Those great sweeps of snow that stop suddenly six feet
        from the house...
Thoughts that go so far.
The boy gets out of high school and reads no more books;
the son stops calling home.
The mother puts down her rolling pin and makes no more
And the wife looks at her husband one night at a party
        and loves him no more.
The energy leaves the wine, and the minister falls leaving
        the church.
It will not come closer—
the one inside moves back, and the hands touch nothing,
         and are safe.

And the father grieves for his son, and will not leave the
         room where the coffin stands;
he turns away from his wife, and she sleeps alone.

And the sea lifts and falls all night; the moon goes on
         through the unattached heavens alone.
And the toe of the shoe pivots
in the dust...
The man in the black coat turns, and goes back down the
No one knows why he came, or why he turned away, and
       did not climb the hill.

"Snowbanks North of the House" by Robert Bly, from Selected Poems. © Harper Collins. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, born in Limoges, France (1841). He began painting when he was 13 years old, first on porcelain, then later painting on fans. He went on to form the style of painting known as Impressionism, along with the painters Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley. Renoir became severely disabled by arthritis starting in 1902, but he continued to paint. By 1913, he was completely crippled, and he instructed his assistants in creating several of his last sculptures. Renoir said, "The pain passes, but the beauty remains."

It's the birthday of novelist and composer Anthony Burgess, (books by this author) born in Manchester, England (1917). He's best known for his book A Clockwork Orange (1962), but he also wrote many musical compositions and more than 50 other books, as well.

Burgess said, "I call myself a professional writer in that I must write in order to eat... But primarily I call myself a serious novelist who is attempting to extend the range of subject matter available to fiction, as also a practitioner who is anxious to exploit words as much as a poet does."

It's the birthday of English art critic and nun Sister Wendy Beckett, (books by this author) born in South Africa (1930) and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland. She's been a nun for more than 60 years, an art critic for more than 20. She's famous for books on art and her television shows on the BBC and PBS where she talks about art in museums around the world in plain, understandable language.

Sister Wendy said, "Many people feel I am not really equipped to understand art, that I am not educated enough to speak to people in elitist languages, but don't you see — that's the point!" Her first book was Contemporary Women Artists (1988).

Sister Wendy surprises her audience with the way she openly talks about sex and nudity in paintings without any embarrassment. She says, "I use the words that come naturally...I'm absolutely astonished and bewildered to find people commenting on my delight in a naked body. Never, ever, has anyone suggested that parts of the body were not quite right, that God made a mistake, that they should be passed over. It's appropriate to comment on everything in the painting. I'm not going to deny God's glory by pandering to narrow-mindedness."

Sister Wendy negotiated in her contract that no matter where she is filming, she must go to mass every day. When not filming, she lives in solitude and prayer in a trailer on the property of the convent. All the money she makes from her book sales and her shows go to the Carmelite convent and its hospice for children. Sister Wendy says, "When you are talking about art, you are talking about God indirectly; all experience of art is an indirect experience of God."

It was on this day in 1956 that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes met in London, (books by Sylvia Plath) (books by Ted Hughes) beginning one of the most famous literary relationships in modern history. Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts (1932), and had studied at Smith College, but she was in England studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship.

Sylvia Plath met Hughes at a party in a bar, and the next morning she wrote about the encounter in her journal. She spent most of the evening talking to someone else, whom she described as "some ugly, gat-toothed squat grinning guy named Meeson trying to be devastatingly clever." She said the party was "very bohemian, with boys in turtleneck sweaters and girls being blue-eye-lidded or elegant in black." Plath had been drinking a little, and she wrote, "The jazz was beginning to get under my skin, and I started dancing with Luke and knew I was very bad, having crossed the river and banged into the trees..."

Plath said, "Then the worst thing happened, that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, who had been hunching around over women, and whose name I had asked the minute I had come into the room, but no one told me, came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes."

Plath quoted one of his poems to him, and he guided her to a side room of the bar. She wrote of that moment, "And then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off, my lovely red hairband scarf which had weathered the sun and much love, and whose like I shall never again find, and my favorite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face."

Plath composed a poem over the next few days after meeting Hughes. Called "Pursuit," it was a poem about a woman being hunted by a panther and was a response to a Hughes poem called "The Jaguar." Plath spent the night with Hughes and his friend in their London flat right before going on a spring vacation in Europe. When she returned, they spent even more time together, and after seeing so much of each other for a couple of months, they started thinking about marriage.

They got married on June 16th, four months after that first meeting, but it was a secret wedding because they didn't want to jeopardize Plath's fellowship or academic career. The ceremony was in the Church of Saint George the Martyr in London. Plath wore a pink suit, and Hughes gave her a pink rose to hold as she walked down the aisle.

