Sep. 1, 2002

The Palms

by W. S. Merwin

(RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The Palms," by W.S. Merwin from Travels (Alfred A. Knopf).

The Palms

Each is alone in the world
and on some the flowers
are of one sex only

they stand as though they had no secrets
and one by one the flowers emerge from the sheaths
into the air
where the other flowers are
it happens in silence except for the wind
often it happens in the dark
with the earth carrying the sound of water

most of the flowers themselves are small and green by day
and only a few are fragrant
but in time the fruits are beautiful
and later still their children
whether they are seen or not

many of the fruits are no larger than peas
but some are like brains of black marble
and some have more than one seed inside them
some are full of milk of one taste or another
and on a number of them there is a writing
from long before speech

and the children resemble each other
with the same family preference
for shade when young
in which colors deepen
and the same family liking for water
and warmth
and each family deals with the wind in its own way
and with the sun and the water

some of the leaves are crystals others are stars
some are bows some are bridges and some
are hands
in a world without hands

they know of each other first from themselves
some are fond of limestone and a few cling to high cliffs
they learn from the splashing water
and the falling water and the wind

much later the elephant
will learn from them
the muscles will learn from their shadows
ears will begin to hear in them
the sound of water
and heads will float like black nutshells
on an unmeasured ocean neither rising nor falling

to be held up at last and named for the sea

It's the birthday of Rosa Guy, born in Trinidad (1925). She's the co-founder of the Harlem Writer's Guild, and she's written a number of novels for young adults. The Broadway musical Once on this Island is based on her novella My Love, My Love: or, The Peasant Girl (1985)-which is, in turn, a version of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid."

It's the birthday of Eleanor Burford Hibbert, born in London (1906). She wrote two hundred novels under many pseudonyms, including Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, and Phillipa Carr. The Victoria Holt titles far outsold the others; together, sales totaled in the millions.

On this day in 1904, Helen Keller graduated from Radcliffe. She was the first blind-and-deaf student ever to graduate from any college anywhere. When Keller met Woodrow Wilson several years later, he asked her why she had chosen Radcliffe when she could have been admitted to a less challenging school. "Because they didn't want me," she replied promptly.

It's the birthday of Edgar Rice Burroughs, born in Chicago (1875). After he was married, he went through ten different office and sales jobs in ten years. When money ran short and his wife started pawning her jewelry, he decided he could probably write stories just as bad as the stuff in pulp magazines. His first series, Under the Moons of Mars, starred John Carter, who was teleported to Mars after a battle with the Apaches in Arizona. Tarzan of the Apes was published in the October issue of All-Story magazine, and Burroughs got $700 for it. He decided to quit and write full-time. He wrote dozens of books, bought a huge ranch in California, and saw a town called Tarzana grow up around it.

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 »