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Poem: "Nancy Drew" by Ron Koertge, from Fever. © Red Hen Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Nancy Drew

Merely pretty, she made up for it with vim.
And she got to say things like, "But, gosh,
what if these plans should fall into the wrong
hands?" And it was pretty clear she didn't mean
plans for a party or a trip to the museum, but
something involving espionage and a Nazi or two.

In fact, the handsome exchange student turns
out to be a Fascist sympathizer. When he snatches
Nancy along with some blueprints, she knows he
has something more sinister in mind than kissing
with his mouth open.

Locked in the pantry of an abandoned farm house,
Nancy makes a radio out of a shoelace and a muffin.
Pretty soon the police show up, and everything's
hunky dory.

Nancy accepts their thanks, but she's subdued.
It's not like her to fall for a cad. Even as she plans
a short vacation to sort out her emotions she knows
there will be a suspicious waiter, a woman in a green
off the shoulder dress, and her very jittery husband.

Very well. But no more handsome boys like the last one:
the part in his hair that was sheer propulsion, that way
he had of lifting his eyes to hers over the custard,
those feelings that made her not want to be brave
confident and daring, polite, sensitive and caring.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the true-crime writer Ann Rule, (books by this author) born Ann Stackhouse in Lowell, Michigan (1935), who wanted to be a police officer. But she had bad eyesight, so she started writing about criminals instead. In 1975, she signed a contract to write a book about a series of unsolved murders of women in the Seattle area, and when the police announced the main suspect, she was horrified to realize she knew the man, a charming law student named Ted Bundy. She'd volunteered with him at a suicide hotline center, and he'd often walked her to her car. She couldn't believe that he was the killer of more than 35 women, and when she saw the evidence, she became physically ill. She eventually uncovered the fact that all of his victims resembled his ex-fiancée, who had rejected him. Rule took just 90 days to write her book The Stranger Beside Me (1980), which became one of the best-selling true crime books ever written.

It's the birthday of the novelist who just won the Nobel Prize Doris Lessing, (books by this author) born in Kermanshah, Persia, which is now Iran (1919). Her father moved the family to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he hoped to start a tobacco farm and prospect for gold. They lived in a mud and thatch house, sleeping under mosquito net, and her father's plans to make it rich didn't pan out. He would often stand outside their home shouting that everyone in Africa was mad. Lessing would fall asleep at night to the sound of her mother playing Chopin on their piano, mixed with the thudding of the drums from the village down the hill.

She married a civil servant when she was 19 and became a housewife and mother, giving tea parties and cleaning all the time. But underneath it all, she said, "I thought, what am I doing in this awful country." She began seeking out new friends who talked about politics and read serious books, and for the first time in her life she felt inspired by something. She said, "It was absolute bliss to be able to talk about ideas."

So she decided to be a writer, got divorced, and moved to London after World War II. She was an unemployed single mother, but she didn't worry too much about publishing anything. She said, "I had sticking power, which is just as important as literary talent. ... There are such things as writing animals. I simply have to write." Her first novel, The Grass is Singing, came out in 1950, about a white woman in Southern Rhodesia who has an affair with her African house servant.

But the book that made Lessing famous was The Golden Notebook (1962), about a writer named Anna who keeps four separate writing notebooks: one for her memories, one for her political life, one for her fiction, and one for her thoughts. The novel consists of sections of each of these notebooks interwoven with each other. When it came out in 1962, feminists called it as a masterpiece, because it included so many details of a woman's life that had never been written about so openly before. Doris Lessing said, "The fact is, I don't live anywhere. I never have since I left that first house."

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Ivan Bunin, (books by this author) born near Voronezh, Russia (1870), who got a job as a statistician for the Russian government, traveling around the countryside, observing the changing conditions of rural life. Russian writers had written for years about the lives of peasants as more simple and beautiful than the lives of the middle class. But Bunin saw how bleak and violent their lives were, and he wrote a series of short stories about landowners and peasants who are equally selfish and vindictive and violent, all of them longing for the past. Bunin fled the Russian Revolution in 1920, hopping the very last boat to leave Odessa for Paris that year. He won the Nobel Prize in 1933, but his books were banned in his home country and it became a crime to even mention his name in the press. His work was extremely difficult to translate, because much of his fiction reads like poetry. But there have been two new translations of his short stories in the last few years. Sunstroke: Selected Stories came out in 2002, and The Elagin Affair and Other Stories came out in 2005. Ivan Bunin wrote, "If I had no arms or legs, if I could only sit behind the gate at a shop and look at the setting sun, I would be happy."

