Thursday Oct. 15, 2015

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On the Shortest Days

At almost four in the afternoon, the
wind picks up and sifts through the golden woods.

The tree trunks bronze and redden, branches
on fire in the heavy sky that flickers

with the disappearing sun. I wonder
what I owe the fading day, why I keep

my place at this dark desk by the window
measuring the force of the wind, gauging

how long a certain cloud will hold that pink
edge that even now has slipped into gray?

Quickly the lights are appearing, a lamp
in every window and nests of stars

on the rooftops. Ladders lean against the hills
and people climb, rung by rung, into the night.

“On the Shortest Days” by Joyce Sutphen from Modern Love & Other Myths. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the poet Virgil (books by this author), born Publius Vergilius Maro near Mantua, Italy (70 B.C.), who became famous for writing poems about the beauty and simplicity of farm life at a time when Rome was being torn apart by civil wars. When those wars were finally over, the government asked Virgil to write a poem that would persuade Romans who had left the countryside to return home and become farmers again. Virgil wrote The Georgics, a kind of poetic farming manual about grain production, trees, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. The poems provided instruction, but they were also entertaining and full of beautiful descriptions of nature.

The emperor Augustus was impressed with Virgil's work, and provided him a generous stipend to live on for the rest of his life, which he spent writing his epic poem The Aeneid, about the soldier Aeneas, traveling home from the Trojan war to found a new city that would become Rome. Virgil had been working on it for 11 years when he took a trip to Greece for some final research, caught a fever, and died before he could finish. His final request was that the incomplete poem be burned, but Augustus ordered it preserved, and it became the basis of standard curriculum in Roman schools. It has now been in print for more than 2,000 years.

It's the birthday of "the Iron Man of radio," reporter Bob Trout, born Robert Blondheim in Wake County, North Carolina (1909). He grew up in Washington, D.C., where his father owned a shoe store. But the boy didn't want to stay in the family business; he hoped to be a great writer some day, traveling the world and having adventures like his hero, Jack London. He graduated from high school and worked odd jobs — a soda jerk, a cab driver, and a janitor at a local radio station, WJSV. One day, the station's regular announcer didn't show up for work, so the managers asked their janitor to fill in. He did so well that he was offered a regular position as a broadcaster. He delivered the news and shared practical advice for housewives and fishermen.

In 1932, he changed his last name from Blondheim to Trout, which was the last name of a family friend. That same year, WJSV was purchased by CBS, and soon Trout joined Edward Murrow in the CBS newsroom in New York City. Trout was still in his early 20s, so he grew a thin mustache in the hopes of making himself look older, and he kept it for the rest of his life.

Trout became known in the newsroom for his ability to improvise, seemingly endlessly, during major news events, which earned him the nickname "the Iron Man." During the Allied invasion of Normandy, Trout began broadcasting at 3 a.m. and didn't stop for more than seven hours. His reporting during the war made him famous, and it was Trout who announced to America the official end of World War II.

Trout's ability to ad lib particularly impressed President Roosevelt, who had put it to the test in 1936 on the way to accept his second-term nomination in Philadelphia. Roosevelt was listening to the radio en route, and Trout was filling airtime while he waited for the president's train. When the train stopped, Roosevelt heard Trout announce that the train had finally arrived and the president would be emerging any moment. But Roosevelt didn't come out, and the minutes went by; Trout ran out of anything new to say, but he just kept ad libbing. Finally the president emerged, and he admitted to Trout years later that he had been sitting there waiting just for fun, to see how the reporter would handle it. Trout became the president's favorite broadcaster, and he introduced Roosevelt's "fireside chats." When Trout got the news of Roosevelt's death in April of 1945, he interrupted his own broadcast and delivered an impromptu 25-minute tribute to the president without any planning or notes.

Trout dressed well, in dark, tailored, three-piece suits. He wore a hat out of doors, and he tipped it whenever he passed a woman. He refused to fly unless absolutely necessary, and his preference was walking — at least 100 blocks a day in Manhattan, with a walking cane. Trout was a shy man, not a natural speaker, but he overcame his shyness by always thinking of the microphone as if it were a telephone and he were delivering the news to someone personally.

It's the birthday of Italian writer Italo Calvino (books by this author), born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba (1923). His parents were scientists — his father an agronomist, his mother a botanist — and they were working in Cuba at the time of their son's birth, but moved back to Italy not long afterward. As a boy, he listened to the radio constantly, dreaming about the outside world. When he discovered his talent for writing, he began writing radio plays.

When Calvino was 21, at the height of World War II, he joined the Italian Resistance and spent a violent 20 months fighting in the Maritime Alps. Afterward, he dropped out of college, abandoning any pretense of studying agronomy, which he had never liked anyway. He moved to Turin, and he said that his life really began there, after the war. He found a community of novelists, so he decided to write novels instead of plays. He said, "If one gets used to translating into a novel one's experiences, one's ideas, what one has to say becomes a novel; one is left with no raw materials for another form of literary expression." At first, he wrote realism, like his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders (1947), set during the war. He labored over three more novels, but he didn't like any of them. Finally, he made a decision. He said: "I had made efforts to write the realistic-novel-reflecting-the-problems-of-Italian-society and had not managed to do so. (At the same time I was what was called a 'politically committed writer.') And then, in 1951, when I was 28 and not at all sure that I was going to carry on writing, I began doing what came most naturally to me. Instead of making myself write the book I ought to write, the novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic." So he wrote The Cloven Viscount (1952), the story of Medardo, a 17th-century nobleman who is hit by a cannonball and cloven into two people, one good and one evil, but both only half a person. The bad Medardo wants to make everyone else miserable, and is constantly destructive; the good Medardo wants to heal everyone and everything, and spends a lot of time fixing the bad deeds of his counterpart. No one really likes either Medardo — one is too cruel, the other is so nice he makes people uncomfortable. Then the two Medardos fall in love with the same girl and end up fighting each other, and, finally, getting stitched back together.

Calvino went on to write many novels that blended fantasy and reality, including The Baron in the Trees (1957), Invisible Cities (1972) and If on a winter's night a traveler (1979).

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