Jun. 24, 2009

The Genius of Small-town America

by Norman Williams

Here our fathers stopped their westward push,
Not, God knows, for love of scenery or soil,
But because an ox gave out, an axle broke,
Or a child took with cholera or chills.
Now, their sons cross the fields like roofwalkers,
Chucking dirtclods at the crows, while in the shade
The women mutter of lost limbs and hopes.
Like a periodic curse, a drought this month
Has once more settled on the western plains,
Thickening the creeks, working into wayside barns,
And famishing the stock. On kitchen radios
One hears again the pulpit-pounding talk
And familiar promises of punishment,
That we have ourselves to blame for this,
Who lusted, craved and coveted—
But if sin lingers in these washed-up towns,
It could be only pride or stubbornness:
Each spring another crop of debt is sown,
And, though agencies attach the land,
Outbuildings, crops and unborn young, still
The beak-nosed men walk head-up and proud,
Convinced, against all evidence, that what
They've planted, built or reared is theirs,
And that, come the plague or Democrats,
They will die as they have lived, that is
In their good time, just when and how they choose.

"The Genius of Small-town America" by Norman Williams, from The Unlovely Child. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of boxer Jack Dempsey, born in Manassa, Colorado (1895). His parents were Mormon converts, and they moved from place to place because his dad had trouble finding work. Dempsey dropped out of elementary school to work, and left home when he was 16. He traveled in hobo camps, and soon he realized that he was a good fighter, and he started making a name for himself in Colorado mining towns, calling himself "Kid Blackie." He went on to become the world heavyweight champion, a title he held from 1919 to 1926. He said, "A champion is someone who gets up when he can't."

It's the birthday of St. John of the Cross, born in Hontiveros, Spain (1542). He was a mystic and poet as well as a saint. He grew up in poverty — his parents were silk weavers, his father died when he was young, and he worked at a hospital for the poor to help earn some money for his mother. Along with Saint Theresa, he reformed the Carmelite order. He was arrested for his attempts at reform, and he was treated brutally, given a public lashing once a week. But he wrote his most beautiful poetry while he was in jail. He managed to escape from prison, and he continued to work on Church reform and to write poetry, and even today he is considered one of Spain's greatest poets, with poems like Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul. He is the patron saint of mystics, contemplatives, and Spanish poets.

It's the birthday of satirist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce, (books by this author) nicknamed "Bitter Bierce," born near Horse Cave Creek, Ohio (1842).

He enlisted in the Union Army a week after the Civil War began and fought for four years in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. He was shot in the head during one battle and was shipped to the hospital on a flatcar surrounded by wounded and dying soldiers, an experience that added to his cynicism. After the war ended, he worked on a mapping expedition for the U.S. Army, which took him from Omaha to the West Coast. He had been promised a higher military rank if he completed the job, but the offer fell through, and so he left the military and stayed in San Francisco. At the time, San Francisco was full of outlaws, millionaires who had made their fortunes in the gold rush, sailors, gamblers, and writers. There were six newspapers for the town of 60,000, and the year before, Mark Twain had started working for one of the papers.

Bierce became a journalist there, and within a few years, he was labeled "the most irreverential person on the Pacific Coast," and "the wickedest man in San Francisco." He started writing dark short stories like "Chickamauga" (1889) and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890).

Then both his sons died within a few years — one from pneumonia and one from suicide — and his wife had an affair with another man. He published his best-known work, The Devil's Dictionary (1906), and a few years later, at age 71, he decided to travel to Mexico, where Pancho Villa was leading a revolution, and he was never heard from again. Many people claimed to have seen him in Mexico, but those rumors were never confirmed, and his body was never found.

It's the birthday of poet Stephen Dunn, (books by this author) born in Forest Hills, New York (1939).

It's the birthday of poet John Ciardi, (books by this author) born in Boston, Massachusetts (1916), the son of Italian immigrants. His poetry is not particularly famous, but he published a famous translation of Dante's Divine Comedy in 1954, and a definitive poetry textbook, How Does a Poem Mean? (1959). As far as his own poetry goes, he is best known for his books of poems for children, including The Man Who Sang the Sillies (1961). In "Mummy Slept Late and Daddy Fixed Breakfast," he wrote:
Daddy fixed the breakfast.
He made us each a waffle.
It looked like gravel pudding.
It tasted something awful.

"Ha, ha," he said, "I'll try again.
This time I'll get it right."
But what I got was in between
Bituminous and anthracite.

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 »