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Poem: "I.D. Photo" by Rachel Hadas, from The River of Forgetfulness. © David Robert Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I.D. Photo

Since I can feel my radiant nature shine
Out of my face as unmistakably
As sunlight, it comes as a shock to see
The features that apparently are mine.

Mirrors are not a lot of fun to pass,
And snapshots are much worse. Take the I.D.
Picture taken only yesterday
(Take it-I don't want it): sallow face

Pear-shaped from smiling-lumpy anyway,
Droopy, squinty. General discouragement.
I'd blame the painter, if this were in paint,
But can't avoid acknowledging it's me,

No likeness by an artist I could blame
For being bad at matching in with out.
What I see, alas, is what I get.
Victim and culprit are myself and time—

Having seen which, it's time to turn aside;
Look out from, not in at, an aging face
That happens to be mine. No more disgrace
Lies in having lived then having died.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of memoirist Augusten Burroughs, (books by this author) born Christopher Robison in Pittsburgh (1965). He was 13 when his mother gave him up to be raised by her New Age psychiatrist, a man who believed in solving problems by poking his finger into the Bible at random and seeing what it said. Burroughs spent the next five years living in a pink Victorian mansion with the psychiatrist and his wife, their six children, and a number of live-in mental patients. Burroughs and the other children in the house had no supervision at all: They drank and took drugs, played with the electroshock therapy machine, and Burroughs was sexually abused by one of the psychiatrist's patients. He finally ran away, changed his name, got a high school degree, and became an advertising copywriter. But he said, "I really felt like my childhood, my past and my lack of any education was this extra, deformed leg I was dragging around behind me, trying to keep under my jacket." So he wrote a book about it, called Running with Scissors, which came out in 2002 and became a best-seller in part because Burroughs managed to make his horrific childhood experiences funny. His most recent book is the collection of essays Possible Side Effects, which came out this year (2007).

It's the birthday of Michael Crichton, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1942), who went to medical school at Harvard and began writing paperback adventure novels to pay for his tuition. On top of his schoolwork, he managed to produce 10,000 words a day, ultimately publishing eight novels in three years, including Zero Cool (1969), The Venom Business (1969), and Drug of Choice (1970).

By the time Crichton finished medical school, he had decided to become a writer, though he said, "[It] struck most people like quitting the Supreme Court to become a bail bondsman." He's gone on to write many best-selling novels, including The Andromeda Strain (1969), Jurassic Park (1990), and Next (2006).

It was on this day in 1987 that the United States Senate rejected the Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork on a 58-to-42 vote. Bork was one of the leaders of a judicial theory called "original intent," which is the idea that Supreme Court justices can only base their decisions on what the framers of the constitution originally intended. If the constitution doesn't mention a "right to privacy" then there is no such thing as a "right to privacy." This idea was controversial, but Bork decided to enter the debate head on, and he openly discussed his constitutional philosophy with the senators. Democrats portrayed him as a radical, and when the final vote of the full Senate came on this day in 1987, Bork was rejected by 58 to 42. Republicans have since argued that Bork was the target of a smear campaign, and they began using his last name as a verb, saying that they wanted to prevent future nominees from getting "borked." The word "bork" was recently added to Webster's dictionary, defined as, "[Seeking] to obstruct a political appointment or selection, also to attack a political opponent viciously." Robert Bork said, "My name became a verb, and I regard that as one form of immortality."

It's the birthday of British poet Robert Bridges, (books by this author) born in Kent, England (1844), whose collections include The Growth of Love: A Poem in Twenty-Four Sonnets (1876) and The Chivalry of the Sea (1916). He became the Poet Laureate of England in 1913 and during World War I, he was asked to write a series of patriotic poems, including "Wake up, England!" But privately, he said, "The war is awful. I can scarcely hold together. ... Just at present I am far too disturbed to write, the communication with my subconscious mind is broken off." He spent the last years of his life writing a four-volume poem called The Testament of Beauty, published in 1929, just before his 85th birthday.

