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January 29, 1845: And You Can Quoth Me on That

For most of his career during the 1830s and 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe was your typical struggling, hungry writer. His poetry and short stories were often published but rarely paid for. The lack of copyright laws meant that publishers could freely steal the work of British writers rather than pay their American counterparts.

Poe’s life changed dramatically on January 29, 1845, when his atmospheric narrative poem The Raven appeared in the New York Evening Mirror and was attributed to him for the first time. Before you could say “nevermore,” it went viral and Poe became a literary celebrity, although still economically challenged.

The Raven takes place in Poe’s typical Gothic world., full of mystery and the macabre. It traces the descent of a distraught lover into madness. The guy’s pretty broken up over the loss of his love Lenore. He talks this over with a raven, but the raven doesn’t have much empathy or give much sympathy, offering only the heartless refrain “nevermore.”

For the poem itself it was evermore, although Poe had just a few year’s left to enjoy its success. Others have enjoyed its success , however, with a steady stream of reprints, analyses, films, parodies, and even comic books.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

Only this and nothing more.”

 

Always Carry a Small Snake

Born on January 28, 1880, as William Claude Dukenfield, W. C. Fields was an iconic American comedian, actor, misanthrope, egotist, drunkard, writer, juggler, and writer who loudly declared his contempt for women, children and small animals. Americans adored him. The publicity departments at Paramount and Universal studios did their best to conceal the fact that he had a happy childhood, had been married, supported two sons, and doted on his grandchildren.

Fields got his start as a juggler in vaudeville and on Broadway. When he found that he could get laughs by adding dialogue to his routines, he developed the mumbling patter and sarcastic asides that became his trademarks. It was in the movies and on radio that he eventually found stardom. A handful of silent films in the 20s led to such classics as You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, The Bank Dick and My Little Chickadee with Mae West. He also became a popular guest on many radio shows, most notably perhaps Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, where he traded barbs with Charlie McCarthy, calling him among other things a woodpecker’s pin-up boy.

Fields always professed to hate Christmas, and to show his disdain for the holiday, he died on Christmas Day in 1946.

I always keep some whiskey handy in case I see a snake. . .which I also keep handy.

Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.

I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally.

I never hold a grudge. As soon as I get even with the son-of-a bitch, I forget it.

Reminds me of my safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and for several days we had to live on nothing but food and water.

 

 

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January 20, 1820: Dream a Little Dream of Me

It’s a red letter day for fair young maidens everywhere, for in addition to being January 20, it is the Eve of St. Agnes, a night in which, if they play their cards right, they’ll gaze upon the countenance of their true love. Naturally there’s a ritual that must be performed to make this happen. First the maiden must go to bed without her supper, having got herself buck naked and placing a sprig of rosemary and one of thyme (no parsley, no sage) each in a shoe at the side of her bed. She then lies with her hands under her pillow and staring upward chants: “St. Agnes, that’s to lovers kind / Come ease the trouble of my mind” whereupon she falls asleep and conjures up the lucky fellow.

St. Agnes was a martyr who was born back in 291, who died a virgin in 304, and is the patron saint of young women hoping to lose theirs.

The Eve of St. Agnes ritual was celebrated in an 1820 poem by John Keats titled, oddly enough, “The Eve of St. Agnes.” For 42 rather lyrical stanzas (read that steamy, no Grecian urns or nightingales here) Keats recounts the St. Agnes Eve adventures of Madeline and her paramour Porphyro. Keat’s publishers were uncomfortable with his lyricism and forced him to bring it down a few notches (to PG-13 lyricism).

Madeline’s family is all liquored up (another custom) so she scurries off to bed to perform the ritual, hoping to see Porphyro in her sleep. Porphyro hopes to see Madeline as well, but not in his sleep. He sneaks into her room and waits in the closet. From there, he watches her as she readies herself for bed and falls asleep, after which the naughty fellow creeps closer to get a better look. She awakes having been dreaming of him and sees him in the flesh. Naturally she assumes this is still as dream, so she welcomes him into her bed. When she is fully awake, she realizes her mistake and is a bit chagrined until he declares his love for her. They dash off together across the moors and we are left to wonder about their fate. (As anyone who’s ever read Hound of the Baskervilles knows, you don’t go out on the moors at night.

To Air Is Human

Here’s an idea for a television game show: Get four contestants – makebikini them celebrities – have them stick their heads through a life-sized illustration of a famous scene or a song lyric and then take turns asking the host yes/no questions and try to figure out what scene they’re a part of.  Just for insurance, get a big star to be the host. Sound like a winner?