Plath and Hughes spent the rest of that summer in Paris, Madrid, and the small town of Benidorm in Spain. They passed their days swimming, studying, and writing. Plath wrote the poems "Dream with Clam Diggers," Fiesta Melons," and "The Goring" as well as many others while on this honeymoon. Plath told a friend many years later that Hughes had gotten very angry with her during that trip and tried to choke her while they sat on a hill. She said she had resigned herself to die while it was happening, and she worried she had made the wrong decision in getting married so soon after meeting him.

Plath and Hughes decided to separate in 1962, right after they had moved back to England and had a second child. Plath discovered that Hughes was having an affair. She said in an interview that year, "I much prefer doctors, midwives, lawyers, anything but writers. I think writers and artists are the most narcissistic people... I'm fascinated by this mastery of the practical. As a poet, one lives a bit on air. I always like someone who can teach me something practical."

Plath committed suicide in 1963 by sticking her head in an oven. Hughes's mistress would also kill herself years later using the same method. Hughes was left in control of Plath's estate, and he edited her poems and controlled what of hers was published and what was not. He once was met on a trip to Australia by protestors holding signs that accused him of murdering Plath. Plath fans trying to chip away the word "Hughes" from her name on the tombstone have repeatedly vandalized her grave in Yorkshire, England.

The man who jumped from the highway bridge one afternoon
who drove his car along in rush hour traffic
then carefully pulled it over, fussed with something briefly on the dash,
so casually that another driver passing
thought he was looking for a map, or a cassette tape,
that had slid during the last turn before the bridge — that's all —
and then stepped out of the car, standing, stretching,
and closing the door routinely, a man in need of a break
on a long drive, a man untroubled by his next appointment,
a man who felt himself growing tired and thought
he needed some air, looked up the highway once
and then down at the almost frozen rows of traffic
under the haze that lingered above the bridge
and then broke simply and suddenly into a run, a dead run,
one motorist called it, crossing in front of his car
and not even stopping at the railing between the bridge
and the empty space beside the bridge, entering that space
and opening his mouth in what one driver called a scream,
though she heard no sound above the drone of traffic, and
other drivers saw as a gasp for breath, not unlike a child takes
when diving into a backyard pool, and he executed then
a nearly perfect, if a little rushed, swan dive out across the space
next to the bridge and into the water ninety-five feet below.

One fisherman in a boat a little upstream
saw the man who jumped from the highway bridge,
the moment he left the bridge and entered his dive, and the fisherman
swore he saw not a man but a large bird, a falcon or an eagle,
shot mid-flight by an angry driver, a large bird
who was trying to regain some sense of beauty, some sense of flight,
in its final dying seconds

"Beauty or Flight" by Denver Butson from Triptych. © The Commoner Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man we call Buffalo Bill, born William Frederick Cody in LeClaire, Iowa (1846).

Cody's father died when the boy was only 13, and Cody responded by leaving the family home in Kansas to seek his fortune out West. He first worked for supply trains and a freighting company, and in 1859 he worked in the Colorado gold fields. The next year, Cody rode for the Pony Express. Then, Buffalo Bill began the work for which he became famous: scouting for the Army and hunting buffalos for railroad construction camps across the Great Plains.

The novelist Ned Buntline persuaded Cody to appear on stage on December 17, 1872, as the character Buffalo Bill, and Cody was connected with show business almost completely from that time forward. The next year, Cody formed the Buffalo Bill Combination, which included his friend Wild Bill Hickok. He organized Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1883, and toured all over America and Europe for many years. The state of Wyoming gave Cody a stock ranch, and it was here that the future city of Cody was first conceived.

Buffalo Bill's adventures and exploits were written about in dime-store novels by Prentice Ingraham — and many of the adventures written there were true, or based in truth.

It's the birthday of Victor Hugo, the French poet, novelist, and dramatist, (books by this author) born in Besançon, France (1802). He is best known for his epic novels, like Les Misérables (1862) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), but he published dozens of works in his lifetime.

Hugo's father was an army general, and the father taught his young son to admire Napoleon as a national hero. Hugo also traveled widely as a boy, living in Spain and Italy before his parents separated, when Hugo moved to Paris with his mother. It was in Paris that the young Hugo began to make a name for himself, as a writer of promise. He published his first play at age 14, and he earned praise from the prestigious Académie française a year later. Hugo published his early novels, Han d'Islande and Bug-Jargal, in his early 20s. He had been translating the poetry of Virgil since adolescence, and in 1822 he published his first translations. Hugo earned a large financial reward from Louis XVII for these translations, and he married the daughter of the minister of defense.