It's the birthday of the most popular talk show host in American history, Johnny Carson, born in Corning, Iowa (1925), who grew up an extremely shy boy until he started doing magic tricks. He later said that it was the discovery of magic that helped him relate to people. He started writing jokes in college and went on to host a TV game show called "Who Do You Trust?" But his big break came when he took over hosting "The Tonight Show" from Jack Parr in 1962. By the mid-1970s, more than 15 million people were watching "The Tonight Show" every night before they went to bed. After being on the air for 30 years, he retired in 1992 and almost never appeared in public again. He died in 2005.

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Poem: "The Campus in Wartime" by Marvin Bell, from Mars Being Red. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Campus in Wartime

Sweet corn sweetens the air by the gas station
as the Torah students hurry by to Hillel House,
the coatless short-skirted social butterflies
totter toward happy-hour double-drink specials,
the rabbi adjusts his tallis and the bartender
lines up the pints, half-pints and pitchers.
Three thousand of ours and thousands of theirs
are too many body bags to bury in the mind,

so while the gas of rotting bodies seeps up
from the ramshackle coffins and folded flags,
the young seek books or booze to soften the ache.
This year's few stalks of corn are one small
businessman's salute to the land. He may need
to fuel the air with toxic waste to earn a living,
but he has in mind the purity of original desire,
which some call sin but the half-Hasids know
as the life force, and the barflies toast. Let us study
the future, for it shall be the cradle of the past,
siring a blue abyss aflare in the lamp we call a sun.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, born in Delft, the Netherlands (1632), who was working as a draper when he happened to use a magnifying lens to count the number of threads in a piece of cloth, and the experience got him interested in lenses. He began to spend all his spare time learning how to grind out lenses and use them in combination with each other to look at smaller and smaller things. Over his lifetime, he ground over 400 lenses and built many microscopes, using techniques that he kept secret. He developed the first microscope that could show things too small for the human eye to see, and he became the first person ever to observe bacteria. He was also the first person to see red blood cells, and the first person to explain how insects breed, because he could see their tiny eggs.

It's the birthday of the comic-book author Bob Kane, (books by this author) born in the Bronx (1916), who was working at DC Comics in 1939 when his editors began asking for more superhero characters to follow up on the success of Superman. Kane thought about it over the weekend, and on Monday morning he turned in some sketches of a character he called Batman. The character made his debut in DC Comics number 27, "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate," in May of 1939. He is alter ego of multimillionaire Bruce Wayne and one of the few superheroes in the history of comic books who doesn't have any special powers. He's just rich enough to build himself special crime-fighting gadgets. Kane said he based the character partly on Zorro, because he liked the idea of a fashionable rich guy dressing up as a vigilante at night to fight crime. He got the idea for Batman's costume from a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of a bat-winged flying machine.

It's the birthday of playwright Moss Hart, (books by this author) born in New York City (1904), who learned how to keep an audience's attention when he got a job as the entertainment director for a series of summer resorts along the Borscht Belt in the Catskills. He said that keeping city folks sufficiently entertained when they are on vacation was the toughest job he ever had. He had his first hit play with Once in a Lifetime in 1930, when he was just 25 years old, and went on to co-write or direct a string of hits, including The Man Who Came to Dinner, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. His best-known play, You Can't Take It With You (1936), is about the eccentric Sycamore family, whose home is full of snakes, ballet dancers, Russian Royalty, candy, and fireworks, and what happens when Alice, the most ordinary daughter of the family, brings her fiancé home to meet everybody. More than 70 years after its release, it is still one of the most popular plays for amateur productions. In 2004 alone, it was produced by more than 500 amateur theaters.

