Aug. 6, 2009

Cherishing What Isn't

by Jack Gilbert

Ah, you three women whom I have loved in this
long life, along with the few others.
And the four I may have loved, or stopped short
of loving. I wander through these woods
making songs of you. Some of regret, some
of longing, and a terrible one of death.
I carry the privacy of your bodies
and hearts in me. The shameful ardor
and the shameless intimacy, the secret kinds
of happiness and the walled-up childhoods.
I carol loudly of you among trees emptied
of winter and rejoice quietly in summer.
A score of women if you count love both large
and small, real ones that were brief
and those that lasted. Gentle love and some
almost like an animal with its prey.
What is left is what's alive in me. The failing
of your beauty and its remaining.
You are like countries in which my love
took place. Like a bell in the trees
that makes your music in each wind that moves.
A music composed of what you have forgotten.
That will end with my ending.

"Cherishing What Isn't" by Jack Gilbert, from The Dance Most of All. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1945 that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan.

On August 5, the bomb was loaded onto a specially designed B-29 bomber. It contained 2.2 pounds of uranium. The bomb was dropped over Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. It exploded 1,900 feet above the ground. Capt. Robert Lewis watched the explosion from his cockpit and wrote in his journal, "My God, what have we done?" About 80,000 people died instantly, and 60,000 more would die from their injuries in the coming months.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (books by this author) was born 200 years ago today in Lincolnshire, England (1809). He's one of the most popular English-language poets ever. It was Tennyson who first penned "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all" and the phrase "Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die." He also wrote, "My strength is as the strength of ten, / Because my heart is pure."

Tennyson's famous lyric poems include "Break, break, break," "Tears, idle tears" and "Crossing the Bar."

One of Tennyson's most anthologized pieces is "The Lady of Shalott," a melodramatic Victorian ballad drawing on myths and legends associated with King Arthur. The poem enjoyed a pop culture resurgence after it was recited at length in the 1985 Anne of Green Gables television movie.

Many consider Tennyson's masterpiece to be "In Memoriam A.H.H." He started writing the elegy in 1833 after his friend Arthur Hallam had a cerebral hemorrhage and died suddenly. Tennyson was grief-stricken, melancholy by nature, and on the verge of suicide. Hallam was Tennyson's closest friend: The two met as undergraduates at Cambridge at a meeting of a literary club on campus, "The Apostles." They had traveled together through out Europe, and some scholars speculate that their relationship was more than platonic. Eventually, Hallam had become engaged to his Tennyson's sister.

In his great grief, Tennyson wrote a poem, "In Memoriam A.H.H.," in which he questioned the tenets of faith, morality, and immortality. He wrote: "Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation's final law – / Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shriek'd against his creed." And, "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.

It wasn't until 1850 that he published the poem, 17 years after Hallam's death. The year 1850 marked a watershed for Tennyson in many ways. That year, he was appointed poet laureate of England, succeeding William Wordsworth. Tennyson would keep the position for 42 years, till his death in 1892, the longest by far that anyone ever held that post.

And that year, 1850, he married Emily Sellwood, whom he had known since his childhood. He later said, "The peace of God came into my life when I wedded her." He and Emily named their first son Hallam Tennyson after his friend Arthur Hallam, for whom he'd written the great poem.

To celebrate the bicentenary of Tennyson's birth this year, there are a number of planned events, including guided walks in the villages he grew up in, poetry readings, an art exhibition, "Tennyson Transformed," a Country Dance at Alford with music of Tennyson's era, and the Tennyson Society's Conference at the University of Lincoln.

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 »