Sep. 17, 2012

The Red Wheel Barrow

by William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain
beside the white

"The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams, from Collected Poems of W.C. Williams. © New Directions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1683, Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek wrote a letter to the Royal Society, sharing his discovery of "animalcules," or what we know as bacteria. He was untrained in science, and had had no higher education at all, but he was acutely curious about the world around him. Starting in about 1668, he had been experimenting with lens grinding and making his own simple microscopes. He hired an artist to draw the things he saw through his lens, and he started writing informal letters to the Royal Society in 1673, describing things he'd discovered. Ten years later, on this date, he wrote a letter describing his study of the plaque found between his teeth, and the teeth of other subjects. "I ... saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving. The biggest sort ... had a very strong and swift motion, and shot through the water (or spittle) like a pike does through the water. The second sort ... oft-times spun round like a top ... and ... were far more in number." Leeuwenhoek was one of the first to observe animalcules. The Royal Society was skeptical of his discovery at first, and there was much discussion about his mental status, but today he is considered "the Father of Microbiology."

Leeuwenhoek never wrote any books, but he wrote letters to the Royal Society for more than 50 years. During that time, he shared his discoveries: blood cells, sperm cells, nematodes, muscle fibers, and algae. He wrote his letters in Dutch, which was the only language he knew, and his letters were translated into English and Latin before publication. He wrote right up until his death at age 90, and his last letters were detailed observations of his own final illness.

Today is the birthday of the man who wrote this highly-recognizable and oft-parodied poem:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

That's William Carlos Williams (books by this author), born in Rutherford, New Jersey (1883). He was a doctor as well as a poet, and his poems often spoke of simple things: the objects of everyday life, or moments in the life of ordinary people. He summed up his poetic philosophy with the phrase "no ideas but in things."

William Carlos Williams, who also wrote, "It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."

And, "We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of angels."

It's the birthday of Irish writer Frank O'Connor (books by this author), born Michael O'Donovan in Cork (1903). He grew up poor, and his parents couldn't afford to send him to college. He got a job as a librarian instead, and educated himself while he was at work. He wrote short stories, plays, poems, novels, and memoirs, and at one time he felt driven to choose between life as an artist and life as a writer. He told The Paris Review, "From the time I was nine or ten, it was a toss-up whether I was going to be a writer or a painter, and I discovered by the time I was 16 or 17 that paints cost too much money, so I became a writer because you could be a writer with a pencil and a penny notebook." He also translated Irish literature from Gaelic into English. His books of stories include Guests of the Nation (1931), The Stories of Frank O'Connor (1952), and The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland (1981). He also wrote two memoirs: An Only Child (1961) and My Father's Son (1968).

It's the birthday of Ken Kesey (books by this author), born in La Junta, Colorado (1935). He was a champion wrestler in high school and voted most likely to succeed. He married his high school sweetheart and then accepted a fellowship in creative writing at Stanford. He got a job as a night aide at the VA hospital in Menlo Park, which is where he heard about an experiment in search of volunteers. It was part of the CIA's Project MK-ULTRA, which was investigating various mind control techniques; they were injecting people with psychoactive drugs like LSD and mescaline, and observing their reactions. Kesey signed up and was paid $75; in addition to the money, the experiment provided him with an idea for a novel. He combined the drug trips with his experience working as a hospital aide and wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). It's the story of a struggle between a powerful nurse named Miss Ratched and a con man named Randle Patrick McMurphy, who feigns insanity to get out of a jail sentence, and it's considered Kesey's masterpiece.

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




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