Monday

Feb. 27, 2006

Prego

by Ingrid Wendt

MONDAY, 27 FEBRUARY, 2006
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Prego" by Ingrid Wendt from Surgeonfish. © WordTech Editions. Reprinted with permission.

Prego

Ask for something, Per
favore
, please, the answer is
Prego. Please.

Thank you, Grazie, thank you,
you say. Instead of you're welcome?
Prego. The answer is please.

Prego, listen, here in Italy, every
time you think you're polite, this lift
of the verbal eyebrow, this rise

and fall of the voice like a hand
on its way to your shoulder, insistent
lifeline picking you up,

letting you go
again. No problem! Prego
pulls up the covers and tucks you in.

Cape of Saint Martin. Communion
wafer on each Italian tongue. Prego.
Please, Prego, I pray to you,

Prego, don't
worry. Let me
do something for you.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1860 that the photographer Mathew Brady took the first of several portraits of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had come to New York City to give an anti-slavery speech at the Cooper Union and he thought a portrait might help his presidential campaign.

Brady was one of the first Americans to get into photography, and within a few years he was known as one of the best portrait photographers in the country. Brady was the first person to take a photograph of an American president when he photographed President Zachary Taylor in 1849.

The portrait was difficult to take, in part because Lincoln was so tall. Brady usually used a head clamp to immobilize his subjects, but the clamp didn't reach Lincoln's head. So Lincoln had to stand absolutely still for several minutes of his own free will. The photograph worked out, though, and it was published on the cover of Harper's Weekly. Lincoln later claimed the photograph and the Cooper's Union speech had made him president.


It's the birthday of novelist and humorist Peter De Vries, born in Chicago, Illinois (1910). His parents were immigrants from Holland, and he grew up in a Dutch section of Chicago. He later said, "In addition to being immigrants, and not able to mix well with the Chicago Americans around us, we were Dutch Reformed Calvinists ... who, in fact, had considerable trouble mixing with one another. We were the elect, and the elect are barred from everything, you know, except heaven."

He eventually rebelled against his upbringing, but he never quite got over the strangeness of worldly things, and it inspired him to begin writing satirical fiction. He got a part-time job as an associate editor at Poetry magazine, and while working for the magazine, he wrote an essay about the work of James Thurber, and the two men became friends. Thurber later invited De Vries to join the writing staff of the New Yorker, where De Vries worked on cartoons, supplying captions for pictures that other people drew, and he also wrote humorous stories for the magazine.

De Vries went on to publish many humorous novels, including Comfort Me With Apples (1956) and The Tents of Wickedness (1959). But by the late 1950s, his work grew darker when his young daughter Emily came down with leukemia. De Vries began to spend more and more of his days at the hospital with his daughter. In a letter to a friend at the time he wrote, "One trip through a children's ward and if your faith isn't shaken, you're not the type who deserves any faith."

His daughter died in 1961, and the following year he published an autobiographical novel called The Blood of the Lamb (1962), about a man named Don Wanderhope who grows up in a strictly religious family only to lose his faith when his daughter dies. It was the darkest book De Vries had ever published. Most of his readers were shocked at the time but critics now consider it his masterpiece.


It's the birthday of Irwin Shaw, born in the Bronx, New York City (1913). He wrote a series of formulaic, potboiler novels, such as The Young Lions (1948) and Rich Man, Poor Man (1970). But at the same time he was publishing a series of dark short stories in the New Yorker magazine and collecting them in books such as Sailor Off the Bremen (1939) and Welcome to the City (1942). Critics consider these short stories his most important work. The most well known of these stories is "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses."

It's the birthday of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, born in Portland, Maine (1807). The most well-known and best loved poet of his lifetime, he wrote poems such as "Evangeline" (1947), "The Song of Hiawatha" (1855), and "Paul Revere's Ride" (1863). And in "The Village Blacksmith" (1841) he wrote,

"Under a spreading chestnut tree,
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands."


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 »