May 8, 2002

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Poem: "May," by Diana Der-Hovanessian from The Circle Dancers (Sheep Meadow Press).


Even its name fills
with possibilities: "Yes,
you may." Month of blossoming,
month of true beginnings
and the soft perfume
of petals when it rains,
month of Maia, month of Mary
and month in which to praise
kept and unkempt gardens
and outdoor days.

It's the birthday of Thomas Pynchon, born in Glen Cove, Long Island (1937). He won the National Book Award in 1974 for Gravity's Rainbow, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for it, too, but the Pulitzer Advisory Board called the novel "unreadable" and "obscene," and withdrew the award. He has described his writing, in the third person, as being "divided into five principal phases: romanticized war-stories; a rash of science fictions; a third, romantic phase; then two years in the Navy and a swing back to a classicism that brought imitations of Henry James…and William Faulkner; then a fifth, when he dabbled with the Byronic romanticism…thus to begin a set of Voltairean, "Candide-like" stories, a foretaste of the satires written in his maturity."

It's the birthday of Gary Snyder, born in San Francisco (1930). He has climbed mountains, been a Zen monk, and was the model for the character Japhy Rider in Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums. His book Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1975. He spends as much time speaking about the environment as he does doing poetry readings. He once recommended settling down in one place as an environmentally friendly act, and he tells people to be literate in the nature of the area where they live, which he defines as "knowing which plants are indigenous to your area, knowing the annual rainfall, the annual solar input at your latitude, and where your water comes from."

It's the birthday of Robert Johnson, born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi (1911). With two recording sessions and only twenty-nine songs, he changed the face of American music forever. He played every track alone, accompanying himself on a steel-string acoustic guitar, but his guitar playing was so complex that some listeners thought two or three people were playing. When his recordings were reissued on an album called King of the Delta Blues Singers in1961, they were largely ignored in the United States, but they electrified the British music scene. Young, white, working-class British musicians started playing bottleneck slide guitar and singing about evil spirits at the crossroads.

It's the birthday of the literary critic Edmund Wilson, born in Red Bank, New Jersey (1895). He became so well-known an essayist in the forties and fifties that, as Hilton Kramer said, "the New Yorker came out on Thursday, and you could be sure that anybody who had an interest in writing would have read Wilson's weekly piece in it by the time they turned up at parties on the weekend." Wilson interrupted his work only for romantic interludes with an assortment of women, which he recorded scrupulously in his diary afterward.

It's the birthday of Harry S Truman, born in Lamar, Missouri (1884). He had the reputation of reading more than any other American president. A visitor once saw two big stacks of books on his night table and asked if he read himself to sleep every night. "No," he said. "I read myself awake."

On this day in 1794, the chemist Antoine Lavoisier was beheaded in Paris during the Reign of Terror. Lavoisier, who could only do research on his hours off from his job as a tax collector, turned in brilliant work in every field of scientific endeavor of the day. He proved that water was not an element, and suggested that a single element could exist in separate states. He theorized that the sea had once covered some areas of the earth which were now solid land. When his arrest was protested on the grounds that he was a scientist, his captors said, "The Republic does not need scientists."

It's the birthday of Edward Gibbon, born in Putney, Surrey (1737). He was moved to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as he sat among the ruins of the Capitol at Rome and heard the monks singing in the Temple of Jupiter. The first volume made him a celebrity in London. He was allowed to make a presentation of the first volume to the Duke of Gloucester, and when the second volume came out, he presented that to the Duke of Gloucester as well. The Duke took the book and said, "Always, scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?"

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