complete most of his ambitious projects, including a 1,400-page work of geography, a two-volume history of English prose, a translation of Faust, a musical about Adam and Eve, a history of logic, a history of German metaphysics, a study of witchcraft, and an encyclopedia.

His friends hated the fact that he had wasted so much of his talent. They'd all considered him the most brilliant writer and thinker they'd ever known, but he'd accomplished so little. Near the end of his life, his friend Charles Lamb wrote of Coleridge, "His face when he repeats his verses hath its ancient glory, an Archangel a little damaged."

It was on this day in 1879 that the inventor Thomas Edison finally struck upon the key to inventing a workable electric light in his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Researchers had been trying to make electric lights since the 1820s, but they'd been using the wrong material for the filament. Edison tried a number of different materials until he settled on carbonized cotton thread. At 1:30 in the morning on this day in 1879, he hooked a carbon filament up to an electric circuit and it glowed from 1:30 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. the following afternoon.



  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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