Aug. 26, 2001

The Affect of Elms

by Reginald Gibbons

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The Affect of Elms," by Reginald Gibbons from Sparrow (Louisiana State University Press).

The Affect of Elms

Across the narrow street from the old hotel that now
houses human damage temporarily —
deranged, debilitated, but up and around in their odd
postures, taking their meds, or maybe trading them —

is the little park, once a neighboring mansion's side yard,
where beautiful huge old elm trees, long in that place,
stand in a close group over the mown green lawn
watered and well kept by the city, their shapes expressive:

the affect of elms is of struggle upward and survival,
of strength — despite past grief (the bowed languorous arches)
and torment (limbs in the last stopped attitude of writhing) —

while under them wander the deformed and tentative
persons, accompanied by voices, counting their footsteps,
exhaling the very breath the trees breathe in.

It's the birthday of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who may have been born in Monte Carlo or Rome (1880), but kept his origins secret. He fought for France in WWI, was wounded three times and died of Spanish Influenza in Paris, a day before the Armistice was signed. He was 38.

On this day in 1883, the biggest explosion in history occurred: the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa. Heard 3,000 miles away, the eruption created tidal waves 120 feet high, killed 36,000 people, and affected the oceans and atmosphere for years afterward.

It's the birthday of modern-art collector Peggy Guggenheim (Marguerite Guggenheim), born in New York City (1898). She was from a very wealthy family—her father went down on the Titanic—and she felt stifled by her life of luxury in New York. So she went to Europe, befriended the expatriate artists living in Paris (including James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound, and Isadora Duncan), and became a collector of art. In her home in Venice, in a palazzo on the Grand Canal, she kept work by Picasso, Chagall, Dali, Pollock, Braque, and De Chirico. At the time of her death (1979), it was said to be worth $30 million. Late in her life a good many of her acquisitions went to rest at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue.

It's the birthday of memoirist Chistopher (William) Isherwood, born in High Lane, Cheshire, England (1904). He lived in Berlin in the early 1930s, and later wrote an autobiographical collection of sketches, Goodbye to Berlin (1939), on which John van Druten based his play I Am a Camera (1951)—on which, in turn, the hit musical Cabaret (1966) was based.

It's the birthday of Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar, born in Brussels, Belgium (1914). After the war, his family moved to Buenos Aires. In his late 30s he moved to Paris (1951) and lived there the rest of his life. His best-known novel is Hopscotch (1963).

It's the birthday of puzzle-maker Will Shortz, born in Crawfordsville, Indiana (1952). He was studying economics at the University of Indiana, in Bloomington, when he learned the place offered an independent study program. He persuaded skeptical administrators he should be allowed a second major, "Enigmatology," for which he consulted professors in English, philosophy, math, linguistics, journalism, and psychology. He not only graduated in Enigmatology; he graduated cum laude. At 26 he began working at Games magazine; by 30 he was Senior Editor; at 41 he resigned from Games and was named Puzzle Editor at the New York Times (1993). He has also, since 1987, served as puzzle-master for NPR's program Weekend Edition.

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 »