It's the birthday of the novelist Norman Rush, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1933), who spent 15 years working as a book dealer and trying to write on the side when he switched careers and took a job with the Peace Corps in Botswana and finally found something to write about. Rush said, "I was astonished by Africa ... apartheid was falling apart, and nobody knew how the pieces would be put back together." He didn't have time to write anything while he was in Africa, so he just took notes. And after five years he came home and wrote his first book, the short-story collection Whites (1986), which became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His next book, the novel Mating (1991), won the National Book Award. It's about an American woman who goes to Botswana to finish her Ph.D. in nutritional anthropology and falls into a relationship with a man trying to create a utopian community in the Kalahari Desert. Norman Rush said, "The main effort of arranging your life should be to progressively reduce the amount of time required to decently maintain yourself so that you can have all the time you want for reading."

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Poem: "Baptism" by Ted Thomas Jr., from Singing with the Dead. © Moon Pie Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.


I help my father
into the shower
with his good hand
he grips my arm for support.

Inside he sits like Buddha
on a plastic stool
and waits for me
to begin.

I drench him
with warm water,
soap his head, his back,
the flabby stomach,
the private parts
private no more.

I had not before seen my father's
nakedness, nor the changing
contour of his being,
his growing helplessness.

His brown skin glistens
and I think of him
as a young man on the night
of my conception:

Panting, capable, shining
with sweat and definition,
the soft hands of my mother
grasping his shoulders.

I pat him dry,
he lets me dress him
in the white
hospital clothes,
oil his hair,
put him to bed
and forgive him.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Anne Tyler, (books by this author) born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1941), the author of The Accidental Tourist (1985), Back When We Were Grownups (2001), and Digging to America (2006). Early in her career, she decided she did not want to be a public person, so she stopped giving readings and only does occasional interviews in writing. She said, "Any time I talk in public about writing, I end up not able to do any writing. It's as if some capricious Writing Elf goes into a little sulk whenever I expose him." Ann Tyler also said, "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. It's lucky I do it on paper. Probably I would be schizophrenic — and six times divorced — if I weren't writing."

It's the birthday of the poet John Berryman, (books by this author) born John Smith in Oklahoma (1914), whose masterpiece was The Dream Songs, published in two volumes: 77 Dream Songs (1964) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968).

It's the birthday of the artist Pablo Picasso, born in Malaga, Spain (1881), who was living in a bohemian community in Barcelona painting portraits of his friends and acquaintances when one of his paintings was selected for inclusion in the upcoming world's fair in Paris. He was just 18 — went off to Paris for the exhibition, saw paintings by Manet, Cezanne, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, and came home with a head full of ideas for new paintings, only to learn that one of his best friends had murdered a woman and committed suicide.

Picasso was horrified, but he didn't have time to think about it, because right then he got word that an art dealer in Paris had noticed his work and wanted to put on a show of his paintings. He began to paint frantically, producing three or four paintings a day in the last three weeks before the show, paintings of street scenes, horse racing, bullfighting, flower arrangements, dancing girls, and many portraits of prostitutes.

The show opened in the summer of 1901, showing more than 60 paintings and dozens of drawings. It didn't attract a lot of critical attention, but more than half of the paintings were sold. Picasso's dealer thought the exhibition was a great success, and Picasso was flooded with requests for illustration work. But instead of beginning a career as a commercial artist, he began to produce a series of paintings dominated by somber blue backgrounds. The first of these paintings was a portrait of his friend who had committed suicide.

Picasso's art dealer hated the new work and nobody wanted to buy it. Picasso would spend the next several years in poverty. But it was during his Blue Period that he began to develop his own style and produce his early masterpieces, including The Old Guitarist (1902). By the middle of the 20th century, he was generally considered the greatest living artist in the world. Pablo Picasso, who said, "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."

It was on this day in 1854 that a British military disaster occurred in the Crimean War that inspired Alfred Tennyson to write his famous poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

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Poem: "The Pistachio Nut" by Robert Bly, from My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. © Harper Collins, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Pistachio Nut

God crouches at night over a single pistachio.
The vastness of the Wind River Range in Wyoming
Has no more grandeur than the waist of a child.

Haydn tells us that we've inherited a mansion
On one of the Georgia sea islands. Then the last
Note burns down the courthouse and all the records.

Everyone who presses down the strings with his own fingers
Is on his way to Heaven; the pain in the fingertips
Goes toward healing the crimes the hands have done.

Let's give up the notion that great music is a way
Of praising human beings. It's good to agree that one drop
Of ocean water holds all of Kierkegaard's prayers.

