Saturday

Sep. 30, 2006

Exercise

by W. S. Merwin

SATURDAY, 30 SEPTEMBER, 2006
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Exercise" by W.S. Merwin from Migration: New and Selected Poems. Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission (buy now)

Exercise

First forget what time it is
for an hour
do it regularly every day

then forget what day of the week it is
do this regularly for a week
then forget what country you are in
and practice doing it in company
for a week
then do them together
for a week
with as few breaks as possible

follow these by forgetting how to add
or to subtract
it makes no difference
you can change them around
after a week
both will help you later
to forget how to count

forget how to count
starting with your own age
starting with how to count backward
starting with even numbers
starting with Roman numerals
starting with fractions of Roman numerals
starting with the old calendar
going on to the old alphabet
going on to the alphabet
until everything is continuous again

go on to forgetting elements
starting with water
proceeding to earth
rising in fire

forget fire


Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1452 that the first section of the Gutenberg Bible was published in Mainz, Germany. It was the first book ever printed with movable type, Gutenberg's revolutionary idea. At the time, all existing books were copied out by hand, and in order to be as efficient as possible, scribes had developed a way of writing that was full of abbreviations. Words were written in a dense cursive script, and there was very little space between letters or even words on the page.

It was Gutenberg's genius to imagine an entirely different way of writing, in which all the individual letters would be distinct from each other, rather than connected. That way, he could produce individual blocks with letters on them. He fitted these letter blocks into a frame, coated them with an ink made of linseed oil and soot, and then used an adapted wine press to print text on paper. The revolutionary effect of movable type was the ability to print an infinite number of pages from a small number of letter blocks simply by rearranging them.

Within three decades there were print shops all over the European continent. It is estimated that more books were produced in the 50 years after Gutenberg's invention than scribes had been able to produce in the 1,000 years before that.

Today, about four dozen copies of the Gutenberg Bible survive. One of the most recent copies to come on the market was auctioned in New York in 1987. It consisted of only the first volume, but it was in good condition, and it sold at auction for more than five million dollars.


It's the anniversary of the first edition of Louisa May Alcott's (books by this author) Little Women in 1868. Her real passion was for dark and sensational stories with brilliant, diabolical woman protagonists. But her father, Bronson Alcott, pressured his daughter to write a children's book. She took her father's advice, reluctantly, and Little Women was so popular that she wrote two sequels, Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886).


It's the birthday of poet W.S. Merwin, born in New York City (1927). He said, "I think there's a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there's still time."


It's the birthday of American writer Truman Capote, (books by this author) born Truman Persons in New Orleans (1924). He was the son of a salesman and a 16-year-old beauty queen. He moved to New York City to be near his mother as a boy and applied to the prestigious Trinity School. He was given an IQ test as an entrance exam, and he scored 215, the highest in the school's history.

When he was 17, he dropped out of school and got a job as an errand boy in the art department at The New Yorker magazine. He published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), when he was just 24 years old.


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 »