Nov. 14, 2001


by Robert Phillips

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Carving," by Robert Phillips from Breakdown Lane (John Hopkins University Press).


    "The man of the family always carves,"
Mother rehearsed, cutting deeply into the rib roast.
She cast glances toward Father, who hunched
at the head of the table in the tallest chair,
Irish linen napkin tucked into the neck of his plaid
shirt. He claimed not to know how to carve.
    His smile was weak as water.

    "My father was an exquisite carver,"
she announced to assembled guests, or just to us
four kids waiting for interminable Sunday dinner
to end, Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" to begin.
"He had a way with joints," she reminisced, trimming
away all fat, slices falling one after another
    like a stack of dominoes.

    "He could carve a ham paper thin.
If you held a slice to the light, you could see
clear through!" We children sniggered. Why would
anyone hold meat to the light? Why would how thin
it was make any difference in how it tastes?
She sawed away like a virtuoso cellist. Finally
    the knife struck bone.

    "He was also a connoisseur of wine,
drove the finest horse and carriage in all Roanoke.
But I have always thought the true measure of a man
was how well he could carve." With that she lay
aside the ancestral carving knife, bestowed
a generous portion onto a Wedgwood plate, and passed
    Father the choicest cut.

It's the birthday of the American satirist P. J. O'Rourke, born in Toledo, Ohio (1947). He began his career writing for underground newspapers, moving in 1972 to the National Lampoon, where he was editor in chief from 1978 to 1981. He is known for his relentless satire of modern manners, morals, and politics in books like The Bachelor's Home Companion: A Practical Guide to Keeping House like a Pig (1993) and Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U. S. Government (1991).

It's the birthday of the American journalist and historian Harrison Evans Salisbury, born in Minneapolis (1908). He began his journalistic career covering the trial of Al Capone in Chicago, but he was soon transferred abroad, first to London and then to Moscow, where he stayed to cover the events on the Eastern Front of WWII and the period of Stalin's rule.

It's the birthday of the American composer and writer-about-music Aaron Copland, born in Brooklyn, NY (1900). His parents were both from Lithuanian Russia, but they met in New York, and they raised their family, in which Aaron was the youngest of five children, in an apartment above their successful department store in Brooklyn. Copland had decided to become a composer by the time he left high school, and after a few years of study in New York, made his way to Paris, where he studied for three years with the great teacher of composition, Nadia Boulanger. Although his compositions were prized by influential musicians of the day, he did not achieve popular success until the 1940s when he wrote several ballets. Appalachian Spring (1944) is perhaps the best known of these; it he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 as well as the New York Music Circle Critics Award. He composed prolifically until 1972 when, he said, "it was exactly as if someone had simply turned off a faucet."

It's the birthday of the Swedish author of children's books Astrid Lindgren, born Astrid Ericsson on a farm near Vimmerby, Sweden (1907). She didn't begin writing until she was 37, when she presented her daughter, for a 10th birthday present, with a manuscript detailing the adventures of the remarkable Pippi Långstrump, known to English readers as Pippi Longstocking. She also sent the manuscript to a publisher. The publishing house rejected the manuscript, but she entered it later the same year in a children's book contest and won first prize. The Pippi Longstocking books are now translated into 50 languages. Astrid Lindgren, who said: "I can still see and smell and remember the bliss of that rosebush in the pasture, the one that showed me for the first time what beauty means .... I still know exactly how it feels to enter a warm cow barn from biting cold and snow. I know how the tongue of a calf feels against a hand and how rabbits smell .... Those may not be extraordinary things to remember. The extraordinary thing about it is the intensity of these experiences when we were new here on earth."

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 »