Aug. 19, 2008

Memorial Day

by Steve Kowit

Because our sons adore their plastic missile launchers,
electronic space bazookas, neutron death-ray guns,
a decade down the pike it won't prove difficult
to trick them out in combat boots
&camouflage fatigues,
rouse them with a frenzy of parades, the heady
rhetoric of country, camaraderie & God,
the drum & bugle & the sudden
thunder of the cannon as they march
into Hell singing.
Which is the order of things.
Obedient to a fault, the people will do as they are told.
However dispirited by grief at the graves
of their fallen, the mother returns at last to her loom,
the father to his lathe,
& the inconsolable widow home to raise sons
ardent for the next imperial bloodbath;
Ilium. Thermopylae. Verdun. Pork Chop Hill.

"Memorial Day" by Steve Kowit from The First Noble Truth. © University of Tampa Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the British author Samuel Richardson, (books by this author)born in 1689 in Mackworth, England. At age 11 or 12, young Samuel sent a letter to a widow, criticizing her for "fomenting Quarrels and Disturbances, by her Backbiting and Scandal," which he didn't think was appropriate behavior for a good Christian. Richardson spent seven years as the apprentice in a printer's shop, where he was nicknamed "Serious" and "Gravity." His first publication was a manual to fellow apprentices urging them to be serious and stay away from evils like the theater and taverns. Then he wrote three novels encouraging moral reform, and all three were epistolary novels — novels told only in letters. The public loved this form, and all his novels were very popular. His novels are Pamela (1740), Clarissa (1748), and Sir Charles Grandison (1753).

He said, "The life of a good man is a continual warfare with his passions."

It's the birthday of Ogden Nash, (books by this author) born in Rye, New York (1902). He wrote humorous poems in his books that include The Bad Parents' Garden of Verse (1936), I'm a Stranger Here Myself (1938), and You Can't Get There from Here (1957).

Ogden Nash wrote,
"To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you're wrong, admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up."

And, "Some tortures are physical and some are mental, but the one that is both is dental."

It's the birthday of the poet Li-Young Lee, (books by this author) born in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1957. His parents were Chinese. His mother was the granddaughter of China's first president; his father was the son of a gangster. His father worked as the personal physician to Mao Zedong, but the Lees were extremely Christian, and so after the Peoples' Republic of China was established in 1949, Lee's parents fled to Jakarta, which is where Li-Young was born. But the authorities were suspicious of his father's Western interests —he was a professor and he taught Shakespeare, opera, and Kierkegaard—so he was imprisoned. The family fled again, this time to Japan, Macao, and Singapore before ending up in Hong Kong, where Li-Young Lee's father became a successful evangelical preacher. The family eventually moved to the United States, where Lee's father was a Presbyterian minister. As a child, Lee learned to recite ancient Chinese poems and the psalms from the Bible. He has published four books of poetry, including The City in Which I Love You (1991) and Behind My Eyes (2008), and a memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (1995).

It was on this day in 480 B.C.E. that the Persians won the Battle of Thermopylae. The Persians, led by Xerxes, brought a huge army to attack Greece: about 200,000 soldiers and 1,000 warships.

The Oracle at Delphi predicted that the Persians would win unless a Spartan king was sacrificed, and the Spartan leader Leonidas volunteered to lead the coalition of Greek city-states against the Persians, but it was a small force. The Olympic games were about to begin in Greece, and they could only spare 7,000 soldiers. The Spartans sent just 300 men, and each of these men was required to have a son to continue the family line, because the soldiers weren't expected to return home. Leonidas chose to fight the Persians at Thermopylae, on the northeast coast of Greece, a word that means "hot gates" in reference to the narrow pass between the mountains and the ocean, and the sulfur springs nearby.

After two days of fighting, the Greeks were holding their own against the Persians, whose death toll was climbing rapidly—they didn't know the area, and they didn't have good weapons and armor compared to the Greeks. Even with their huge force, things weren't looking good for the Persians, but then a Greek defector named Ephialtes betrayed his army and told the Persians about a secret path that led straight to the rear of the Spartan flank. Ephialtes is considered such a traitor that in modern Greek, "ephialtis" means "nightmare." The Persians surrounded Leonidas, and by this time most of the Greek coalition was gone; no one knows for sure if Leonidas dismissed them or if they ran away. In any case, all that were left were the Spartans, their Thespian allies, and a handful of other men.

In the end, the Greeks lost the battle. But by the time the last Spartan was killed, 20,000 Persians had died. It was a huge loss for the Persians and it bought time for the Greeks, who went on to fend off the Persians in the following years.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show