Apr. 9, 2013

The Widow's Lament in Springtime

by William Carlos Williams

Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
Thirtyfive years
I lived with my husband.
The plumtree is white today
with masses of flowers.
Masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.

"The Widow's Lament in Springtime" by William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems. © New Directions, 1969. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1833 that America's first tax-supported public library opened, in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Today, there are more than 9,000 public libraries in the United States, including the Peterborough Town Library, which is still going strong.

Jorge Luis Borges said, "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."

Dr. Samuel Johnson said, "No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library."

It's the birthday of scientist Gregory Pincus, born in Woodbine, New Jersey (1903). He was a successful teacher at Harvard, doing research on sexual physiology in mammals, but his career floundered after he completed in-vitro fertilization of rabbits in 1934. In-vitro fertilization was a new technique, and the general public was horrified by the idea of test-tube babies. Pincus lost his position at Harvard. A friend got him a position at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, but he still had to work as a janitor to supplement his income.

In 1951, he met Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, and she realized that he could be a good choice to explore the possibilities of human contraceptives. She secured a grant for Pincus and his co-worker, Min-Chueh Chang, and they did research to confirm that excessive amounts of the hormone progesterone worked to stop ovulation. From there, they created the first birth control pills, which were approved by the USDA in 1960.

On this day in 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to the General of the United States Armies, Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War.

Lee and Grant's armies had converged in Appomattox, Virginia, and fighting began at dawn; within a few hours, Lee realized his troops were outnumbered and surrounded. His choice was to commit most of them to slaughter and ensure a continuing guerrilla-style war, or to surrender with dignity. "There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths," he told his staff.

Lee dressed in a crisp, new uniform, including a red silk sash, gloves, and a ceremonial, jeweled sword. He feared that he would be taken as a prisoner of war, he said, and wanted to look his best. Riding his horse Traveller to the front lines, he stood under a flag of truce in full view of the Union army, and requested a meeting with Grant. When the reply came that a meeting would do no good, Lee responded to tell Grant that he wanted to discuss the question of surrender. It was a full hour before a ceasefire was ordered, and almost another before Lee's letter reached Grant.

When he did receive the request, Grant — younger, less experienced, and until just a few years prior an undistinguished soldier and unsuccessful businessman — immediately grasped the importance of the moment. Although President Lincoln had expressly ordered that only he was to negotiate peace and it was Grant's job only to fight, Grant seized the opportunity. Lee, he wrote back, should choose the time and place for their meeting. This gesture allowed Lee to retain a bit of power, and therefore dignity. Grant had no intention of taking him as a prisoner, or anyone else.

Lee's aide found an abandoned brick house in town for the meeting. Lee entered the house alone and waited in the parlor; Grant and a dozen of his generals and officers arrived soon after. Grant, who'd expected only battle when he rose that morning, was dressed in a private's coat splattered with mud.

They had both served in the Mexican-American War, and Grant reminded Lee that they'd once met. They reminisced about it, for almost a half an hour — Grant wrote that he'd been enjoying their talk so much he'd nearly forgotten the reason for their meeting, but he also admitted that he'd been embarrassed to have to bring up the subject of surrender.

Grant assured Lee that the terms of surrender would be simple: Lee's army was to hand over their arms. Grant continued to talk, going on about the prospects for peace and reconciliation, his hopes for a united country.

After the terms had been written and signed, Lee rode slowly back to his camp, where he met soldiers lined up along the road. They were cheering wildly. He began to cry, and as his men saw the tears, their shouts fell silent. Men sobbed. Some fell to their knees; others patted Lee's horse for comfort as he passed.

It's the birthday of Hugh Hefner, born in Chicago (1926). He wanted to start his own magazine, so he raised $8,000 — $600 of which he borrowed from a bank using the furniture from his apartment as collateral. He put together an issue of Playboy in his kitchen, and he wasn't sure if he would ever have enough money to print a second, but when the first issue came out in 1953 featuring Marilyn Monroe on the cover, it sold more than 50,000 copies.

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