Hugo earned widespread fame for his play Hernani (1830) and for the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), which tells the now-famous story of a gypsy girl named Esmeralda and Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer who loves her. Much later, Hugo wrote the epic Les Misérables, about the life of Jean Valjean, who is imprisoned for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread.

Hugo became increasingly involved in French politics later in life, particularly after the death of his daughter and her husband, which caused him much sadness and kept him from publishing a book for 10 years. In particular, Hugo was an advocate for social justice. In 1848, after a revolution helped form the Second Republic, Hugo was elected to the Constitutional Assembly and the Legislative Assembly. Just a few years later, Hugo fled France after a coup d'état by Napoleon III put his life in danger. Hugo first went to Brussels, then he moved on to Jersey and Guernsey in the English Channel. He would be away from France for 20 years. It was during this time that Hugo wrote Les Misérables.

Hugo returned to France when the Third Republic came into power, but he left again during the time of the Paris Commune, which ruled Paris for a brief time in 1871. He again took up residence in Brussels, but he was expelled for sheltering defeated revolutionaries. Hugo moved on to Luxembourg, and when the Paris Commune finally collapsed, he returned to Paris and was elected a senator.

Like so many French writers before and since, Hugo's death was a national event. He was given a national funeral attended by two million people.

Nobody is certain what day Christopher Marlowe was born, (books by this author) but he was christened on this day, in Canterbury, England (1564). Marlowe is often considered the greatest dramatist before Shakespeare, even though the two were born in the same year. Probably this is because of Marlowe's early death at age 29.

Marlowe attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on a scholarship usually given to students studying for the ministry. He held the scholarship for the full six years he was allowed, but he began to write plays rather than take holy orders. Marlowe encountered difficulty as he completed his master's degree in 1587. The university nearly denied him the degree, because they suspected that Marlowe intended to go to Reims, the center of Catholic dissidence and movements against Queen Elizabeth. He was finally granted the degree, because the Privy Council intervened on the queen's behalf, and they said Marlowe had proven his loyalty by acting as some kind of government agent.

Marlowe wrote his play Tamburlaine before leaving Cambridge, and in 1587 it was produced on the stage in London. A sequel soon followed. Marlowe also wrote Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, and The Massacre at Paris, all well known today. Except for the Tamburlaine plays, Marlowe's other works were published and produced only after he died.

The Marsh in Winter

If you stand and listen,
you will hear the voice.
Reeds sharp as rapiers rasp the wind.
Frost creaks in the trees.
Sunlight, ice-bright, falls from the sky.
Scattered cedars and junipers loom like shadows.
Sheathed in ice, a willow droops heavily
        across the path.
Driven snow packs the creviced bark of cottonwoods.
Once-hidden bird nests now plainly marked
        by a white cap of snow...

Out on the marsh, blue water shows through shifting ice.
Tall brown reeds, slim as dancers, bend in the breeze.
A hundred thousand cattails, each one lit
        by the low-angled light of westering sun,
each brown seed head blazing
        like the head of a saint.

"The Marsh in Winter" by Timothy Walsh, from Wild Apples.© Parallel Press. 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Outside of Richmond, Virginia, Sunday

It's the kind of mid-January afternoon—
the sky as calm as an empty bed,
fields indulgent,
black Angus finally sitting down to chew—
that makes a girl ride her bike up and down the same muddy track of road
between the gray barn and the state highway
all afternoon, the black mutt
with the white patch like a slap on his rump
loping after the rear tire, so happy.
Right after Sunday dinner
until she can see the headlights out on the dark highway,
she rides as though she has an understanding with the track she's opened up in
        the road,
with the two wheels that slide and stutter in the red mud
but don't run off from under her,
with the dog who knows to stay out of the way but to stay.
And even after the winter cold draws tears,
makes her nose run,
even after both sleeves are used up,
she thinks a life couldn't be any better than this.
And hers won't be,
and it will be very good.

"Outside of Richmond, Virginia, Sunday" by Deborah Slicer, from The White Calf Kicks. © Autumn House Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, (books by this author) born in Portland, Maine (1807). He was a student at Bowdoin College at the same time as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and went on to teach at Harvard where he became friends with James Russell Lowell. Longfellow wrote many long, narrative poems that are still well known to this day, including "Evangeline" (1847) and "The Courtship of Miles Standish" (1858). He also translated Dante's Divine Comedy.

It's the birthday of Lawrence Durrell, (books by this author) born in India of English parents (1912). Durrell traveled widely during his life, living in Cairo, Belgrade, and on many small islands in the Mediterranean Sea. He worked as a diplomat and information officer for the British government, and also he lectured at universities.