The scenario played out for the first time on CBS at 9:30 pm EST on January 20, 1961, the evening of the inauguration on John F. Kennedy. The program was called You’re in the Picture. The guest celebrities were Pat Harrington Jr., Pat Carroll, Jan Sterling, and Arthur Treacher. The host was Jackie Gleason, who’d been around television for a while hosting his own variety shows and a little number called The Honeymooners. That first episode was also the last episode.

Talk about a bomb. “The biggest bomb in history” said Jackie Gleason, adding that it “would make the H-Bomb look like a two-inch salute.” Time later called it proof that the 1960-61 TV season was the worst in the history of U.S. network television.

 

Born January 20, 1922, Ray Anthony became a successful band leader during the 1950s, despite composing “The Bunny Hop.”

 

Mama Eu Quero, Part 2: Fantastic News

When Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha was sixteen, she was already an entertainer in her own small part of the world.  She quickly became known in her own country, and in 1939, as Carmen Miranda, she sambaed to the United States for a part in a Broadway musical review.  The tower of fruit above the slight five-foot-one Brazilian Bombshell became an instant trademark, which along with her musical exuberance carried her to super stardom.  She appeared in many films, but Delia’s favorite was an outrageous Busby Berkeley musical in which she sang “The Lady with the Tutti Frutti Hat” while an army of dancers waved giant bananas.  Why would a young teenager idolize Carmen Miranda when the other girls her age wished to be Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth or Grace Kelly?  Perhaps it was because even though Carmen wasn’t so pretty, she was so vital.  And they said she was really very shy.  Just like Delia.

Jorge’s last words to her were:  “We’ll be together soon, I promise.”  His first words had been:  “Another Norteamericano.  Would you like me to lie on the floor so you can walk on me?”   She had cried both times.  His last words echoed for many months even as she realized that although they were probably truthful in intent, they were spoken in summer, in Cuba, and in youth.  Jorge’s first words were quickly forgotten. They burned, made her feel a guilt that should not have been hers.  But even though his words were mean and insensitive, Jorge was not, and as soon as he had uttered them, he felt shame at having hurt a person who had done him no harm, at having acted in the same manner as those he criticized.  Spurred by her tears, his apologies rushed forth.  And within five minutes they were sharing their first Cuban beer, their first conversation and the first day of a summer idyll that would careen through the hot weeks of June and July like a possessed Cuban taxi on an open road.

Many of those conversations would turn to politics, and Delia showed a naiveté about the affairs of the country that stood just 90 miles from her own country’s doorstep.  At the center of such conversations stood Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, and Jorge would loudly decry his infamy. “Fulgencio cares only for Fulgencio,” he would snort.  When on a soapbox, he always used Batista’s given name.  “He doesn’t give a damn for the people.  They hate him, too.  And he knows it.  But he has the army and the police, so he doesn’t need the people.  Let me tell you how the great Fulgencio cares for his people.  Two years ago, Fidel’s attempt at revolution was put down almost as quickly as it started.  The gunfire that we could hear off and on through Saturday night had died down by Sunday morning, and my father insisted we go to church as usual.  During the service, the police appeared at all entrances to the church, blocking our exit except through the one door that opened onto the square.  Just in front of that door, close enough so that we must negotiate around it, the police had dumped a wagonload of bloodied bodies.  As we passed by we could see movement within this noxious heap and hear low groans.  Some of them had not yet died.”

Jorge turned his face away from Delia as the tears appeared in his eyes.  She shuddered and cried with him.  What seemed to bother him the most was the hopelessness.  The people grumbled and cursed, but they were apathetic. The opposition made speeches, but they were meaningless; when in power, the opposition had been corrupt too. Fidel had been released from prison but was in exile.

As deep as Jorge’s anger was, Delia conquered and subdued it as their relationship grew.  And for a time his country’s turmoil became as distant to him as Ike and Iowa were to her.

To Delia’s father, what was happening at home was infinitely more important than what was happening here in Cuba.  As a result Cuban papers rarely found their way into the household.  The New York Times did, however, although by the time it arrived the news was as cold as a Manhattan January.  Nevertheless it served the noble purpose of convincing him that he had not fallen off the edge of civilization.  And it was from this unlikely source that Delia learned the fantastic news.

continued

“Mama Eu Quero” originally appeared in the literary magazine Dandelion.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

 

 

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NOVEMBER 3, 1883: STAGECOACH POETICA

STAGECOACH POETICA

The California Gold Rush was in full swing by the latter half of the 19th century. Stagecoaches and Wells Fargo wagons were hauling gold out of blackbartCalifornia by the, well by the wagonload.  All this gold was just too much of a temptation for some folks, transplanted New Yorker Charles Boles being one such tempted soul.

