Dec. 31, 2006


by Stanley Kunitz

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Poem: "Benediction" by Stanley Kunitz, from The Collected Poems. © W.W. Norton. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


God banish from your house
The fly, the roach, the mouse

That riots in the walls
Until the plaster falls;

Admonish from your door
The hypocrite and liar;

No shy, soft, tigrish fear
Permit upon your stair,

Nor agents of your doubt.
God drive them whistling out.

Let nothing touched with evil,
Let nothing that can shrivel

Heart's tenderest frond, intrude
Upon your still, deep blood.

Against the drip of night
God keep all windows tight,

Protect your mirrors from
Surprise, delirium,

Admit no trailing wind
Into your shuttered mind

To plume the lake of sleep
With dreams. If you must weep

God give you tears, but leave
You secrecy to grieve,

And islands for your pride,
And love to nest in your side.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Odetta, born Odetta Holmes Filious, in Birmingham, Alabama (1930). She thought at first that she'd be an opera singer, but she heard folk music in San Francisco and decided that was the kind of music that said what she wanted to say. She went on to win the National Medal for Achievement in the Arts.

It's the birthday of the novelist Nicholas Sparks, (books by this author) born in Omaha, Nebraska (1965). He wrote his first book as a young man, a horror novel called "The Passing," which he never tried to publish. He said, "In all honesty, it's a wonderful story — except for the writing." But soon after that, Sparks met his future wife. Over the course of two months, he wrote her 150 love letters. They got married and had kids, and Sparks gave up trying to be a writer, eventually taking a job as a pharmaceutical sales rep.

Then, one night, he was watching the series finale of the TV show Cheers, and thinking about how long that show had been on the air made him realize how long it had been since he'd given up on trying to be a writer. Sparks decided to write a love story, inspired by his wife's grandparents, who had been married for 62 years when he met them, and they were still flirting with each other.

The result was his novel The Notebook, about a young man named Noah who tries to win over a girl named Allie by writing her dozens of love letters, only to learn years later that her wealthy parents never let her read those letters. It took sparks six months to write The Notebook. Two days after his agent sent the book to publishers, it was purchased for 1 million dollars. Sparks has gone on to become one of the few successful male romance novelists.

Nicholas Sparks said, "Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It's one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period."

It's the birthday of the painter Henri Matisse, (books by this artist) born in Le Cateau, France (1869). As far as historians can tell, there was absolutely no sign in Matisse's early life that he would go on to become an artist. He started out studying law, and though his law school was in Paris, Matisse never once attended an art museum while he was living there, not even the Louvre.

He returned home after law school to take a clerical job in a lawyer's office, when he was struck by a case of appendicitis. He was bedridden for weeks, and a neighbor suggested that he try passing the time by painting. His mother bought him a box of paints, and he read a how-to-paint book. He later described those first experiences painting as almost like a religious conversion. He said, "For the first time in my life I felt free, quiet, and alone ... carried along by a power alien to my life as a normal man."

When Matisse recovered from his appendicitis, he enrolled in a local drawing class, and he spent hours at the Louvre, copying the techniques of the old masters. Then, in 1905, Matisse submitted a portrait of his wife called "Woman with the Hat." Critics were shocked by Matisse's painting, and so Matisse was surprised to learn at the end of the exhibition that his painting had sold to a couple of American expatriates known for their eccentric taste, Leo and Gertrude Stein.

Matisse became one of the most radical and influential painters of his lifetime, but he always dressed like a lawyer, wearing a suit even while he painted some of the most revolutionary paintings of the 20th century.

Henri Matisse said, "I overdid everything as a matter of course."

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