Jul. 29, 2007

The Clasp

by Sharon Olds

SUNDAY, 29 JULY, 2007
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The Clasp" by Sharon Olds, from The Unswept Room. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Clasp
She was four, he was one, it was raining, we had colds,
we had been in the apartment two weeks straight,
I grabbed her to keep her from shoving him over on his
face, again, and when I had her wrist
in my grasp I compressed it, fiercely, for a couple
of seconds, to make an impression on her,
to hurt her, our beloved firstborn, I even almost
savored the stinging sensation of the squeezing, the
expression, into her, of my anger,
"Never, never again," the righteous
chant accompanying the clasp. It happened very
fast-grab, crush, crush,
crush, release-and at the first extra
force, she swung her head, as if checking
who this was, and looked at me,
and saw me-yes, this was her mom,
her mom was doing this. Her dark,
deeply open eyes took me
in, she knew me, in the shock of the moment
she learned me. This was her mother, one of the
two whom she most loved, the two
who loved her most, near the source of love
was this.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, born in Paris (1805). He's remembered for the book Democracy in America (1835), which he wrote after he took a trip to the United States when he was just 26 years old. He wanted to write about the American style of government as a way of improving the government of France. After a brief stop in Newport, he arrived in Manhattan at sunrise May 11, 1831. Over the course of the next nine months, he traveled more than 7,000 miles, using every vehicle then in existence, including steamer, stagecoach, and horse, going as far west as Green Bay, Wisconsin, and as far south as New Orleans.

More than anything else, Tocqueville was impressed by the fact that American democracy actually worked. He wrote, "America demonstrates invincibly one thing that I had doubted up to now: that the middle classes can govern a State. ... Despite their small passions, their incomplete education, their vulgar habits, they can obviously provide a practical sort of intelligence and that turns out to be enough."

He also believed that one of the fundamental characteristics of all Americans was a certain kind of restlessness. He wrote, "An American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and rent it just as the trees are coming into bearing ... he will take up a profession and leave it, settle in one place and soon go off elsewhere. ... In the end, death steps in and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit of happiness, which always escapes him."

It's the birthday of newspaper columnist, playwright, and short-story writer Don Marquis (books by this author), born Donald Robert Perry Marquis in Walnut, Illinois (1878). He said, "Upon entering the newspaper business all the troubles of my earlier years disappeared as if by magic, and I have lived the contented, peaceful, unworried life of the average newspaperman ever since."

Marquis created the characters Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the alley cat. Archy was a former free verse poet who "sees life from the underside now." He wasn't able to reach the shift key so everything he wrote was in lower case. And Mehitabel was an alley cat with questionable morals who insisted that she was Cleopatra in one of her former lives.

After using Archy and Mehitabel in columns for 10 years, Marquis made books out of their writing, beginning with Archy and Mehitabel (1927)

It's the birthday of novelist Booth Tarkington ( books by this author), born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1869). He wrote a whole string of popular novels, including Gentleman from Indiana (1900), The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), and Alice Adams (1921). In 1921, Publishers Weekly polled booksellers who rated Tarkington number one, above Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg.

It's the birthday of the poet Stanley Kunitz (books by this author), born in Worcester Massachusetts (1905). He died in 2006, just a few months shy of his 101st birthday.

His breakthrough as a writer finally came when his mother and sisters had all died. He said, "The disappearance of my family liberated me. It gave me a sense that I was the only survivor and if the experiences of my life, whatever it meant, were to be told, it was within my power to do so, and only within my power. And that gave me strength." He had spent his life writing metaphysical and philosophical poems, but at the age of 65, he published The Testing-Tree, his first book full of poems about his life.

He won the National Book Award when he was 90, for his collection Passing Through, and when he was 95, he became the first U.S. poet laureate of the 21st century. When asked about his longevity, he said, "I don't understand it ... I've had every affliction you can name. I'm curious. I'm active. I garden and I write and I drink martinis. And I love and I care for others. I have so many dear friends, well, I don't want to lose them. I want to see what they do next — and what I do next. I'm not done with my changes."

When asked what his advice was for younger poets, Stanley Kunitz said, "Do something else, develop any other skill ... turn to any other branch of knowledge. Learn how to use your hands. Try woodworking, birdwatching, gardening, sailing, weaving, pottery, archaeology, oceanography, spelunking, animal husbandry — take your pick. Whatever activity you engage in, as a trade or hobby or field study, will tone up your body and clear your head. At the very least it will help you with your metaphors."

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 »