In the summer of 1875, Boles donned a white linen duster, put a flour sack over his head and a black derby on top of that and set about robbing the gold from a stagecoach leaving the mining city of Copperopolis. Boles stepped out in front of the stage, aimed a shotgun at the driver, forcing him to stop and demanding him to “Throw down the box.” The driver was reluctant to comply until he saw several gun barrels aimed at them from nearby bushes. He calculated the odds, and turned over the strongbox. Boles whacked the strongbox with an ax until it disgorged its treasure, which Boles hauled off while the stagecoach driver remained a captive of Boles’ fellow conspirators. After this standoff had lasted a bit too long, he moved to retrieve the empty strongbox and found that the rifles pointing at him were nothing but sticks tied to branches of the bushes.

Boles was rather amazed at how easy this robbery business was and so, adopting the moniker Black Bart, he embarked on a life of crime. He became a bit of a legend due to his daring, the fact that he never rode a horse and leaving bits of verse “po8try” behind at each robbery:

I’ve labored long and hard for bread —

For honor and for riches —

But on my corns too long you’ve tred,

You fine-haired sons of bitches.

His victims also called him a gentleman. Once after ordering a stage drive to throw down the box, a frightened passenger tossed him her purse. Bart returned it to her, saying that he wanted only the strongbox and the mailbag.

Black Bart the Po8 robbed his last stagecoach on November 3, 1883 — that is, attempted to rob his last stage. Wells Fargo, not amused at having lost close to half a million to bandits, had secreted an extra guard on the stage. Bart escaped the trap but dropped his derby and left several other incriminating items behind a nearby rock. Within days, Black Bart had been apprehended.

During his eight years as a highwayman, Black Bart never shot anyone, nor did he ever rob an individual passenger. He stole a grand total of $18,000. Sentenced to six years in prison, he served four before receiving a pardon and disappearing into retirement.

 

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OCTOBER 21, 1772: A BIRD ROUND THE NECK IS WORTH TWO IN THE BUSH

A BIRD ROUND THE NECK IS WORTH TWO IN THE BUSH

English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the major literary voices in England at the end of the 18th century. He was born on October 21, 1772, and died on July 25, 1834. Along with his good friend William Wordsworth, he helped to pioneer the Romantic Age of English poetry.  He’s best known for Kubla Khan (In Xanadu did Kubla Khan /A stately pleasure-dome decree) written, according to Coleridge himself, in “a kind of a reverie” as a result of an opium dream, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a seafaring epic, sort of like Mutiny on the Bounty without the mutiny or Titanic without the glitz or the the sinking.

The poem begins at a wedding, where one of the guests, hoping to get into the open bar before it closes is distracted by an old salt “with long grey beard and glittering eye.” This, of course, is the titular ancient mariner – no surprise, since Coleridge identifies him as such in the very first line – who begins his tale:

‘The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,

Merrily did we drop

Below the kirk, below the hill,

Below the lighthouse top.

The Sun came up upon the left,

Out of the sea came he!

And he shone bright, and on the right

Went down into the sea.

 

Even though the mariner has a nice way with words, the wedding guest is thirsty and he has spotted the bride leading other guests to the bar. But –

 

“The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,

Yet he cannot choose but hear;

And thus spake on that ancient man,

The bright-eyed Mariner.

 

The mariner describes his journey which takes him into some rather nasty, cold (Vermont-like) weather:

 

“The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around:

It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,

Like noises in a swound!

 

We can only guess what a swound is – but it is a pretty nasty sounding thing and it does rhyme nicely.  Enter the albatross, seascape left:

 

“At length did cross an Albatross,

Through the fog it came;

As if it had been a Christian soul,

We hailed it in God’s name.

 

The albatross leads the ship and its crew to warmer waters, and a perfect spot for the mariner to conclude his tale as  the wedding guest suggests, nervously checking his watch. But the mariner drops a bomb instead:

 

“‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!

From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—

Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow

I shot the ALBATROSS.

 

Well, wouldn’t you know it, the fair breeze that had delivered them from the cold disappears, and they are becalmed, unable to move, and now it’s getting hot:

 

“Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

 

The crew members blame their plight entirely on the mariner. They hang the albatross around his neck and give him the cold shoulder. Eventually they spot a ship in the distance, and they watch for several verses in anticipation. As the vessel draws near, however, they discover that its passengers are Death (a skeleton) and the “Night-mare Life-in-Death” (a deathly-pale woman). These two are playing dice for the souls of the crew. Death wins the lives of the crew members and Life-in-Death the life of the Mariner. He will endure a fate worse than death as punishment for his killing of the albatross.

