Oct. 4, 2009

Water Table

by Billy Collins

It is on dry sunny days like this one that I find myself
thinking about the enormous body of water
that lies under this house,
cool, unseen reservoir,
silent except for the sounds of dripping
and the incalculable shifting
of all the heavy darkness that it holds.

This is the water that our well was dug to sip
and lift to where we live,
water drawn up and falling on our bare shoulders,
water filling the inlets of our mouths,
water in a pot on the stove.

The house is nothing now but a blueprint of pipes,
a network of faucets, nozzles, and spigots,
and even outdoors where light pierces the air
and clouds fly over the canopies of trees,
my thoughts flow underground
trying to imagine the cavernous scene.

Surely it is no pool with a colored ball
floating on the blue surface.
No grotto where a king would have
his guests rowed around in swan-shaped boats.
Between the dark lakes where the dark rivers flow
there is no ferry waiting on the shore of rock
and no man holding a long oar,
ready to take your last coin.
This is the real earth and the real water it contains.

But some nights, I must tell you,
I go down there after everyone has fallen asleep.
I swim back and forth in the echoing blackness.
I sing a love song as well as I can,
lost for a while in the home of the rain.

"Water Table" by Billy Collins, from The Art of Drowning. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Edward L. Stratemeyer, (books by this author) born in Elizabeth, New Jersey (1862), who created the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, the Rover Boys, and Nancy Drew.

It's the birthday of journalist Brendan Gill, (books by this author) born in Hartford, Connecticut (1914), who wrote for The New Yorker for more than 60 years, publishing fiction, essays, and criticism.

Gill loved his job and he loved New York. He said, "You feel, in New York City, the energy coming up out of the sidewalks, you know that you are in the midst of something tremendous, and if something tremendous hasn't yet happened, it's just about to happen."

It's the birthday of humorist Roy Blount Jr., (books by this author) born in Indianapolis (1941) but raised in the South in a "sort of a suburb of Atlanta" named Decatur, Georgia. He's the author of more than 20 books, covering subjects that range "from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to what dogs are thinking."

But Roy Blount loves to tell stories, and his recent book, Alphabet Juice, is a collection of stories about words — often in stream of consciousness digressions and arranged loosely like a dictionary. The book's subtitle is "The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory." He explained: "Alphabet Juice is my glossographia. Juice as in au jus, juju, power, liquor, electricity. (Loose words and clauses left lying around are like loose live wires — they'll short-circuit, burn out, disempower your lights.) As in influence; as in squeezin's; as in, the other day I saw a woman walking down the street wearing some highly low-cut shorts. On her hourglass figure, the top of those shorts was at about, I would say (not a snap judgment), twenty minutes. Just below that part of the back where some people — she, for instance — have dimples was where her waistband cut across; and just below the waistband, in two-inch letters, was an inspired, if vulgar, brand name: Juicy. (See zaftig.)"

In Alphabet Juice, there are entries for synchronicity; synesthesia; syntax collie; syrup, tallywacker; tango; taxicab; teh (originally a typo for "the"); Terpsichore; Times, The New York; tmesis ("inserting a word or nonsense syllable into another word for intensifying effect, as in … absobloominglutely"); tump; TV, on being on; and TV, being on, p.s.

There are entries for unacceptable, unbeknownst, understand, uneven, unreliable narrator, unscribable,, Utopian and uvula. There are entries for zydeco (comes from beans) and zyzzyva (a class of weevils).

Blount devotes several pages — rife with humor and utter earnestness — to an entry on "y'all," declaring, "People who grew up with this word face the Sisyphean task of correcting people who didn't and who insist that it is sometimes singular."

Roy Blount Jr. once said, "Language seems to me intrinsically comic — noises of the tongue, lips, larynx, and palate rendered in ink on paper with the deepest and airiest thoughts in mind and the harshest and tenderest feelings at heart."

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 »