May 3, 2007

Old South School

by Rosie King

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Old South School" by Rosie King, from Sweetwater, Saltwater: Poems by Rosie King. © Hummingbird Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Old South School

The sidewalk my feet once knew in every weather
still heads straight
to the corner of Martin's drugstore,
still turns north on Elm, where
the white-belted boys on safety patrol
held their arms out for us, past the red and white pole
at Mickey's, king of crewcuts,
and stops at the little flight of steps,
plinth of chipped concrete by the kindergarten door—
locked. It's summer, and all the windows
now stuccoed muddy brown,
so even when the kids are at their desks,
they can't see out.

I want my yellow slicker,
my locker by the art room stairs
where once in a morning of thunder,
from the stairwell's high window
dark clouds blew away
and just in time
for walking home
the sun poured down.

A crow now,
flapping and cawing high above the west steps,
and there, on top of the entrance columns, stone claws
clinging to the eaves—tiny gargoyles grinning.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of playwright and screenwriter William Inge, born in Independence, Kansas (1913). He wrote Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957).

It's the birthday of songwriter and playwright Betty Comden, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1915). She and Adolph Green had one of the longest-running collaborations in the history of Broadway. Together they wrote the lyrics for On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), Subways are for Sleeping (1961), Hallelujah, Baby (1967), and the movie Singin' in the Rain (1952).

It's the birthday of the poet, essayist, and novelist May Sarton, (books by this author) born in Wondelgem, Belgium (1912). Her family was forced to flee the country during World War I, so she grew up in Massachusetts and eventually settled in New York City. After an attempt at becoming an actor, she began writing books of poetry, as well as many novels, including Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965). Then, in the last 15 years of her life, she published a series of journals about aging, including At Seventy (1984) and After the Stroke (1988). She wrote about her daily habits, gardening, washing the dishes, taking care of her pets, looking at the ocean. She referred to her journals as "the sacramentalization of ordinary life."

It's the birthday of Niccolò Machiavelli, (books by this author) born in Florence, Italy (1469). He grew up at an extremely unstable period of Italian history. Italy wasn't even a country at the time, but just a collection of city-states that were constantly at war with each other. By the time he was 30, Machiavelli became the secretary to Florence's governing council, which meant he was the most influential bureaucrat in the city.

But at the height of Machiavelli's career, the influential Medici family took power in Florence, overthrowing the elected city council and purging the government of enemies, including Machiavelli. He lost his government position, and then the authorities arrested him and threw him in a dungeon, where he was tortured for 22 days.

Machiavelli was eventually released from prison and sentenced to house arrest. He decided that the only way to get his life back was to offer some kind of gift to the Medici family, and the thing he had to give was his knowledge of politics. So he holed up in his tiny villa just outside of Florence and set out to write a handbook, incorporating everything he knew about being an effective ruler in a dangerous and volatile world. It took him just a few months to complete his book in 1513, and that was The Prince, the book for which he is remembered today.

Machiavelli's main point in The Prince is that an effective ruler should use whatever means possible to keep his country secure and peaceful. He wrote, "Men must be either pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries, but not for grievous ones. So any injury a prince does a man should be of a kind where there is no fear of revenge."

Despite Machiavelli's hopes, The Prince didn't win over the Medicis. A few years later, a new republic was established in Italy, but Machiavelli's name had already become so associated with evil and violence that he wasn't able to get another government job for the rest of his life. Today, the word "Machiavellian" has come to mean "marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith."

Niccolò Machiavelli said, "It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both."

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 »