Durrell is best known for The Alexandria Quartet (1957), four linked novels set in Alexandria, Egypt, around the time of World War II.

It's the birthday of Irwin Shaw, (books by this author) born in the Bronx, New York City (1913). Shaw was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, and they changed their family name from Shamforoff when they moved to Brooklyn when Shaw was a boy. Shaw attended Brooklyn College but was expelled after his first year, for failing calculus. And so, Shaw worked in New York City, in a cosmetics factory, a furniture house, and a department store. Then he returned to Brooklyn College, where he became the quarterback of the football team.

Shaw played football professionally for a short time, but he needed to support his family, and so he began to write radio scripts for programs like "Dick Tracy" and "The Gumps." Of this, Shaw said, "Even when I was writing the junk, I knew it was junk; but I did it the best way I could ... and I make no excuses for eating. Or feeding a family. Or fighting for the freedom to write all these short stories, all these plays, all these novels."

Shaw wrote his play Bury the Dead (1936) for a contest for new playwrights held by the New Theatre League. Shaw missed the deadline, but he impressed them anyway, and they gave his play two off-Broadway performances. During this time, Shaw also began publishing his short stories in The Paris Review and The New Yorker.

Shaw enlisted in the military during World War II, and he worked with a camera crew. His crew traveled to Normandy two weeks after D-Day, and Shaw helped photograph battles for the liberation of French cities and towns, and this gave him the idea for his novel The Young Lions (1948). After the war, Shaw was blacklisted for a time, because he was mistakenly accused of being a Communist. Shaw claimed the blacklist "only glancingly bruised" his career. Still, he moved to Paris in 1951, and would remain abroad for 25 years, writing many stories, novels, and plays.

Irwin Shaw said, "If you organize chaos, you organize as much as you can to show that it's chaos. It's the way I do it. To pretend it's not chaotic is a lie."

It's the birthday of John Steinbeck , (books by this author) born in Salinas, California (1902). He is the author of the epic novel The Grapes Of Wrath (1939) and also Of Mice and Men (1937).

Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford in 1919, but he did so only to please his parents. He dropped in and out of the university for six years, only taking classes he thought were interesting, and he never finished a degree. Then he worked construction and tried to make it as a reporter in New York City, but he disliked that job and returned to California. Then, Steinbeck became a caretaker for an estate near Lake Tahoe. The job lasted for three years, and it was during this time that he wrote many drafts of what would become his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929).

Steinbeck's most productive period as a writer was the 1930s. He wrote several books, including the two for which he is most famous today, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. His wife edited his prose, typed his manuscripts, and suggested titles, which may explain why Steinbeck was so productive and successful. When The Grapes of Wrath was first published, the first printing of nearly 20,000 copies sold out quickly, and by May the book was selling 10,000 copies per week. Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel the following year.

As he grew older, Steinbeck became increasingly jaded by what he saw as American greed and waste. So he traveled across the country in a camper truck and then wrote the book Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), where he celebrated what he found so admirable about his country: its individuals.

John Steinbeck said, "A book is like a man — clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun."

It is possible that things will not get better
than they are now, or have been known to be.
It is possible that we are past the middle now.
It is possible that we have crossed the great water
without knowing it, and stand now on the other side.
Yes: I think that we have crossed it. Now
we are being given tickets, and they are not
tickets to the show we had been thinking of,
but to a different show, clearly inferior.

Check again: it is our own name on the envelope.
The tickets are to that other show.

It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall
without waiting for the last act: people do.
Some people do. But it is probable
that we will stay seated in our narrow seats
all through the tedious dénouement
to the unsurprising end — riveted, as it were;
spellbound by our own imperfect lives
because they are lives,
and because they are ours.

"Riveted" by Robyn Sarah from A Day's Grace: Poems 1997-2002. © The Porcupine's Quill, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1953 that James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule, which became the key to understanding how all organisms pass genetic information on to their offspring. James Watson was only 23 years old at the time. Crick was older, but he hadn't even finished his Ph.D. They were working in a lab in Cambridge, England, where they didn't even have the right equipment to examine DNA. That equipment was located at King's College in London. Watson tried to get a job there by setting his sister up with one of the King's College scientists, but it didn't work out.

They were devastated when the world-renowned scientist Linus Pauling published a paper proposing a structure for DNA. But they immediately realized that his structure was wrong, and they vowed to beat him in the race to the answer. They learned that a woman named Rosalind Franklin was taking X-Ray pictures of DNA, and they decided that the only way to discover the structure was to look at those pictures.