One by one, all of the crew members die, but the Mariner lives on:

“The many men, so beautiful!

And they all dead did lie:

And a thousand thousand slimy things

Lived on; and so did I.

 

Eventually, left alone with them, the mariner begins to appreciate the slimy things and even begins to pray for them.  And then the albatross falls from his neck. The bodies of the crew, possessed by good spirits, rise again and steer the ship back home, where it sinks again, leaving only the Mariner behind.

But his penance for shooting the albatross is not finished. He is forced to wander the earth annoying wedding guests with his story, a lesson for all those he meets:

 

“Farewell, farewell! but this I tell

To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!

He prayeth well, who loveth well

Both man and bird and beast.”

 

Unfortunately for the wedding guest, he has missed out on the open bar and his dinner (he ordered the chicken) is cold.

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AUGUST 27, 1938: POETS GONE WILD

POETS GONE WILD

Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice. / From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire.

     It is pretty well agreed that Robert Frost was among the best American poets of the twentieth century. Both popularly and critically acclaimed, he received four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry. It’s also pretty much agreed that Frost was not a warm and fuzzy individual, that he leaned more toward nasty and tyrannical behavior. It was also said “that he tolerated rivals badly, that he was a prima donna who was never content to share the center of the stage.”

     Perhaps the incident of August 27, 1938, was just an accident or Frost’s mind was wrapped up in his poem, “Fire and Ice.” Nevertheless, his behavior – or misbehavior – looked a bit suspicious.  On this night, writer Archibald MacLeish visited the Breadloaf Writers Conference to read his poems and radio plays at a gathering in the hills above Middlebury, Vermont. Frost was among the attendees, sitting in the back. As MacLeish read from his poetry, Frost began heckling him. “Archie’s poems all have the same tune,” he said in a stage whisper. Then just as MacLeish read the single-sentence poem, “You, Andrew Marvell,” smoke filled the room. Frost had somehow set fire to some papers and was busily beating them out and waving away the smoke.

     Most people accepted Frost’s explanation that it was an accident, and the reading continued. MacLeish, still the center of attention, was asked to read from one of his plays. Frost was not finished. His wisecracks from the back of the room became steadily harsher and more barbed. He interrupted, he commented, he took exception. What may have been innocent literary give and take turned into a clear effort to frustrate and humiliate MacLeish, and the situation became increasingly painful to those in the room.  Finally, Bernard DeVoto, a scholar and friend of Frost, had had enough. He shouted: “For God’s sake, Robert, let him read!” Frost ignored him, but a few minutes later snarled savagely and stomped out of the room and down the road not taken.

Pausing for a moment to wish Linda a happy birthday.

 

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AUGUST 19, 1902: PARSLEY IS GHARSLEY

PARSLEY IS GHARSLEY

Ogden Nash, an American poet known for his droll and playful verse, wrote over 500 pieces of comic verse, the best of which was published in 14 volumes between 1931 and his death in 1971. He frequently used surprising puns, made up words, and words deliberately misspelled for comic effect.

     His most famous rhyme was a twist on Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” (1913): “I think that I shall never see / a billboard lovely as a tree.  Indeed, unless the billboards fall / I’ll never see a tree at all.”  When Nash wasn’t writing poems, he made guest appearances on comedy and radio shows and lectured at colleges and universities.

I am a conscientious man, when I throw rocks at seabirds I leave no tern
unstoned.

 

A mighty creature is the germ,
Though smaller than the pachyderm.
His customary dwelling place
Is deep within the human race.
His childish pride he often pleases
By giving people strange diseases.
Do you, my poppet, feel infirm?
You probably contain a germ.

 

Progress might have been alright once, but it has gone on too long.

 

The rhino is a homely beast,
For human eyes he’s not a feast.
Farewell, farewell, you old rhinoceros,
I’ll stare at something less prepoceros.

 

The Pig, if I am not mistaken,
Gives us ham and pork and Bacon.
Let others think his heart is big,
I think it stupid of the Pig.

 

There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.

 

Oh, what a tangled web do parents weave when they think that their children are naive.

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JUNE 14, 1287: PROSE AND KHANS

PROSE AND KHANS

In 1287, Kublai Khan, on a bit of a tear through Asia, defeated the forces led by princes of Mongolia and Manchuria. Kublai was a grandson of Genghis, another Khan known for being rather hard to get along with. Like his grandfather, Kublai was a holy terror right from infancy when he frequently seized power from fellow toddlers. Eventually, Kublai pushed the Mongol Empire to new heights, creating a unified, militarily powerful China and gaining international attention in the process.

Marco Polo, in the accounts of his travels, made Kublai well-known to western audiences, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge added a romantic aura in the early 19th century with his description of Kublai (Kubla to Coleridge) Khan’s summer cottage at Xanadu:

     In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

     A stately pleasure-dome decree:

     Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

     Through caverns measureless to man

     Down to a sunless sea.

     When the sacred river Alph plunged into that sunless sea it naturally created a great waterfall. In the rush of this waterfall, the voices of Kubla’s ancestors could be heard — that strident, discordant one being Genghis.

Face down in a cranberry bog, part 3: the corpse goes missing

“A person ought to remain at the scene of the crime,” said the chief of police, taking me to task when he should have been commending my citizenship, as we drove back toward the bog.

“What crime?” I complained. “I’m sure it’s just an accident. And even if I had stayed at the scene of the accident, how could I report it? I don’t have a cell phone. It might be weeks before anyone came by. I’d eventually starve. I couldn’t even eat cranberries because the sign said not to. And I’m too law-abiding to disobey a sign let alone do something criminal to a person, if someone did indeed do something criminal, which I don’t think anyone did, but I have no way of knowing.”

“You’re acting mighty guilty.” I thought I was behaving quite calmly. Upon hearing the word guilty, however, any veneer of calm was violently stripped away. And then I remembered with a jolt of nausea that the recently departed wore only red boxer shorts.

“I always act guilty,” I said, squirming to confirm my words. “Even as a kid. If someone put a baseball through a window, the owner of the house would look at me and figure I did it – just because I looked guilty. People who act guilty are almost always innocent; did you know that?”

“No, I didn’t,” said the chief, looking skeptical. “Here we are.” He stopped the car and we got out. “Now exactly where is this body?”

“Over there. On the other side of that bog.”

We approached and began to circle the bog. We circled it once, and we circled it again. We saw nothing but cranberries. “Are you sure you got the right bog?” the chief asked, giving me that look.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I said. We circled three more bogs, and a deputy who joined us began to circle the rest.

The chief of police leaned back against his car, reached into his pocket and pulled out a pen and a small tablet. “This wouldn’t be a joke, would it? If it was, it wouldn’t be very funny; I can tell you that.”

“Of course not. Do I look like a joker?” I wished I hadn’t said that.

“Had anything to drink today?” He scratched at the tablet as he spoke.

“It’s ten a.m.”

“Had anything to drink this morning?”

“Tomato juice and coffee, that’s it.”

“Do you take medication or any other kinds of drugs?”

“No, I don’t, and I resent that implication.”

“I resent spending my time searching cranberry bogs for bodies that don’t exist.” He looked at me as though he wanted nothing more out of life than to throw me into a jail cell. “You say you’re not joking, you’re not drunk or spaced out. Tell me what you think.”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “Somebody stole the corpse. Otherwise, it would be there.”

“Not that obvious to me. What’s obvious to me is that I’m going to be watching you. Now describe this alleged body to me.”

“It looked dead.”

“Nice start. Would you care to elaborate?”

“Male Caucasian.”

“Now you’re getting it. Go on.”

“Hair gray. Face sort of blue. Mustache.”

“You think this whole thing is some kind of big joke, don’t you?”

“Not at all,” I answered. “I take dead bodies quite seriously. I’m doing my best to help.”

“Okay, mustache. Gray like his hair?”

“Hmmm.” I tried to visualize the mustache but couldn’t. “I don’t know. I think it was dark. But maybe it just looked darker because it was wet. I’m just not sure. In real life, people don’t really remember all the little details. Anyone who knows all the details probably memorizes them. And maybe because that person is guilty – even though he doesn’t look it.”

“Or she.”

“What?”

“Never assume the guilty party is a man. Women kill too. Now can we dispense with the criminology and get on with it?” He continued to write in his little tablet. I wished I could have seen what he was writing; I’ll bet it wasn’t flattering.

“Okay,” I said. “The mustache was three shades darker than the hair. His forehead had six, no seven, wrinkles.”

“Okay, I’ve got enough,” he said, flipping the notebook shut and giving me a nasty look. “If we come up with a body, we’ll get back to you.”

“Don’t call us, we’ll call you?”

“Something like that.”

I watched as he and his trusty deputy returned to their respective police vehicles and pulled away, leaving me alone, angry and confused. Someone had stolen my corpse.

continued