Jul. 28, 2004

the lesson of the moth

by Don Marquis

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "This Room," by John Ashbery, from Your Name Here. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission.

This Room

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, born in Stratford, England (1844). He was the oldest of nine children born to High Church Anglicans. His father was a marine insurance adjuster and also a poet. For a while Hopkins wanted to be a painter-poet like Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Then he got involved in religion and became a Jesuit priest. He preached in the slums of industrial cities—Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. He went through a phase in which he felt that poetry was too self-indulgent, and he burned his early poems. But he eventually grew out of it and sent his written poems to his good friend Robert Bridges, who became Poet Laureate in 1913.

Hopkins wasn't well-known as a poet until after he died. He spent the last part of his life in Dublin, working as a Professor of Greek and Latin, mired in depression.

Hopkins wrote, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God."

It's the birthday of novelist Malcolm Lowry, born in Cheshire, England (1909). His father was a cotton broker who owned plantations in Egypt, Peru and Texas. Lowry rebelled from his wealthy upbringing. When he was fifteen, he wrote angry hymns about his mother, whom he hated. He went to sea to work as a deckhand on ships to China and Norway. When he was at boarding school in Cambridge, he goaded a friend to kill himself, and the friend did.

Lowry's masterpiece is Under the Volcano (1947), set on The Day of the Dead in Mexico, 1938. It's about a former British consul who has a drinking problem and a troubled marriage. Lowry was also a very troubled man: he was an alcoholic prone to relationship difficulties and mental disorders. Lowry died a mysterious death caused by alcohol and an overdose of sleeping pills in 1957. Nobody is sure if it was suicide or not, but it fell on the same date as the suicide of his childhood friend.

It's the birthday of first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, born in East Hampden, Long Island (1929). She graduated from George Washington University, where she majored in French Literature. Then she worked as the Washington Times-Herald's "inquiring photographer." For forty-three dollars a week, she'd go up to people and ask them the question of the day, and then take their picture. In 1952 Jacqueline met a young congressman from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, at a dinner party.

She was graceful and elegant and always fashionably dressed, with a headscarf and dark glasses. The media loved her. People embraced her when she went abroad, with her husband or on her own goodwill tours. In 1961 she and JFK went to France, where they liked her even more because she spoke their language fluently.

She said, "The trouble with me is that I'm an outsider. And that's a very hard thing to be in American life."

It's the birthday of poet John Ashbery, born in Rochester, New York (1927). He was raised on a farm near Lake Ontario. His father was a farmer, and his mother was a biology teacher. He was a member of the "New York school of poets," along with Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara and others. His poetry is often abstract, and has been compared to the paintings of Jackson Pollock and other avant-garde artists. Ashbery said, "I think my poems mean what they say .... There is no message, nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am writing."

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 »