Watson got to know Rosalind Franklin's lab partner, Maurice Wilkins, and one night he persuaded Wilkins to show him one of the X-ray pictures that Franklin had taken of a DNA molecule. On the train ride back to Cambridge, Watson sketched the picture on a newspaper. When he got back to his lab, he and Crick spent several days building theoretical models of the molecule. They hit on the correct structure on this day in 1953. Once they realized what they had accomplished, they went to the local bar to celebrate. Toasting their discovery, Watson shouted, "We have discovered the secret of life!" They would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Rosalind Franklin would also have gotten credit, but she had died of cancer by the time the prize was awarded.

It's the birthday of the poet Virginia Hamilton Adair, born in New York City (1913). Her father was an insurance salesman and an amateur poet. She grew up loving poetry, and she published many poems in magazines as a young woman. But after she got married, she stopped trying to publish. She said, "Publishing takes a sort of canniness that I didn't really think went with poetry. I was afraid of writing to please somebody else instead of myself."

So she went on writing poems, without publishing them, for almost 50 years. It wasn't until after her children were grown, her husband had died, and she had lost her eyesight that she published a book of her work. They went through thousands of the poems she had written to find 87 for her book Ants on the Melon, which came out in 1996. She was 83 years old. She went on to publish two more books: Beliefs and Blasphemies (1998) and Living on Fire (2000).

When asked where she got her inspiration, she said, "A cup of coffee. Always black, always strong, and always just one. It takes the cork out of the bottle."

It's the birthday of playwright and novelist Ben Hecht, (books by this author) born in New York City (1893). He was a child prodigy on the violin and gave his first concert performance when he was 10 years old. He also trained as an acrobat and performed with a small circus until he was 16, when he ran away to Chicago and became a journalist. Of his first few years in Chicago he said, "I ran everywhere in the city like a fly buzzing in the works of a clock, tasted more than any fly belly could hold, learned not to sleep ... and buried myself in a tick-tock of whirling hours that still echo in me."

Hecht got involved in the Chicago literary renaissance, along with writers like Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. He published his first novel in 1921 — Erik Dorn, about a jaded journalist who can only speak in newspaper headlines. He also began writing and collaborating on plays. He didn't have any success until he and a newspaper reporter named Charles MacArthur decided to write a play about the newspaper industry called The Front Page (1928). It was a big success on Broadway, and it was later made into the movie His Girl Friday (1940).

Ben Hecht said, "Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock."

It's the birthday of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne, (books by this author) born in Périgueux, France (1533). His father was a wealthy landowner and a devout Catholic, with innovative ideas about child rearing. He sent the infant Michel off to live with peasant parents, so that he would learn to love the lower classes. Then, when Michel was a toddler, his father required everyone in the household to speak Latin rather than French, so that Latin would be his first language.

Michel went off to college and became a lawyer. His father died when Michel was 38 years old, and so he retired to the family estate and took over managing the property. More than anything, he loved to write letters, but after a few years in retirement, his best friend died and he suddenly had no one to write to. So he started writing letters to an imaginary reader, and those letters became an entirely new literary genre: the essay.

As I walked out one evening,
        Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
        Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
        I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
        "Love has no ending.

"I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
        Till China and Africa meet
And the river jumps over the mountain
        And the salmon sing in the street.

"I'll love you till the ocean
        Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
        Like geese about the sky.

"The years shall run like rabbits
        For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages
        And the first love of the world."

But all the clocks in the city
        Began to whirr and chime:
"O let not Time deceive you,
        You cannot conquer Time.

"In the burrows of the Nightmare
        Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
        And coughs when you would kiss.

"In headaches and in worry
        Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
        To-morrow or to-day.

"Into many a green valley
        Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
        And the diver's brilliant bow.

"O plunge your hands in water,
        Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
        And wonder what you've missed.

"The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
        The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
        A lane to the land of the dead.

"Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
        And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer
        And Jill goes down on her back.

"O look, look in the mirror,
        O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
        Although you cannot bless.

"O stand, stand at the window
        As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
        With your crooked heart."

It was late, late in the evening,
        The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming
        And the deep river ran on.

"As I Walked Out One Evening" by W.H. Auden from Collected Poems. © Vintage, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Leap Day, the extra day that we tack on to February every four years to keep the calendar in time with the seasons. We do this because the Earth does not orbit the sun in a nice round 365 days, but rather in 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds.

