Thursday Sep. 17, 2015

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What are we now but voices
who promise each other a life
neither one can deliver
not for lack of wanting
but wanting won’t make it so.
We cling to a vine
at the cliff’s edge.
There are tigers above
and below. Let us love
one another and let go.

“Tigers” by Eliza Griswold from Wideawake Field. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the American poet who once wrote, “A poem is a complete little universe” and “Say it! No ideas but in things.” William Carlos Williams (books by this author) was born in Rutherford, New Jersey (1883). His father was an Englishman and his mother was Puerto Rican. She often read and spoke to Williams in Spanish. His father was a no-nonsense businessman who urged Williams to practice dentistry, but Williams opted for pediatrics and general practice instead, because he preferred to move, rather than standing still, and he liked talking and visiting with people.

It was during medical school at the University of Pennsylvania that Williams made the acquaintance of poets H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Ezra Pound, who influenced Williams so profoundly that Williams later said, “Before meeting Pound was like B.C. and A.D.” His first book, The Tempers (1909), was well received, but Williams increasingly felt overshadowed by T.S. Eliot, especially after Eliot’s The Wasteland (1914) was published. He said, “We were breaking the rules, whereas he was conforming to the excellence of classroom English.”

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.

It’s the birthday of Ken Kesey (books by this author), born in La Junta, Colorado (1935). He grew up in Oregon — swimming, fishing, and riding the rapids on the Willamette River with his brother, Chuck. He was a wrestler and a boxer and was voted “most likely to succeed” in his high school graduating class. Kesey went to Stanford University, where he studied creative writing. At the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, he earned $75 a day as a subject in experiments on the effects of LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs. He stayed on as a night attendant in the mental ward, the basis for his first and most famous novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). The book’s title comes from a children’s folk rhyme: “One flew east, one flew west, /One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.” Pauline Kael wrote (about Kesey’s book), “The novel preceded the university turmoil, Vietnam, drugs, the counterculture ... it contained the essence of the whole period of revolutionary politics going psychedelic ...”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was made into a film in 1975 and won six Oscars the following year. Kesey wrote two other novels, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) and Sailor Song (1992).

Today is 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 10, 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 anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, fought near Sharpsburg, Maryland, along the banks of Antietam Creek (1862). It was the bloodiest single day in American military history, with nearly 23,000 casualties, and it ended in a tactical draw. One regiment, the First Texas Infantry, lost 82 percent of its men.

The 12-hour battle began at dawn, in a cornfield on David Miller’s farm. It was the first Civil War battle fought in Union Territory; the second, the Battle of Gettysburg, would happen less than a year later. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had brought troops into Maryland — which was still part of the Union, even though it was a slave state — to try to replenish his dwindling supplies. Encouraged by word of Stonewall Jackson’s capture of Harpers Ferry, Lee decided to make a stand in Sharpsburg rather than return to Confederate Virginia.

Union Major General George B. McClellan commanded twice as many troops as Lee. Not only that, but he also had a copy of Lee’s battle plan. But McClellan fumbled these advantages, failing to fully collapse the Confederates’ flanks and advance his center — which meant that more than a quarter of McClellan’s men never entered the battle. In the afternoon, Union troops advanced and a victory seemed imminent, until late-arriving Confederate reinforcements held them off. By sundown, both sides simply held their own ground. A veteran of the battle later recalled, “[The cornfield] was so full of bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground.”

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