Tuesday Dec. 23, 2014

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Three Kinds of Pleasures


Sometimes, riding in a car, in Wisconsin
Or Illinois, you notice those dark telephone poles
One by one lift themselves out of the fence line
And slowly leap on the gray sky —
And past them, the snowy fields.


The darkness drifts down like snow on the picked cornfields
In Wisconsin: and on these black trees
Scattered, one by one,
Through the winter fields —
We see stiff weeds and brownish stubble,
And white snow left now only in the wheeltracks of the


It is a pleasure, also, to be driving
Toward Chicago, near dark,
And see the lights in the barns.
The bare trees more dignified than ever,
Like a fierce man on his deathbed,
And the ditches along the road half full of a private snow.

"Three Kinds of Pleasures" by Robert Bly, from Silence in the Snowy Fields. © Wesleyan University Press, 1962. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It was on this day in 1947 that the first transistor was demonstrated at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. It was the culmination of a four-week period dubbed the “Miracle Month.” For years scientists had been trying to find a way to make better use of the potential of electricity, but the technology that picked up radio signals was clunky. Vacuum tubes were big and awkward, they used a lot of power and put off too much heat, and they didn’t work very well.

About 10 years earlier, Bell Labs had hired the physicist William Shockley to develop a new model to amplify current. Shockley assembled a team that included Walter Brattain and John Bardeen. In 1945, Shockley had high hopes for a new model he had designed: a cylinder coated with silicon, mounted to a metal plate. It didn’t work, and Shockley asked Brattain and Bardeen to figure out the problem.

On November 17th, 1947, Brattain was frustrated because condensation kept forming on the surface of the silicon on a device he had built. He knew he should put the silicon in a vacuum, but he was feeling lazy so he just stuck it in a thermos of water. He was shocked to observe the largest amplification so far in their trials. After that, Bardeen and Brattain had to do a lot of tinkering, but they felt as though they were on the right path. They replaced the silicon with germanium, and instead of water they used germanium dioxide, and then eventually phased out the liquid altogether. They used two gold contact points, which negated the effect of the electrons — just as liquid had done — but worked at all frequencies. The radio signal came in one gold contact and went out the other. On December 16th, a successful transistor was invented.

The scientists kept their invention a secret, and on this day in 1947, Brattain and Bardeen demonstrated it to a group at Bell. The three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for their invention in 1956.

The first transistor was about half an inch high; today, 7 million transistors can fit on a silicon chip.

It’s the birthday of poet Robert Bly (books by this author), born in Madison, Minnesota (1926). He grew up on a farm in the prairies of western Minnesota, and went to Harvard, where his classmates were poets like Donald Hall, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and Frank O’Hara. Those years were exciting and stimulating, but afterward, he said: “I had spent up my available capital for extroversion in college, and I had to be by myself.” He decided that he would spend a year living alone and writing, but that one year stretched into four. First he lived in a cabin in northern Minnesota, where he made his money by hunting partridge. Then he moved to New York City, and to support himself he worked one day a week as a painter. His boss knew he wanted to be alone, so he gave Bly a job painting the interior of a giant warehouse by himself, a job that took him many weeks.

He didn’t have enough money for a regular apartment, so he rented a studio from an artist during the week. She thought Bly was just using it to write in during the day, but actually he was sleeping there at night and sneaking out to use the bathroom. On Saturdays, when the artist was in her studio painting, Bly slept in Grand Central Station. He barely talked to anyone during that time. He said: “I lost something too. The poems I wrote at Harvard were not great, but they enjoyed some language that we inhabit together surreptitiously; people could hear what I was saying. [...] I could see myself losing the common language that we, as humans, have. Word after word had disappeared into some huge hole.”

He visited one of his Harvard professors, who was worried about Bly, and sent him to Iowa City for a writing grant. He ended up teaching there, and he married Carol McLean, a woman he had met on a blind date when he was at Harvard. Together they moved to a farm just down the road from where Bly had grown up. The poems he wrote there became his first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962). He said, “I never would have written a book that interesting if I had not moved back to the country where I was a child.”

It’s the birthday of one of the great champions of poetry, Harriet Monroe, born in Chicago (1860). She was a well-known poet and lecturer on poetry at the turn of the 20th century. Then in 1911, she took a trip around the world, and it was on that trip that she conceived of the idea for a literary magazine devoted entirely to poetry, which would be open to new names and new styles.

The result was Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, first published in 1912. Monroe produced the magazine with foreign editor Ezra Pound, and her magazine was one of the first to publish such writers as Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Sherwood Anderson, Rupert Brooke, Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, and William Carlos Williams. It was Monroe who first published T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Monroe continued to edit the magazine until her death in 1936, at the age of 75. She was in Peru, on her way to climb Machu Picchu.

It’s the birthday of novelist Donna Tartt (books by this author), born in Greenwood, Mississippi (1963). Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History (1992), was begun while she was a student at Bennington College and published when she was 28. The book earned her near-instant celebrity, so Tartt received a lot of press about the 10-year delay in the release of her second novel, The Little Friend (2002). She said: “Part of the problem with success is that it seduces people into overproduction ... I can’t write quickly. Working on something over a long period gives a sense of richness that you can’t fake.” Her third novel, The Goldfinch (2013), followed 11 years later; it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. It begins:

“While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom. [...] Outside, all was activity and cheer. It was Christmas, lights twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames en heren, scarves flying in the icy wind, clattered down the cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to the backs of their bicycles. In the afternoons, an amateur band played Christmas carols that hung tinny and fragile in the winter air.”

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