Ancient peoples based their calendars on many things, from the movements of the stars to the activities of plants and animals. The Greek poet Hesiod told farmers to begin the harvest when the constellation Pleiades was rising and to begin plowing when it was setting, and to sharpen their farming tools when snails began climbing up plants. Most early calendars were based on the stages of the moon, with lunar months of about 29 days each. But the problem with the lunar calendar is that it's about 11 days short of the actual year, so instead of having to add a leap day every few years, you have to add a leap month. The Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to develop a calendar with 12 months and 365 days. When Julius Caesar rose to power, the Romans were using a calendar that was so faulty they often had to add an extra 80 days to the year. In 46 B.C., after his affair with Cleopatra, Caesar chose to adopt the superior Egyptian calendar, and this became known as the Julian calendar. In the first version of the Julian calendar, February had 29 days most years and 30 days in leap years. Caesar named the month of July after himself, so when Augustus came to power, he decided he needed a month too. He named August after himself, but he had to steal a day from February in order to make August as long as July.

The Julian calendar worked well for a while, but in the 13 century, a sick old friar named Roger Bacon sent a letter to the Pope. He had calculated the actual length of the solar year as slightly less than 365.25 days, and he pointed out that the Julian calendar was adding one leap day too many for every 125 years. The result was that Christians were celebrating holy days on the wrong dates. Bacon wrote, "The calendar is intolerable to all wisdom, the horror of astronomy, and a laughing-stock from a mathematician's point of view." Bacon was eventually imprisoned for implying that the pope had been fallible, and his writings were censored. It wasn't until 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII hired a group of Jesuits to fix the calendar, and they came up with the complicated system of omitting the leap day at the beginning of each century, except for those centuries divisible by 400. When Pope Gregory made the change, the calendar was about 10 days off, so Gregory deleted 10 days from the year. People went to sleep on Thursday, Oct. 4 and woke up on Friday, Oct. 15.

At first, the Gregorian calendar was only accepted in Catholic countries, and even there people were uncomfortable about losing 10 days of their lives. It led to protests and financial uncertainty, since people weren't sure how to calculate interest or taxes or rent for a 21-day month. Protestant countries didn't adopt the new calendar until much later, and this meant that for a long time, if you crossed the border of certain European countries, you had to set your clock back or forward by at least 10 days. When Great Britain finally accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1751, 11 days had to be deleted from the year. The change led to antipapal riots, because people believed the pope had shortened their lives. Mobs gathered in the streets, chanting, "Give us back our 11 days!" When the British colonies in America made the change the following year, Ben Franklin wrote in an editorial, "Be not astonished, nor look with scorn, dear reader, at ... the loss of so much time. ... What an indulgence is here, for those who love their pillow, to lie down in peace on the second [day] of this month and not awake till the morning of the fourteenth."

The Gregorian calendar has since been accepted everywhere as the standard. It is so accurate that we will have to wait until the year 4909 before our dates become out of step with the Earth's orbit by a full day.

It was a Maine lobster town—
each morning boatloads of hands
pushed off for granite
quarries on the islands,

and left dozens of bleak
white frame houses stuck
like oyster shells
on a hill of rock,

and below us, the sea lapped
the raw little match-stick
mazes of a weir,
where the fish for bait were trapped.

Remember? We sat on a slab of rock.
From this distance in time
it seems the color
of iris, rotting and turning purpler,

but it was only
the usual gray rock
turning the usual green
when drenched by the sea.

The sea drenched the rock
at our feet all day,
and kept tearing away
flake after flake.

One night you dreamed
you were a mermaid clinging to a wharf-pile,
and trying to pull
off the barnacles with your hands.

We wished our two souls
might return like gulls
to the rock. In the end,
the water was too cold for us.

"Water" by Robert Lowell from Selected Poems. © Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1976. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Hass, (books by this author) born in San Francisco, California (1941). He's the author of several collections of poetry, including Human Wishes (1989) and Sun Under Wood (1996), and he served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997.

He said, "Take the time to write. You can do your life's work in half an hour a day."

It's the birthday of the novelist Ralph Ellison, (books by this author) born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1914). He only published one novel in his lifetime but it was one of the great novels of the 20th century: Invisible Man (1952). He had to abandon a previous novel about World War II to finish it, and it took him seven years to write. He spent the rest of his life working on his next book, but he never finished it. The almost 2,000-page manuscript was edited down and published after his death as Juneteenth (1999).

It's the birthday of the poet Howard Nemerov, (books by this author) who was born in New York City (1920). His father was the president of one of the fanciest clothing stores in New York City, and young Howard was expected to go into his father's business. Instead, he said, "[I became] Howie, boy-intellectual." From the moment he was introduced to literature, he decided that he never wanted to do anything else but read, write, and talk about it.

