Jan. 5, 2009

Illustrated Guide to Familiar American Trees

by Charlie Smith

I don't get it about the natural world.
Like, greenery,
without people in it, is supposed to do what?

City sunlight, I say, how can you beat it—
the walk to the pool after work, shine
caught in the shopkeeper's visor, bursts.

I see myself moving around New York,
snapping my fingers, eating fries.

My ex-wife's out in California.

I wish she was over on Bank Street,
up on the second floor,
and I was on the way there
to call to her from the sidewalk.

There's a cypress on that block, two honey
locusts and an oak. I love those trees
like my own brothers.

"Illustrated Guide to Familiar American Trees" by Charlie Smith, from Word Comix. © W.W. Norton & Co., 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1825 that the writer Alexandre Dumas fought his first duel. He was 23 years old, and he had gotten into a fight with a soldier over a game of billiards. They had a duel with swords. Not only did Alexandre Dumas lose the duel, but his pants fell off in the middle of it.

But 20 years later, he became famous as the author of The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1845).

It's the birthday of journalist Herbert Bayard Swope, (books by this author) born in St. Louis in 1882. He said, "I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure — which is: Try to please everybody."

It's the birthday of novelist Stella Gibbons, (books by this author) born in 1902 in London, England. She wrote a parody of a novel by a writer named Mary Webb, a writer who wrote fatalistic, gloomy novels set in rural places, in the tradition of Thomas Hardy. Gibbons did not like that genre, so she wrote her parody, a novel called Cold Comfort Farm (1932). It's about a cheerful, modern young woman named Flora who goes to live with her brooding, dysfunctional relatives on their old-fashioned farm in rural England. Cold Comfort Farm was a great success, and it's still read today, even though the genre that it was parodying has disappeared.

It's the birthday of Umberto Eco, (books by this author) born in Alessandria, Italy (1932). He was a professor of aesthetics, visual communication, architecture, and semiotics. He wrote critical theory about pop culture. Then one day, a fiction publisher called him up and asked him if he'd like to contribute to an anthology of detective fiction. Eco had never written fiction, but as an academic, he knew what made good fiction, so he decided to give it a try. And instead of a short story, he wrote a 500-page book, a 14th-century whodunit set in a monastery, The Name of the Rose (1980). It sold 2 million copies. He went on to write Foucault's Pendulum (1988) and The Island of The Day Before (1995).

It's the birthday of the poet W.D. Snodgrass, (books by this author) born William De Witt Snodgrass in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania (1926). He wrote poems about his failed marriage, even though personal poetry wasn't trendy in the 1950s. But he kept doing it anyway, and his first book was published in 1959, Heart's Needle, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Snodgrass was one of the people who helped popularize personal poetry, so he is often labeled as one of the founders of "confessional poetry," even though he doesn't like that label. W.D. Snodgrass has also translated songs and poems from many languages, collected in the book Selected Translations (1998).

And it's the birthday of Jack Norworth, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia in 1879. Jack Norworth had never been to a baseball game, but one day in 1908, he was riding the subway and he saw a sign that said "Baseball Today — Polo Grounds," and he started thinking of baseball lyrics. He wrote them down on a piece of scratch paper, and then took them to the composer Albert Von Tilzer, another man who had never seen a baseball game, who went ahead and wrote the music. And the song became very famous: "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

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 »