Nov. 4, 2000

The Critic

by C. K. Williams

Broadcast date: SATURDAY, 4 November 2000

The Critic
by C. K. Williams, from Flesh and Blood (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

In the Boston Public Library on Boylston Street, where all the bums come in stinking from the cold,
there was one who had a battered loose-leaf book he used to scribble in for hours on end.
He wrote with no apparent hesitation, quickly, and with concentration; his inspiration was inspiring;
you had to look again to realize that he was writing over words that were already there——
blocks of cursive etched into the softened paper, interspersed with poems in print he'd pasted in.
I hated to think of the volumes he'd violated to construct his opus, but I liked him anyway,
especially the way he'd often reach the end, close his work with weary satisfaction, then open again
and start again: page one, chapter one, his blood-rimmed eyes as rapt as David's doing psalms.

In Oklahoma, today is Will Rogers Day, a legal holiday to honor one of Oklahoma's most famous sons.

It's the birthday of American humorist Will(iam) Penn Adair Rogers, born near Oologah, in the Indian Territory now known as Claremont, Oklahoma (1879). In 1922 he started writing a weekly newspaper column for the New York Times, which soon was syndicated nationally. He sent back daily reports to newspaper readers back home—an audience of nearly 40 million people. He was an enormously popular, warm, character, whose fans called him "the cowboy-philosopher"—an American folk hero. He died with aviator Wiley Post in a plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska. He said: "I do not belong to an organized political party; I'm a Democrat."

It's the birthday of American poet C(harles) K(enneth) Williams, born in Newark, New Jersey in 1936. He moved to Paris in the 1950s, but five months later headed back to college to hone his craft. Thirty years later, he did settle in Paris with his French wife, but he returns home to the United States to teach writing for a semester every year, first at George Mason University in Virginia, then at Princeton University. He wrote poems in long, prose-like lines—so long that his collection With Ignorance(1977) had to be published in a wide-page format, like an art catalogue. Repair (1999), his eighth book of poems, won him the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. He has recently branched out to theater, with a play, The Jew, set in 19th century Germany, and he has published a memoir about his parents' marriage, My Mother, My Father, Myself (2000).

On this day in 1918, English poet Wilfred Owen was killed in action in Flanders, at the age of 25. His parents received the telegram notifying them of his death while the church bells were chiming in celebration of the end of the war. Most famous of his poems included the prophetic and powerful "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "Dulce et Decorum Est." In 1961, composer Benjamin Britten paired Owens' poetry with the ancient Latin funeral text to create his composition War Requiem.

On this day in 1879, the first cash register was patented by James J. Ritty of Dayton, Ohio. Ritty owned a saloon in Dayton, and his bartenders dipped into the till regularly, causing him great stress. So he took a sea voyage to Europe to relax. While on board, he noticed a machine that was used to count revolutions of the steam ship's propellers, and make a record of the information. Using this model, he came up with the idea to record cash transactions with a machine. With patent number 221360, the prototype for the modern cash register was born, and shortly afterward, the National Cash Register Company.

Today is the birthday of American sculptor and artist James Earl Fraser in Winona, Minnesota (1876), creator of some of this country's best-known sculptures, including the reliefs for the buffalo head and Indian's head for the nickel, first issued in 1913. His famous sculpture The End of the Trail, is in the Cowboy Hall of Fame, His statue of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse stands in front of New York City's Museum of Natural History.

It is the birthday of British philosopher G(eorge) E(dward) Moore, born in Cambridge, England (1873), an influential critic of Idealism, the prevailing philosophical movement of his time. A supporter of Realism, he was a professor at Cambridge University and the editor of Mind, an acclaimed British philosophical journal. He studiously argued for the superiority of common sense. He was a friend to Bertrand Russell, and part of a group of intellectuals called the Bloomsbury Group which included economist John Keynes, and writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster.

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 »