Dec. 4, 1999

The Mind is a Hawk

by Walter McDonald

Broadcast Date: SATURDAY: December 4, 1999

Poem: "The Mind is a Hawk" by Walter McDonald from Night Landing published by Harper and Row.

On Thursday, December 4, 1783, General George Washington received the officers of the victorious Continental Army in the Long Room of Fraunces Tavern, on the corner of Pearl and Broad Streets, in lower Manhattan. As many as 44 of his officers were present for this last farewell. After it was all over, Washington and his second-in-command were in tears; they embraced, then all his men followed him down to the ferry landing and watched him leave on a barge for Mt Vernon.

It’s the birthday of Sioux Indian Chief Ta-sunko-witko, known as Crazy Horse, born near what is now Rapid City, South Dakota (1842). Crazy Horse was a great war chief of the Oglala tribe who sought to stave off the advancement of the white man into the homelands of his people. He waged many battles with white troops and South Dakota Gold Rush gold diggers who disregarded treaties, encroached on Sioux reservation land and trampled Sioux rights. Crazy Horse was fearless in battle, and successfully defeated cavalry led by such men as George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876). Crazy Horse said: "We had buffalo for food, and their hides for clothing and for our teepees. We preferred hunting to a life of idleness on the reservation where we were driven against our will…We preferred our own way of living. We were no expense to the government. All we wanted was peace and to be left alone."

It's the birthday of Rainer Maria Rilke born in Prague, 1875, widely considered by Germans as their greatest 20th-century poet. He was an extremely sensitive child who hated the military schools his father sent him to, drifted in and out of them, and later, looking back, called them "a primer of horror." As an escape, he began writing and by his late teens had a book of poems published. A few years later he met and fell madly in love with Lou Andreas-Salomé, (on-DRAY-us SOL-oh-may) the wife of a German university professor, and she became a prime influence on his life and writing, though their affair was eventually called off. He followed her to St. Petersburg, Berlin, and other cities, where she helped him write, more as a mother-figure than a lover; then he left her and traveled widely around the Continent by himself, and settled eventually in Paris — which for him at that time, a destitute and sickly poet, wasn't the City of Lights, but a place of dehumanizing misery. His great poems come from his 12 Paris years, including The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), and Duino Elegies. This is from one of his letters to a friend, written in 1904 from Rome: "It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it. To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation."

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
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »