May 12, 2007

American Image

by Sebastian Matthews

SATURDAY, 12 MAY, 2007
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "American Image" by Sebastian Matthews, from We Generous. © Red Hen Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

American Image

I want to be Walker Evans
or Robert Frank setting up shots

in the street—renegades
in Brooks Brothers suits

with Leicas draped on their chests
snapping shots of the downtrodden,

of churches, bits of billboard, bored
debutantes at posh parties

you'd have to fast-talk your way into;
or aboard an ocean liner, itching

to disembark; down in the boiler room
waiting for the foreman to look away

so you can frame his profile
with an arabesque of pipes

and release valves. I'd want to be out
on assignment taking far fewer rolls

than I'm being paid for, down
south alongside sharecroppers

and the sunburnt poor—trying to steal
moments, not souls, to find the past

inside the present, catch the already
falling out of fashion.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American novelist and poet Rosellen Brown, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1939. Her novels include Tender Mercies (1978), Before and After (1992), and her latest, Half a Heart (2000).

It's the birthday of Farley Mowat, (books by this author) born in Belleville, Ontario (1921). He wrote his first book about his own dog, called The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, and it was published in 1957. He's best known for his books about the Canadian Arctic. His book Never Cry Wolf became a best-seller when it came out in 1963.

It's the birthday of the man who has been called "the father of nonsense," Edward Lear, (books by this author) born in London, England (1812). He was the 20th of his mother's 21 children, almost half of whom had died in infancy. He was raised by his sister Ann, who taught him at an early age how to paint birds and flowers. He went to school only briefly, and then, as a teenager, began to support himself painting shop signs for local merchants and sketching diseased patients for medical textbooks.

At the time, there was a fad for books of illustrated birds, so Edward Lear got into that business and became one of the most successful bird illustrators in the industry. Among his clients was Charles Darwin, who had Lear illustrate the specimens he brought back from his trip on the H.M.S. Beagle.

But Lear had a lot of problems. He suffered from depression, eye problems, and epilepsy. Despite all his success as a painter and illustrator, he felt like an outcast in respectable British society. Then, in 1832, the Earl of Darby invited Lear to come to his estate and paint all the animals in his private zoo, the largest private zoo in the world at the time. Lear agreed, and when he arrived at the estate, he wound up spending most of his free time with the Earl's grandchildren. Lear had never spent any time with children before, and he found that they brought out a whole different side of his personality. He began acting like a clown for them, singing songs, drawing cartoons, and making up humorous poems. And those humorous nonsense poems became the work that we remember Lear for today. He published his first collection of these poems in 1846, called Book of Nonsense (1846).

It's the birthday of actress Katharine Hepburn, born in Hartford, Connecticut (1907). She became a Hollywood star by not doing anything that Hollywood stars were supposed to do. She didn't wear make-up or dresses, she didn't cooperate with the media, and she had a habit of insulting other people in the business. Her looks were unconventional: she had red hair and freckles and sharp cheekbones. But she was one of the best and most popular actresses of the 20th century. She played smart, sexy, independent women who were always able to get the guy in the end. She was a wisecracker, but she was also graceful and charming. She won four Academy Awards and was nominated for eight more. Her films included Bringing Up Baby (1938), The African Queen (1951), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), and On Golden Pond (1981).

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 »