He promptly became a literature professor to support his writing, and he was a teacher for the rest of his life. He's known for his funny, playful poems, and he believed that poems and jokes were similar art forms. He wrote, "Jokes concentrate on the most sensitive areas of human concern: sex, death, religion, and the most powerful institutions of society; and poems do the same."

When asked what his poems were about, Nemerov said, "[I write about] bugs, birds, trees, running water — still, reflecting water — even people sometimes." His Collected Poems came out in 1977.

Richard Wilbur was born on this day in New York City (1921) (books by this author). His father was an artist who painted pictures for advertisements, and Wilbur often posed as the young boy in the advertisements, swallowing the advertised vitamins or running home from the grocery with the advertised cereal. His father supported his interest in poetry, and he sold his first poem to a children's magazine when he was eight years old.

He entered the military during World War II, and he was supposed to go into cryptography. But his superior officer thought he had dangerously radical ideas, and he reassigned him to the frontline infantry, where Wilbur witnessed his fellow soldiers being machine-gunned around him or driven over by jeeps. He said, "[Once] my foxhole-mate and I ... dove into a rubbly ditch to avoid an eighty-eight shell ... he wept to discover that the candy bar in his hand — a Butterfinger — was now full of broken glass."

During lulls in the fighting, Wilbur sat in his foxhole reading Edgar Allan Poe and writing poems about the war. But instead of writing about the battles he wrote more about the quiet moments, such as all the evenings he spent peeling potatoes in cold, dark Army kitchens. Those poems became his first book, The Beautiful Changes (1947), and it was a big success. Ten years later, he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collection Things of this World.

He was one of the America's leading poets at a time when most of America's leading poets were suffering from mental illness and alcoholism. While those other poets wrote about their madness in increasingly more experimental styles, Wilbur kept writing precise, rhythmical verse with meter and rhyme, living the mild-mannered life of a successful writer and literature professor. Of the major poets of his generation, he is one of the last still living and writing. His Collected Poems came out in 2004.

Richard Wilbur said, "I think that all poets are sending religious messages, because poetry is, in such great part, the comparison of one thing to another ... and to insist, as all poets do, that all things are related to each other, comparable to each other, is to go toward making an assertion of the unity of all things."

Robert Lowell was born in Boston (1917) (books by this author). He came from one of the most distinguished and famous families in that city. He went to Harvard University — as had all his male ancestors — but he dropped out after two years. His friend Ford Madox Ford introduced him to the poet Allen Tate. Lowell pitched a tent in Tate's front yard and began writing poems at a furious pace. He said he learned from Allen Tate that "[poetry must] be tinkered with and recast until one's eyes pop out of one's head."

He wrote his early poems in the style of Milton, with elaborate meter and rhyme schemes, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his first major collection, Lord Weary's Castle (1946), which included poems about whale hunters and Napoleon.

But after World War II, Lowell began to write more and more about himself and the people he knew, his relatives and friends, and the most ordinary details of his daily life. He said, "Almost the whole problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel, and that takes an awful lot of maneuvering. You may feel the doorknob more strongly than some big personal event, and the doorknob will open into something you can use as your own."

His collection Life Studies (1959) was one of the most baldly autobiographical collections of poetry ever published at that time, and he wrote it in a conversational free-verse style. He was criticized at first for writing what was called "confessional poetry," but it quickly became the standard style of American poetry.

Lowell had an erratic life. He suffered from manic depression and had three difficult marriages. One of his few stable relationships was with his friend the poet Elizabeth Bishop. After they met for the first time, Bishop said, "It was the first time I had ever actually talked with someone about how one writes poetry ... like exchanging recipes for making a cake."

They didn't see each other often after that, because they both traveled so much, but they kept in touch through letters. Lowell loved Bishop's poetry, and he made sure that she got all the grants and fellowships and professorships that she needed to keep writing. Ten years after they'd met, he admitted that he had once almost asked her to marry him.

He wrote to her, "I've never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry would be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had."

He died in a taxi in 1977. His Collected Poems came out in 2003.

Like the neighborhood kind
you went to as a kid, full
of yellow light and red
velvet curtains and everybody
there, friends, bullies throwing
popcorn, somebody with red hair.
The roof is leak-stained like the bloody
footprints of the beast from 20,000 fathoms,
there's a yo-yo demonstration by
a greasy man in a sequined suit,
the girl you love is there somewhere
but you can't find her, or if you do
she's with some jerk with muscles.
And the show won't start. There's whistling
and stomping, paper airplanes and 3-D
glasses until you don't even care
anymore because your head is tired,
a stone atop a tendril, and you just
want to sleep, when, sure enough,
the curtain finally rises,
darkness falls,
and here it comes.

