Jul. 31, 2009

Concerning the Afterlife, the Indians of Central California Had Only the Dimmest Notions

by Robert Hass

It is morning because the sun has risen.

I wake slowly in the early heat,
   pick berries from the thorny vines.
   They are deep red,
   sugar-heavy, fuzzed with dust.
The eucalyptus casts a feathered shadow
on the house which gradually withdraws.

   After breakfast
you will swim and I am going to read
that hard man Thomas Hobbes
on the causes of the English civil wars.
There are no women in his world,
Hobbes, brothers fighting brothers
over goods.
                 I see you in the later afternoon
Your hair dry-yellow, plaited
from the waves, a faint salt sheen
across your belly and along your arms.
The kids bring from the sea
   intricate calcium gifts—
   black turbans, angular green whelks,
   the whorled opalescent unicorn.

We may or may not
feel some irritation at the dinner hour.
The first stars, and after dark
Vega hangs in the lyre,
the Dipper tilts above the hill.
in Europe Hobbes was haunted by motion.
Sailing or riding, he was suddenly aware
That all things move.
                              We will lie down,
finally, in our heaviness
   and touch and drift toward morning.

"Concerning the Afterlife, the Indians of Central California Had Only the Dimmest Notions" by Robert Hass, from Field Guide. © Yale University Press, 1973. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in London in 1703 that Daniel Defoe (books by this author) was put in a pillory for libel at Temple Bar. He had already stood in the pillory near Cornhill on July 29th and in Cheapside on July 30th as punishment for his crime. Defoe set out in life to become a merchant, but he went bankrupt, so he started writing political pamphlets. He was good at it, and he supported himself that way. But he wrote a pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, which was written satirically from the point of view of the High Church, suggesting that they exterminate dissenters. At first, the High Churchmen (as well as the Dissenters) thought it was serious, and were furious when they realized it was a joke. He was arrested for seditious libel in May of 1703, and in the months between his arrest and his humiliating punishment, he wrote "Hymn to the Pillory." It ended:

    Tell them: The Men that placed him here
    Are Scandals to the Times!
    Are at a loss to find his Guilt,
    And can't commit his Crimes!

By the time he actually had to put his head in the pillory, copies of his poem had circulated around London, and the crowd had turned from blaming Defoe to being on his side. Instead of throwing eggs and rocks at Defoe, which was the usual treatment of criminals in the pillory, they threw flowers and chanted the words to his poem.

After his time in the pillory, Defoe was taken to prison, but Robert Harley, who became the Earl of Oxford, managed to get him out in return for his work as an intelligence agent and a political writer. It wasn't until he was almost 60 that Defoe started writing fiction. In 1719, he published The Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Kim Addonizio, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C. (1954). Her dad was a sportswriter for The Washington Post, and her mom was the tennis champion Pauline Betz. She's the author of Tell Me (2000) and What Is This Thing Called Love (2004), and her fifth book of poetry, Lucifer at the Starlite, is coming out this fall.

When someone asked her what helps her write, she said: "Clearing the decks, in all ways. Shutting out the world, cleaning the room, not answering the phone. … I load up on the errands and other responsibilities on different days, so I can get up in the morning on a writing day and feel it stretching out ahead of me."

It's the birthday of children's fantasy writer J.K. Rowling, (books by this author) born Joanne Rowling in Yate, England (1965).

Rowling grew up in rural England. She tried writing a couple of novels, but never finished them. One day on a cross-country train trip, the idea of Harry Potter just appeared in her mind. She didn't have a pen to write things down, so she said: "Rather than try to write it, I had to think it. And I think that was a very good thing. I was besieged by a mass of detail, and if it didn't survive that journey, it probably wasn't worth remembering." As soon as she got home, she started writing what she did remember.

But her personal life was falling apart. She said: "A mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. … I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

It took J.K. Rowling awhile to find a publisher for her novel, but finally it was published: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (published in the U.S. as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). It started with a print run of 1,000 copies. The last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), had a first print run of 12 million copies in the United States, the largest first printing of any book in history. Altogether, the series has sold more than 400 million copies. She said, "I would like to think that readers enjoy my stories because they are simply good stories."

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 »