When I hear the sitar give out the story of its life,
I know it is telling me how to behave-while kissing
The dear one's feet, to weep over my wasted life.

Robert, this poem will soon be over; and you
Are like a twig trembling on the lip of the falls.
Like a note of music, you are about to become nothing.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1776 that Benjamin Franklin left for a diplomatic mission to France, to gain support for the American Revolution. The colonies had few munitions, and no money to buy munitions, and nowhere near the manpower available to win a war against one of the most powerful nations on Earth. Franklin was hoping that France could help. He was 70 at the time, and he got a hero's welcome in Paris. He was applauded in the streets; shopkeepers began selling clocks, snuffboxes, and walking sticks decorated with his portrait, and women began wearing wigs that imitated the style of Franklin's wig.

The French government didn't have a lot of money at the time, so they were reluctant to help the colonies, but Franklin's genius was to play France and Britain against each other. He let it be known to British diplomats that he was close to an alliance with France, and the British diplomats began to offer terms for ending the war. He then let it be known to France that he might negotiate peace with the British, and the French responded by finally giving him the alliance he wanted.

The signing ceremony for the treaty with France took place at Versailles on March 20, 1778. Franklin wore a simple suit of brown velvet cloth and the spectacles that he had invented. After the treaty was signed, he was served dinner, and then he was given the honor of standing next to Queen Marie Antoinette while she played at the gambling tables. She refused to speak to him.

Thanks to Ben Franklin, France supplied 90 percent of the gunpowder used in the first years of the Revolution, $13 billion in aid, and they even provided troops. But some historians believe that their support destabilized the French economy, which led to their own revolution in 1789.

It was on this day in 1900 that Henry James wrote his first letter to the budding novelist Edith Wharton, beginning a long friendship. Wharton was an admirer of James's work, and she sent him one of the first short stories she ever wrote, about a young woman in Europe. He wrote back to say that he liked the story but he also said, "Be tethered in native pastures, even if it reduces [you] to a back-yard in New York." His advice inspired her to write about the New York society she'd grown up in, and the result was The House of Mirth (1905), which became her first big success.

They remained friends for the rest of James's life, but while Wharton became more successful, James's novels sold less and less well. When he heard that she'd used the advance from a recent book to buy herself a new car, he said that he hoped his next book would give him enough to buy a new wheelbarrow. But he always appreciated their friendship, and near the end of his life, he wrote to her, "Your letters come into my damp desert here even as the odour of promiscuous spices ... might be wafted to some compromised oasis from a caravan of the Arabian nights."

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Poem: "35/10" by Sharon Olds, from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980–2002. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Brushing out our daughter's brown
silken hair before the mirror
I see the grey gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a moist
precise flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her full purse of eggs, round and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
to snap its clasp. I brush her tangled
fragrant hair at bedtime. It's an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Zadie Smith, (books by this author) born in London (1975), who grew up black in a working-class London neighborhood where she had a hard time making friends with other kids. She spent all of her free time either tap dancing or reading. She later wrote, "It is a mixture of perversity and stomach-sadness that makes a young person fashion a cocoon of other people's words. If the sun was out, I stayed in; if there was a barbecue, I was in the library. ... By the time I arrived at college I had been in no countries, had no jobs, participated in no political groups, had no lovers. ... In short, I was perfectly equipped to write the kind of fiction I did write: saturated by other books; touched by the world, but only vicariously."

She finally began to fit in when she got to college at Cambridge, where it was cool to be smart and exotic to be black. Her sophomore year, she published a short story in her undergraduate literary journal that attracted a lot of attention, and people said she should try to get a book contract for a novel. So while she was cramming for her final exams, she banged out 100 pages of a potential novel, those hundred pages started a bidding war among London publishers, and Zadie Smith wound up with a six-figure book contract before she'd even graduated from college. That novel became White Teeth (2000), which was compared to the work of Charles Dickens, with a huge cast of characters, including Bengali Muslims, Jews, Jamaicans, Nazis, Jehovah's Witnesses, animal rights activists, Islamic terrorists, and old English men. It sold more than a million copies.

