Aug. 25, 2011


by Robert Hass

The text for this poem is no longer available.

"VIII" by Robert Hass, from Praise. © Ecco Press, 1979. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1609, Galileo Galilei demonstrated his first telescope to the Venetian Senate in Padua. He didn't invent the telescope — credit for that goes to a Dutch astronomer, Hans Lipperhey, who had demonstrated one the previous year — but he heard about it, and by trial and error he figured out how it was made. Galileo greatly improved on the design and made it variable-focus. Venice was known for the quality of its glass craftsmanship, and Galileo bought lenses from spectacle-makers at first, but soon taught himself the art of glass grinding. The telescope he presented to the senate could magnify images to eight times the naked eye, and by the fall, he was looking at celestial bodies through a 20-power telescope. By the following January, he had discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter. The Senate was so impressed with his invention that they gave him lifetime tenure at the University of Padua and doubled his salary.

On this date in 1835, the New York Sun ran the first of six articles claiming there was civilization on the Moon. Known as "The Great Moon Hoax," the articles were said to have been reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science, and their author, Dr. Andrew Grant, claimed to be a colleague of Sir John Herschel, the most famous astronomer of the day. Grant reported that Herschel — who was setting up a powerful new telescope in Cape Town, South Africa — had witnessed fantastic creatures like unicorns, two-legged beavers, and bat-human hybrids; he also reported huge caves full of amethysts, jewel-encrusted temples, and lush jungle vegetation.

The articles were intended to be a satire of speculation on extraterrestrial life, but people believed they were true, and the increase in the "penny press" paper's circulation that resulted was a welcome side benefit. A team of Yale scientists even traveled to New York to track down the original Edinburgh Journal articles; unfortunately for them, the Journal had ceased publication several years earlier. When the New York Sun admitted that the articles had been a hoax, the public greeted the news with good humor, and sales of the paper remained vigorous.

It's the birthday of Hans Adolph Krebs (1900), born in Hildesheim, Germany. The son of a Jewish physician, Krebs was forced out of Germany by the Nazis in 1933; he continued his research at Cambridge University, and also taught at Oxford. He won the Nobel Prize in physiology in 1953 for his discovery of the tricarboxylic acid cycle. Also known as the citric acid cycle or Krebs cycle, it is the chemical chain reaction involved in cell metabolism.

The National Park Service was created on this date in 1916. The first national park — Yellowstone — had been designated 44 years earlier, and the number of parks and national monuments was growing. The congressional debate about who would manage them on behalf of the American people had been going on since 1912. Finally, in April 1916, they began holding public hearings, and on August 25 they passed the National Park Service Organic Act. The National Park Service is an agency within the Department of the Interior; the bill, as signed by President Woodrow Wilson, mandates the agency "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

The first director of the National Park Service was Stephen T. Mather, an industrialist and naturalist who had been an advocate for better management of the national parks since 1913. During his 12-year tenure, he established concession sales — basic amenities and study guides — into the parks, created the National Park-to-Park Highway, and worked with railroads to make the parks more accessible. The National Park Service now employs about 22,000 civil servants to oversee almost 400 units, including 58 national parks, which cover 84 million acres.

It's the birthday of the poet who once said, "Each line should be a station of the cross": Charles Wright (books by this author), born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, in 1935. His father was an engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Wright spent most of his childhood moving from site to site in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina; maybe this rootlessness explains why his poems have a more complex relationship with place than those of many other Southern poets. He served in the Army for four years and was stationed in Italy; that's when he first began reading and writing poetry.

He's the author of more than 20 books of poetry, two volumes of criticism, and two books of translation. He has gotten less loquacious as time goes on. "I once said, if a guy can't say what he has to say in three lines, he better change his job. Well, I haven't gotten that far yet, but at least I'm down to six lines."

It's the birthday of author (Francis) Bret Harte (books by this author), born in Albany, New York (1839). He moved with his mother to California when he was 18. He worked as a miner, a schoolteacher, an express messenger, a printer, a clerk, and a journalist and editor. In 1868, he wrote the famous story "The Luck of Roaring Camp," about the only baby in a wild mining town during California's 1849 Gold Rush. In the story, they call the baby The Luck, but the baby and the two men who looked after him end up dying in a flash flood. The story was an instant success, all across the country.

He wrote, "We begin to die as soon as we are born, and the end is linked to the beginning" and "A bird in hand is a certainty. But a bird in the bush may sing."

Today is the birthday of novelist Brian Moore (books by this author), born in Belfast, Northern Ireland (1921). When he died in 1999, his obituary in the LA Weekly began, "The most accomplished and least fashionable writer in Los Angeles died last week." Graham Greene once described him as "my favourite living author," and said, "Each book of his is dangerous, unpredictable, and amusing. He treats the novel as a trainer treats a wild beast." But many people have never read his work.

Brian Moore was one of nine children born into a devout Catholic family. He quickly rejected the teachings of Catholicism, but continued to write about them for the rest of his life. The Catholic Church banned several of his novels. Moore left Ireland after World War II, spent time working for the U.N. in Poland, and moved to Canada in 1948, where he started working for a Montreal newspaper. In 1952, he left the newspaper to concentrate on writing novels. His first book under his own name was rejected by 12 different American publishers before it was finally accepted. Published in 1955 as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, the book was a bleak tale of an unmarried alcoholic Catholic woman living in Belfast. He later said: "I was very lonely, I had almost no friends, I'd given up my beliefs, was earning no money and I didn't see much of a future. So I could identify with a dipsomaniac, isolated spinster."

He moved to New York to write his second novel, and in 1966, he moved to California, where he remained for the rest of his life. Several of his own books were adapted into Hollywood movies, and he wrote other screenplays, too. He wrote the screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock movie Torn Curtain and said that the ordeal was "awful, like washing floors." It so happened that Moore could do an uncanny impersonation of Alfred Hitchcock.

Moore once said in an interview: "Writers like me, you see, lead a surrogate life. We don't really have a life of our own. I'm only happy when I'm writing about something or somebody else — perhaps that's part of the problem of not being better known than I am — I live through my books, in a way. No personality of my own."

It's the birthday of Martin Amis (books by this author), born in Oxford, England (1949). He's the son of Kingsley Amis, who wrote Lucky Jim (1954); father and son have both won the Somerset Maugham Award. Martin is the author of the novel Money (1984), about a man named John Self who directs TV commercials and wants to make a Hollywood film. He winds up collaborating on the screenplay with a mysterious writer named Martin Amis, who seems to know everything about Self's life. Amis has written many more novels, including London Fields (1989), The Information (1996), and House of Meetings (2007), about a love triangle between two brothers and a Jewish girl in Stalinist Russia.

Amis' father didn't really encourage him to write, but Amis felt having a famous writer as a father made it easier to get published. "That's the deal," he said. "After that, you're on your own, you're just another idiot out there who is going to get plucked to death like anyone else."

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