Feb. 20, 2014


by Mary Oliver

The text of this poem is no longer available.

"Luke" by Mary Oliver from Dog Songs. © Penguin, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1792, George Washington established the United States Post Office Department. Provision for a postmaster general — at a salary of $1,000 per annum — had been made by the Second Continental Congress in 1775, but there had been an attempt to organize mail delivery as early as 1639, when Richard Fairbanks' Boston tavern served as a central mail repository. The Continental Congress named Benjamin Franklin the first postmaster general; he held the position for a little more than a year, and the modern post office traces its method of operation directly to the system he set up.

It was on this day in 1872 that the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened to the public in Manhattan. Its first home was rented space at 681 Fifth Avenue, in a building that had started off as a house and been remodeled by Allen Dodworth to serve as a dance academy. The museum moved several times, eventually leasing land from the city on the east side of Central Park and building a permanent home there. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is now more than 2 million square feet and contains more than 2 million works of art.

It's the birthday of Ansel Adams, born in San Francisco (1902). When he was 14, his parents gave him two gifts that changed his life. The first was a Kodak #1 Box Brownie camera. The second was a family trip to Yosemite National Park. He was so enchanted by the mountains and the forest that he would return to the park every summer for the rest of his life. His photographs of Yosemite and other wilderness areas would become familiar to millions of people.

He said: "I hesitate to define just what the qualities of a true wilderness experience are. Like music and art, wilderness can be defined only on its own terms. The less talk, the better."

It's the is the birthday of author Richard Matheson (books by this author), born in Allendale, New Jersey (1926), writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. His work inspired Anne Rice and Stephen King, who once said: "Without Richard Matheson, I wouldn't be around. He is as much my father as Bessie Smith is Elvis Presley's mother." He wrote for television shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek; several of his sci-fi novels and stories have been made into movies, including I Am Legend (book, 1954; film, 2007), A Stir of Echoes (book, 1958; film, 1999).

His novel Bid Time Return (1975) — the story of a man who falls in love with the photograph of a woman from the past and goes back in time to meet her — was made into the movie Somewhere in Time in 1980; the book was eventually reissued under the new title.

It was on this day in 1877 that Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake had its premier performance by the Imperial Ballet in Moscow. It was Tchaikovsky's first attempt at writing music for a ballet, and the critics hated the production.

The style of classical ballet that had developed in Russia was a source of national pride, and the royal family — the czars — were the patrons of the Imperial Ballet. There was even a word coined to describe the most devoted fans of the Imperial Ballet: baletoman, from the words ballet and mania. It was a huge honor to be a student and dancer with the ballet, and students were expected to devote everything to their art. The prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina said: "Vowed to the theater, we were kept from contact with the world as from a contamination ... we were brought up in almost convent-like seclusion." Students were segregated by gender, except during rehearsals. Their parents were allowed to visit twice a week, and the girls were allowed to see their fathers and brothers, but no other male family members. When students performed in ballets, they were transported in royal coaches. Sometimes they were summoned to the czar's box and given little gifts.

To keep up with the national obsession with ballet, productions were cranked out regularly, and the choreographer, composer, and director didn't always work together very closely. The focus was on aesthetics more than the music. Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky's first ballet, and he composed a complex, dramatic score, more like a symphony than a traditional ballet. The choreographer, a German named Julius Reisinger, was used to simple music, and he had trouble matching his choreography with Tchaikovsky's score. The result was bad. One critic wrote: "Mr. Reisinger's dances are weak in the extreme. ... Incoherent waving of the legs that continued through the course of four hours — is this not torture? The corps de ballet stamp up and down in the same place, waving their arms like a windmill's vanes — and the soloists jump about the stage in gymnastic steps." It didn't help things that the company's leading ballerina, for whom the main role was written, got in trouble right before the performance — she had accepted jewelry from a Moscow official but then married someone else, and the official was furious. So the role went to another dancer, who wasn't as good. Some critics appreciated Tchaikovsky's music, but others complained that it was simply impossible to dance to it. To top it all off, anti-German sentiment made Russians suspicious of Swan Lake, with its German choreographer and rumors that the story itself was based on German folklore.

Tchaikovsky's brother, Modest, wrote: "The poverty of the production, meaning the décor and costumes, the absence of outstanding performers, the ballet master's weakness of imagination, and, finally, the orchestra [...] all of this together permitted the composer with good reason to cast the blame for the failure on others."

Even though today the 1877 premiere of Swan Lake is considered a failure, it actually did fairly well by the standards of its day — it was performed more often and for more years than most ballets in Moscow, and was finally retired when the costumes and sets no longer functioned.

In 1893, the ballet master Marius Petipa wanted to revive Swan Lake, and was in talks with Tchaikovsky about a new production when the composer died suddenly, probably from cholera, although there is plenty of speculation that he committed suicide. They went ahead with the revival, this time with choreography by Petipa and his assistant Lev Ivanov, and with a revised score by Riccardo Drigo and Tchaikovsky's brother Modest. This 1895 revival is the basis for most productions today.

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