Mar. 22, 2006


by Billy Collins

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Poem: "Morning" by Billy Collins from Picnic, Lightning. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.


Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,

then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?

This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—

maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,

dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,

and if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim, born in New York City (1930). He was twelve years old when he became friends with a boy named Jamie Hammerstein, whose father was the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. Sondheim's parents had recently divorced, and he spent as much time as possible at the Hammersteins' house. He wrote his first musical when he was fifteen.

As a young man, he got a job in Hollywood as a scriptwriter for TV in the 1950s, but he really wanted to be working on musicals. Then, one day, a he met a guy at a party who asked him if he would be willing to write the lyrics for a modern-day retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story set in New York City. Sondheim wasn't sure he wanted to write lyrics without music, but he decided to take the job anyway, and the result was West Side Story (1957), which got mixed reviews on Broadway but became a huge hit as a movie.

He went on to compose the music and lyrics for many more musicals, including Sweeney Todd (1979) is about a murderer who makes meat pies out of his victims, and Sunday in the Park with George (1981) about the relationship between the painter George Seurat and the people in his own painting.

It's the birthday of the poet Billy Collins, born in Queens, New York (1941). He's one of the few modern poets whose books have sold more than a hundred thousand copies. He thinks that too much modern poetry lacks humor. He said, "It's the fault of the Romantics, who eliminated humor from poetry. Shakespeare's hilarious, Chaucer's hilarious. [Then] the Romantics killed off humor, and they also eliminated sex, things which were replaced by landscape. I thought that was a pretty bad trade-off, so I'm trying to write about humor and landscape, and occasionally sex."

He was in his forties when published his first book The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), but by the end of the century he was arguably the country's most popular poet. His collection Sailing Alone Around the Room (2000), has sold more copies than any other collection of poetry in the 21st century.

It's the birthday of novelist Louis L'Amour, born in Jamestown, North Dakota (1908). One of the hardest working and best-selling novelists ever, he wrote a hundred and one books in his lifetime.

He knew he wanted to be a writer from the time that he could walk. So L'Amour quit school when he was fifteen and traveled around the West working as an animal skinner, ranch hand and lumberjack. Wherever he went, he got people to tell him their own stories and whatever stories they knew about the Old West. Once, he met a gunman who had ridden with Billy the Kid and who had gone on to sell real estate.

In the early 1930s, L'Amour hopped an East African Schooner and made his way from Africa to Asia. He lived with bandits in the mountains of China and then started boxing professionally in Singapore. He won thirty-four of his fifty-nine boxing matches by knockout.

When L'Amour got back to the United States he started writing for pulp fiction magazines because he needed money and the pulp magazines paid him the fastest. He wrote all kinds of adventure stories, but eventually settled on westerns. L'Amour's first big success was Hondo (1953), about a love triangle between a cowboy, an Apache warrior and a young widow living on a remote Arizona ranch. It begins, "He rolled the cigarette in his lips, liking the taste of the tobacco, squinting his eyes against the sun glare."

In Ride the Dark Trail (1972), L'Amour wrote, "I just pointed my rifle at him ... and let him have the big one right through the third button on his shirt. If he ever figured to sew that particular button on again he was going to have to scrape it off his backbone."

L'Amour said, "I write about hard-shelled men who built with nerve and hand that which the soft-bellied latecomers call the 'western myth.'"

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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