Zadie Smith's most recent book, On Beauty (2005), is a modern retelling of E.M. Forster's Howards End. She said, "I'm influenced by everything I read, shamelessly. ... I think if I carry on plagiarizing for 15 years, it will settle like silt, and I'll write something really great."

It's the birthday of Dylan Thomas (books by this author) born in Swansea, Wales (1914), who published his first collection, 18 Poems, in 1933. It got great reviews, but most readers found it very difficult to understand. Thomas himself said, "I agree that much of [my] poetry is impossibly difficult; I've asked, or rather told, [my] words to do too much." Thomas made his name among general readers with the poems he wrote about the bombing raids on London During World War II, including "Ceremony After a Fire Raid," "Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid Was a Man Aged a Hundred" and "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London."

It's the birthday of Sylvia Plath, (books by this author) born in Boston, Massachusetts (1932), who wrote her best poems after her marriage to the poet Ted Hughes broke up. She was living alone with her two children, but she woke up every morning at 4:00 a.m. to write, and poems just poured out of her. At the end of October, 1962, she wrote to her mother, "I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name." But she couldn't get the poems published because the editors of various magazines thought they were too strange and disturbing.

That winter in England was one of the coldest on record, and Plath kept coming down with fevers. On the morning of February 11, 1963, she got up and sealed her children's bedroom door with tape, sealed herself in the kitchen, stuffed a towel under the door, opened the oven and turned on the gas, killing herself. The poems she had been writing that fall were published as Ariel in 1965, and they did make her name. When her Collected Poems was published in 1981, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of novelist and memoirist Maxine Hong Kingston, (books by this author) born Maxine Hong in Stockton, California (1940), whose memoir Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), begins, "'You must not tell anyone,' my mother said, 'what I am about to tell you.'"

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Poem: "The Wild Swans at Coole" by W.B. Yeats, from William Butler Yeats Selected Poems and Four Plays. © The Macmillan Company, 1919. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who developed the polio vaccine, Dr. Jonas Salk, born in New York City (1914). He created the vaccine at the height of a polio epidemic in the mid-1950s, when parents were so worried about their children that they kept them home from swimming pools in the summer. Salk's discovery was that a vaccine could be developed from a dead virus, and he tested the vaccine on himself, his family, and the staff of his laboratory to prove it was safe. The vaccine was finally released to the public in 1955, and the number of people infected by polio went down from more than 10,000 a year to fewer than 100. Salk was declared a national hero.

It's the birthday of poet John Hollander, (books by this author) born in New York City (1929), whose poetry collection Types of Shape (1969) is a series of poems that are arranged on the page so that the words form pictures of things — a key, a cup, a swan reflected in water. His collection Picture Window came out in 2004. John Hollander said, "I want my poems to be wiser than I am, to know more about themselves than I do."

It was on this day in 1919 that Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson's veto and passed the Volstead Act, which provided for enforcement of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the sale of alcohol. The prohibition movement had been led largely by women, who still had a hard time making a living on their own, and many had seen their lives ruined when their husbands squandered the family income on alcohol.

Prohibition is remembered as a failure, and it was a failure in big cities because they refused to enforce the law. But in rural America, Prohibition was actually quite effective. Both cirrhosis death rates and admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholism fell by more than 50 percent, and arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct went way down. But city newspapers focused on how easy it was to find alcohol. Even members of the United States Congress had a private country club where they drank liquor openly. By 1932, Prohibition was deemed a complete failure. The 18th Amendment had been the first amendment ever passed to limit the rights of American citizens, and it became the first and only amendment so far to have been repealed.

It was on this day in 1886 that the Statue of Liberty was officially unveiled and opened to the public. It was gift from France intended to celebrate the two countries' shared love of freedom, shipped to the U.S. in pieces packed into 214 crates. Workers put it back together in New York. The day of the dedication was cold and rainy, but huge crowds came out for the celebration anyway. The statue was under veil, and the sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, was alone in the statue's crown, waiting for the signal to drop the veil. A boy down below was supposed to wave a white handkerchief at the end of the big speech. The boy accidentally waved his handkerchief before the speech was over and Bartholdi let the curtain drop, revealing the huge bronze lady, and gunshots rang out from all the ships in the harbor. The speaker, who had been boring everybody, just sat down.



  • “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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