Sep. 30, 2006


by W. S. Merwin

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Poem: "Exercise" by W.S. Merwin from Migration: New and Selected Poems. Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission (buy now)


First forget what time it is
for an hour
do it regularly every day

then forget what day of the week it is
do this regularly for a week
then forget what country you are in
and practice doing it in company
for a week
then do them together
for a week
with as few breaks as possible

follow these by forgetting how to add
or to subtract
it makes no difference
you can change them around
after a week
both will help you later
to forget how to count

forget how to count
starting with your own age
starting with how to count backward
starting with even numbers
starting with Roman numerals
starting with fractions of Roman numerals
starting with the old calendar
going on to the old alphabet
going on to the alphabet
until everything is continuous again

go on to forgetting elements
starting with water
proceeding to earth
rising in fire

forget fire

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1452 that the first section of the Gutenberg Bible was published in Mainz, Germany. It was the first book ever printed with movable type, Gutenberg's revolutionary idea. At the time, all existing books were copied out by hand, and in order to be as efficient as possible, scribes had developed a way of writing that was full of abbreviations. Words were written in a dense cursive script, and there was very little space between letters or even words on the page.

It was Gutenberg's genius to imagine an entirely different way of writing, in which all the individual letters would be distinct from each other, rather than connected. That way, he could produce individual blocks with letters on them. He fitted these letter blocks into a frame, coated them with an ink made of linseed oil and soot, and then used an adapted wine press to print text on paper. The revolutionary effect of movable type was the ability to print an infinite number of pages from a small number of letter blocks simply by rearranging them.

Within three decades there were print shops all over the European continent. It is estimated that more books were produced in the 50 years after Gutenberg's invention than scribes had been able to produce in the 1,000 years before that.

Today, about four dozen copies of the Gutenberg Bible survive. One of the most recent copies to come on the market was auctioned in New York in 1987. It consisted of only the first volume, but it was in good condition, and it sold at auction for more than five million dollars.

It's the anniversary of the first edition of Louisa May Alcott's (books by this author) Little Women in 1868. Her real passion was for dark and sensational stories with brilliant, diabolical woman protagonists. But her father, Bronson Alcott, pressured his daughter to write a children's book. She took her father's advice, reluctantly, and Little Women was so popular that she wrote two sequels, Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886).

It's the birthday of poet W.S. Merwin, born in New York City (1927). He said, "I think there's a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there's still time."

It's the birthday of American writer Truman Capote, (books by this author) born Truman Persons in New Orleans (1924). He was the son of a salesman and a 16-year-old beauty queen. He moved to New York City to be near his mother as a boy and applied to the prestigious Trinity School. He was given an IQ test as an entrance exam, and he scored 215, the highest in the school's history.

When he was 17, he dropped out of school and got a job as an errand boy in the art department at The New Yorker magazine. He published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), when he was just 24 years old.

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