Feb. 21, 2012


by Michael Laskey

If you can't bring yourself to build
a snowman or even to clench
a snowball or two to fling
at the pine tree trunk, at least
find some reason to take you out

of yourself: scrape a patch of grass clear
for the birds maybe; prod at your shrubs
so they shake off the weight, straighten up;
or just stump about leaving prints
of your boots, your breath steaming out.

Promise. Don't let yourself in
for this moment again: the end
of the afternoon, drawing the curtains
on the glare of the garden, a whole
day of snow nobody's trodden.

"Nobody" by Michael Laskey, from Permission to Breathe. © Smith/Doorstop Books, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Anaïs Nin (books by this author), born in Neuilly, France (1903), the daughter of a Spanish composer and Danish-Cuban classically trained singer. She studied psychoanalysis with Otto Rank, and was a patient of Carl Jung at one time. She wrote in literary obscurity for most of her life, until her diaries began to be published in 1966. She began writing them at age 11 and continued for more than 60 years, and they include accounts of her passionate love affair with Henry Miller in Paris.

She wrote, "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." And, "I write emotional algebra."

It's the birthday of W.H. Auden (books by this author), born Wystan Hugh Auden in York, England (1907), the son of a physician and a nurse. He went to Christ Church, Oxford, on a biology scholarship. He switched to English literature, and met young poets like Cecil Day Lewis, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice, who became his lifelong friends. Just before the start of World War II, he emigrated to the United States to teach English. He published more than 400 poems, essays, plays, and opera libretti.

He said, "In times of joy, all of us wished we possessed a tail we could wag." And "Recipe for the upbringing of a poet: As much neurosis as the child can bear."

The first issue of The New Yorker was published on this date in 1925. The magazine was founded by Harold Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, who was a reporter for The New York Times; Ross remained editor-in-chief until his death in 1951. The magazine was styled as a showcase for wit, gossip, and culture; its target readership was the New York sophisticate. As Ross said, "[I]t is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque." The problem was that the magazine lacked a clear vision at first. In the second issue, editors published an apology for the first: "There didn't seem to be much indication of purpose and we felt sort of naked in our apparent aimlessness." Circulation had dropped to 12,000 by fall, but then it started to turn around; its recovery was helped along when Ross hired E.B. White as a staff writer in 1926, and brought James Thurber on board the following year. Gradually, the magazine stopped dropping names and began building a reputation as the home of outstanding contemporary poetry, short fiction, and essays.

The first cover featured a top-hatted Victorian dandy peering down his long, patrician nose at a pink butterfly. Based on an illustration in the Encyclopedia Britannica, he was drawn by Rea Irvin, the magazine's first art director and the designer of its distinctive typeface. The dandy eventually came to be known as Eustace Tilley. It's since become a New Yorker tradition that Tilley appears on the cover of every anniversary edition. He's appeared as a punk rocker, a woman, an African-American, a dog, and a butterfly scrutinizing a man.

On this date in 1947, inventor Edwin Land (books by this author) demonstrated the first "instant" camera. It was called a Land Camera at first, but eventually it became better known by the name of Land's company, Polaroid. Land packaged individual sheets of film layered with little sacs of developing and fixing solutions. He pressed the shutter button to make the exposure, then turned a knob, which fed the film between two rollers. The pressure of the rollers burst the sacs of chemicals, which coated the film and produced an image about 60 seconds later. For many years, Polaroid Land cameras only took black and white photographs; it wasn't until Land came out with Polacolor film in 1963 that shutterbugs could produce color prints.

Today is the birthday of novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace (books by this author), born in Ithaca, New York (1962), author of Infinite Jest (1996), which became a best-seller even though it was more than 1,000 pages long, with 100 pages of footnotes. Wallace, who had battled devastating depression his whole life, committed suicide in 2008. His unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011.

He said: "Postmodern irony and cynicism's become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what's wrong, because they'll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony's gone from liberating to enslaving. ... The postmodern founders' patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative 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
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