Oct. 17, 2011


by Elizabeth Bishop

I see a postman everywhere
Vanishing in thin blue air
A mammoth letter in his hand,
Postmarked from a foreign land.

The postman's uniform is blue.
The letter is of course from you
And I'd be able to read, I hope,
My own name on the envelope

But he has trouble with this letter
Which constantly grows bigger & bigger
And over and over with a stare,
He vanishes in blue, blue air.

"Dream—" by Elizabeth Bishop, from Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1586, English poet and "perfect courtier" Sir Philip Sidney (books by this author) died of wounds suffered in battle. His best-known works were published after his death. Astrophil and Stella (1591) is one of the best Elizabethan sonnet cycles, second only to those of Shakespeare. He also wrote The Defence of Poesie (1595), the first work of literary criticism in English.

Sidney was also a courtier — holding the ceremonial post of "cupbearer to the Queen" — and a statesman, serving as ambassador to Germany. In 1585, Queen Elizabeth decided to get involved in defending the Netherlands against Spain, and she put Sidney in charge of a town — Flushing, or Vlissingen — and a small cavalry. The following September, he volunteered to support the blockade of Zutphen; a Spanish bullet shattered his thigh, but he remained on his horse until he got back to the camp, a mile away. Legend holds that, though weak from loss of blood himself, he passed his water bottle to another soldier who had fought with him, saying, "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine." His wound festered, and he died 26 days later, at the age of 31.

On this date in 1604, Johannes Kepler witnessed the last supernova observed in the Milky Way. Kepler had figured out the laws of planetary motion, and he knew the night sky like the face of an old friend, so he was surprised to see a very bright object in the western sky one night. Astronomers at that time thought they were witnessing the birth of a star, but a supernova is actually an explosion that signals its death instead. The exploding star had first been noted in northern Italy about a week before, but Kepler, who lived in Prague, was unable to see it until October 17, due to cloudy weather. He began studying it in earnest, recording observations of it for more than a year. He eventually wrote a book about it, which he called On the new star in Ophiucus's foot (1606). The telescope wouldn't be invented for a few more years, so all of Kepler's observations were made by the naked eye. The supernova was so bright that it was visible during the day for three weeks.

Though astronomers have since observed several supernovae in other galaxies, this one — known as SN 1604, Kepler's Supernova, or Kepler's Star — is the last supernova observed in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Astronomers are still studying the supernova's remnants with the help of NASA's three Great Observatories: the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. The shockwave of gas and dust is still spreading through space at a speed of 400 million miles per hour.

Today is the 300th birthday of Jupiter Hammon (books by this author), the first published African-American writer in the United States. He was born into slavery on Long Island, New York, in 1711, was educated in the household with the slave owner's children, served as the family's bookkeeper, and was also a preacher to his fellow slaves. His first publication was an 88-line broadside poem called "An Evening's Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries." He wrote it on Christmas Day 1760, and it was published in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1761; he published four or five other pieces over the next 27 years, including "A Winter Piece" and "Address to the Negroes of the State of New-York."

A devout Christian, he stuck to religious themes in his work, and wrote, "If there was no Bible, it would be no matter whether you could read or not. Reading other books would do you no good." He also wrote, "If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves."

Today is the birthday of playwright Arthur Miller (books by this author), born in New York City in 1915. His most famous play is Death of a Salesman (1949), about struggling salesman Willy Loman, who was loosely based on Miller's uncle, Manny Newman. He also wrote The Crucible (1952), which is a liberally fictionalized account of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. It's also a thinly veiled indictment of McCarthyism and its communist "witch hunts." Four years later, Miller was hauled up before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was found in contempt of Congress for refusing to offer up any names of suspected communists. "Poetry may seem an odd word for a witch-hunt," he wrote in 2000, "but I saw there was something of the marvellous in the spectacle of a whole village, if not an entire province, whose imagination was captured by a vision of something that wasn't there. [...] More than a political metaphor, more than a moral tale, The Crucible, as it developed over more than a year, became the awesome evidence of the power of human imagination inflamed, the poetry of suggestion, and the tragedy of heroic resistance to a society possessed to the point of ruin."

It's the birthday of writer George Mackay Brown (books by this author), born in 1921 in Stromness, a fishing village on the Orkney Islands, which lie off the north coast of Scotland. He wrote poetry, essays, fiction, and travel books about Orcadian culture, history, and ritual. When he was young, he was often ill, first with measles, and later, tuberculosis; he was often hospitalized or confined to his bed, so he spent the time reading and writing. He studied literature and poetry near Edinburgh when his health permitted. His first book, Orcadians, was published locally in 1954; his first commercially published book was 1959's Loaves and Fishes.

He told Contemporary Authors: "I believe in dedicated work rather than in 'inspiration' [...] I believe writing to be a craft like carpentry, plumbing, or baking [...] In 'culture circles,' there is a tendency to look upon artists as the new priesthood of some esoteric religion. Nonsense — and dangerous nonsense moreover — we are all hewers of wood and drawers of water; only let us do it as thoroughly and joyously as we can."

Today is the birthday of Syrian-American poet and author Mohja Kahf (books by this author). She was born in Damascus in 1967. She came to the United States when she was three years old; her parents were exchange students, and they moved to Utah to go to college. After they graduated, the family moved to Indiana and eventually ended up in New Jersey when Kahf was in 10th grade. She studied comparative literature at Rutgers University, earning her doctorate. She married Najib Ghadbian, a prominent Syrian dissident, and when he accepted a position in the Political Science department at the University of Arkansas, she applied for a post in the English department.

She often writes about her experience as a Muslim woman in America, candidly, bluntly, and often satirically. Her poem "Hijab Scene #2" reads, "'You people have such restrictive dress for women,' she said, hobbling away in three inch heels and panty hose to finish out another pink-collar temp pool day."

Kahf has published a book of poetry (E-mails from Scheherazad, 2003), a novel (The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, 2006), and a scholarly work, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque (1999). She also co-authors a column on sexuality for the website Muslim Wake Up.

Today is the anniversary of 1989's Loma Prieta earthquake. It struck the San Francisco Bay at 5:04 p.m., during the televised warm-up to Game Three of the World Series between the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants; as a result, it was the first earthquake in the United States whose opening shocks were broadcast on live television. The earthquake reached a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter scale, occurred as two plates slipped along the San Andreas Fault, and lasted about 10 to 15 seconds. There were 63 fatalities; that number likely would have been closer to 300, had it not been for the World Series. Many people had left work early, or were otherwise parked in front of televisions at a time when they usually would have been crowding the freeways and bridges.

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