"Theater" by William Greenway from Fishing at the End of the World. © Word Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the publisher Max Schuster, born in Kalusz, Austria (1897). He was working as the editor of a trade magazine when he met a man named Richard L. Simon, who sold pianos for a living. The two shared the same office building, and they began having lunch together every day. They were both interested in the publishing business and decided to start a publishing house of their own.

They had all kinds of plans and ideas for their new publishing venture, but no authors to publish. One day, Simon overheard his aunt say that she wished there were a collection of crossword puzzles she could give to a sick friend. At the time, crossword puzzles were a new invention, printed only in newspapers. Simon and Schuster decided to try printing a collection of crossword puzzles for their first book. It sold half a million copies in less than a year. It helped launch a worldwide crossword puzzle craze and put Simon and Schuster on the publishing map.

Simon and Schuster went on to become one of the most successful publishing houses in America. Instead of publishing books that authors had already written, they usually came up with the ideas themselves and assigned them to authors. They helped invent the self-help genre by publishing Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (1938), and they went on to publish books about how to dance, how to buy real estate, how to invest, do your taxes, play checkers, train a dog, keep house, and succeed in business.

It's the birthday of the novelist John Irving,(books by this author) born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1942). His first successful novel was The World According to Garp (1978). He's written many more novels since then, including The Cider House Rules (1978) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). In addition to writing books, he also wrestled professionally until he was 34 years old, and he was voted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992. His latest novel, Until I Find You, came out in 2005.

It's the birthday of the children's book author who wrote under the name Dr. Seuss, (books by this author) born Theodor Geisel, in Springfield, Massachusetts (1904). He was the son of German immigrants. His mother was an accomplished high diver, and his father was a target shooter who held the world record for marksmanship at 200 yards.

He studied literature and planned on becoming an English professor. But a woman in one of his classes noticed the drawings he doodled in the margin of his notebook during a lecture on Milton, and she told him he should become a cartoonist. He took her advice and also decided to marry her.

Seuss made a living selling cartoons to magazines, and he also drew cartoons for advertisements. The Standard Oil Company hired him to create monsters that live in the car, and he created the Moto-raspus, the Moto-munchus, and the Karbo-nockus. He published his first book for children, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, in 1937.

He went on to publish a series of fairly successful books for older children, and then, in 1955, an educational specialist asked him if he would write a book to help children learn how to read. Seuss was given a list of 300 words that most first-graders know, and he had to write the book using only those words. Seuss wasn't sure he could do it, but as he looked over the list, two words jumped out at him: "cat" and "hat."

Seuss spent the next nine months writing what would become The Cat in the Hat (1957). That book is 1,702 words long, but it uses only 220 different words. Parents and teachers immediately began using it to teach children to read, and within the first year of its publication it was selling 12,000 copies a month.

A few years later, Seuss's publisher bet him $50 that he could not write a book using only 50 different words. Seuss won the bet with his book Green Eggs and Ham (1960), which uses exactly 50 different words, and only one of those words has more than one syllable: the word "anywhere." It became the fourth best-selling children's hardcover book of all time.

It's the birthday of Tom Wolfe, (books by this author) born in Richmond, Virginia (1931). As a young boy, he would say a prayer every night before he went to bed, thanking God that he was an American. He's been obsessed with America ever since. He majored in American Studies at Yale, but he thought he might learn more about America by getting a job as a reporter, so that's what he did.

He went on to write a series of best-selling books of nonfiction about many aspects of American life: stock car racing, the drug culture, architecture, surfing, and the space program. He came to believe that the novel was dead as an art form and that the only way to say the really important things about American life was through nonfiction.

But then, in the 1980s, he decided to try writing a novel. He had been doing research on the criminal justice system in New York City, and he got the idea for a story about a court case that could involve as many different aspects of New York society as possible: the rich, the poor, the lawyers, the media, the activists, the politicians, and all the bystanders.

He spent months going to trials at the Manhattan Criminal Court Building and the Bronx County Courthouse, and he took notes on all the stories he heard, the clothes people wore, the way everyone talked, and whatever else he could absorb, and he put it all in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, which became a huge best seller in 1987.

His most recent book, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), is about the party rituals and sex lives of contemporary college students. For his research, Wolfe went to 12 different universities and attended dozens of frat parties. He said, "I was so old, and I always wore a necktie — I must have seemed somewhat odd to them." He made sure to use all the most current slang and pop culture references. He asked his own children, both recent college graduates, to check the book over for mistakes. The book got mixed reviews from most major newspapers and magazines, but it received better reviews from college newspapers, most of which admitted that it's pretty accurate.



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