Oct. 3, 2001

A Usual Prayer

by John Berryman

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "A Usual Prayer," by John Berryman from Collected Poems (Farrar Straus Giroux).

A Usual Prayer

According to Thy will: That this day only
I may avoid the vile
and baritone away in a broader chorus
of to each other decent forebearance & even aid.

Merely sensational let's have today,
lacking mostly thinking,—
men's thinking being eighteen-tenths deluded.
Did I get this figure out of St Isaac of Syria?

For fun: find me among my self-indulgent artbooks
a new drawing by Ingres!
For discipline, two self-denying minus-strokes
and my wonted isometrics, barbells, & antiphons.

Lord of happenings, & little things,
muster me westward fitter to my end—
which has got to be Your strange end for me—
and toughen me effective to the tribes en route.

It's the birthday of American novelist Gore Vidal, born Eugene Luther Vidal, in West Point, New York (1925). When he was a boy, the biggest influence on his life was his grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, Oklahoma's first United States Senator. His first novel was Williwaw (1946), written when he was 19. He's best-known for his historical novels, including Julian (1964), about the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, as well as Burr (1974), 1876 (1976), and Lincoln (1984).

It's the birthday of British novelist and veterinarian James Herriot, born James Alfred Wight, in Sunderland, England (1916). He wrote his first book when he was 50. As a practicing veterinarian, he worried that it would be considered unprofessional for him to publish under his own name. His first book, If Only They Could Talk, was published in 1970, and sold only 1,200 copies. Two years later. his first and second books were published in a single volume under the title All Creatures Great and Small (1972). The book was an instant success, and was followed by three more books in the series: All Things Bright and Beautiful (1974), All Things Wise and Wonderful (1977) and The Lord God Made Them All (1982). The titles all come from a popular English hymn.

It's the birthday of American novelist Thomas Clayton Wolfe, born in Asheville, North Carolina (1900). He entered the University of North Carolina at 15, then went off to Harvard University, where several of his plays were produced. He left Harvard for New York in 1923, hoping for success as a playwright. He ended up writing a massive autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929). This was followed with a sequel in 1935, Of Time and the River. When he died, of complications from pneumonia, in 1938, he left behind an eight-foot stack of manuscripts, from which his editor managed to extract two more novels, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940).

It's the birthday of the French painter Pierre Bonnard, born in Fontenay-aux-Rose, France (1867). He's known for the intense colors of his interior scenes, paintings of dining rooms and bathing nudes, as well as for his colorful still-lifes and garden scenes.

It's the birthday of George Bancroft, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1800). He's known for his 10-volume History of the United States, published between 1834 and 1874, the first comprehensive study of American history.

It's the birthday of Cherokee chief John Ross, born near Lookout Mountain in Tennessee (1790). In 1838 Ross was forced to lead his people across the Mississippi River to what is now Oklahoma. More than 4,000 Cherokee people died on the forced march west, which became known as the "Trail of Tears."

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 »