Dec. 8, 2011


by James Tate

for K.

Like a glum cricket
the refrigerator is singing
and just as I am convinced

that it is the only noise
in the building, a pot falls
in 2B. The neighbors on

both sides of me suddenly
realize that they have not
made love to their wives

since 1947. The racket
multiplies. The man downhall
is teaching his dog to fly.

The fish are disgusted
and beat their heads blue
against the cold aquarium. I too

lose control and consider
the dust huddled in the corner
a threat to my endurance.

Were you here, we would not
tolerate mongrels in the air,
nor the conspiracies of dust.

We would drive all night,
your head tilted on my shoulder.
At dawn, I would nudge you

with my anxious fingers and say,
Already we are in Idaho.

"Flight" by James Tate, from Selected Poems. © Wesleyan University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Roman poet Horace (books by this author), born in Apulia, Italy (65 B.C.E.). He is most famous for his Odes, which take up a diverse set of topics, including springtime, Virgil, a friend's farm, Cleopatra's defeat, old age, and the Roman Empire.

Various of Horace's Odes have been translated by Ben Jonson, John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Lowell, and even John Quincy Adams.

One of the most famous phrases popularized by Horace is carpe diem, sometimes translated as "seize the day." Carpe diem comes from Horace's Ode I-XI, the 11 ode in his first book.

Heather McHugh translated one ode:
"Get wise. Get wine, and one good filter for it.
Cut that high hope down to size, and pour it
into something fit for men. Think less
of more tomorrows, more of this

one second, endlessly unique: it's
jealous, even as we speak, and it's
about to split again ..."

It's the birthday of the poet who said, "I don't think anything influences me, it never has." That's James Tate (books by this author), born in Kansas City, Missouri (1943).

It's the birthday of travel writer Bill Bryson (books by this author), born in Des Moines, Iowa (1951). He writes so many travel books that he's always away from home researching, so he promised his wife he would write a book from home. He said, "So, I decided I'd do a book about the home." It was published last year as At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010).

In it, he wrote: "Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me. Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to those two. Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon? And why do forks have four tines and not three or five? There must be reasons for these things. Dressing, I wondered why all my suit jackets have a row of pointless buttons on every sleeve. I heard a reference on the radio to someone paying for room and board, and realized that when people talk about room and board, I have no idea what the board is that they are talking about. Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me."

It's the birthday of James Thurber (books by this author), born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). His father was an underpaid civil servant who worked too hard; his mother was a funny woman who loved to play jokes. When he was seven years old, he was playing with his brothers and was shot in the eye with a bow and arrow; he went completely blind in one eye, and struggled with his eyesight for the rest of his life.

He dropped out of Ohio State University, spent a couple of years during World War I working as a code clerk, and eventually moved to New York City, where in 1927 he met the writer E.B. White. White helped get Thurber a job at The New Yorker. The men shared an office there, and White was so delighted by Thurber's little drawings that he helped get those published in the magazine, as well. They also collaborated on a book, Is Sex Necessary? (1929), a parody of self-help books that included Thurber's cartoons.

Thurber said, "Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility."

It's the birthday of Welsh novelist Richard Llewellyn (books by this author), born in a suburb of London (1906). He wrote 24 novels, but he is most famous for his first book, How Green Was My Valley (1939). It's the story of Huw Morgan, a young man growing up in an impoverished but beautiful mining community in South Wales in the 1890s. Llewellyn suggested that it was based on his own life, and always claimed he had been born in Wales — it wasn't until after his death that people realized he had been born and raised in England. How Green Was My Valley became an international best-seller and was turned into a film, directed by John Ford.

It's the birthday of novelist Mary Gordon (books by this author), born in Far Rockaway, New York (1949). She grew up in a Catholic household. She wanted to be a writer from a young age, but for a while she also wanted to be a nun, and figured that she could write poetry on the side. She changed her mind about being a nun, but she never gave up on the writer idea. She went to college at Barnard, got a master's in writing, and then went to work on a Ph.D. on Virginia Woolf. She was almost finished with it but she felt like it was compromising her fiction writing. And eventually, it was actually Virginia Woolf who inspired Gordon to quit her dissertation. She said she would take notes on Woolf's writing, and that "the rhythms of those incredible sentences — the repetitions, the caesuras, the potent colons, semicolons. I knew it was what I wanted to do."

Since then she has published many novels as well as short stories, memoirs, and essays, including Final Payments (1978), The Company of Women (1980), Temporary Shelter (1987), Pearl (2005), and most recently, The Love of My Youth (2011).

It's the birthday of Eli Whitney, born in Westboro, Massachusetts (1765). He went to Yale, then got a job on a plantation in Georgia. The plantation was owned by the widow of Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary War general, and she took Whitney under her wing.

One day, some neighbors of Mrs. Greene's came over for a visit and were complaining about the tedious work of separating cotton seeds from fibers — it took 10 hours to clean just three pounds of cotton. Mrs. Greene said, "Gentlemen, apply to my young friend, Mr. Whitney — he can make anything." He didn't say much in response, but he made himself a workshop and after a few months of tinkering, he had created the cotton gin, a machine that could produce up to 50 pounds of clean cotton each day, and totally revolutionized the industry. But people copied his design and he couldn't uphold his patent, and so he made no money on his incredibly popular invention.

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




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