Dec. 10, 2009

Twenty Questions

by Maura Stanton

Who wrote Heart of Darkness? And what's the name
Of Dale Evan's horse? Why did thieves steal
Charlie Chaplin's corpse? Can you explain
Hieroglyphs in shells? How do you feel?
How many grains of (popcorn, rice, sand) fill
This container? Why did they auction off
Maria Callas's underwear? Would you like a pill?
Do you feel tired, perhaps? Is that bed soft?
Can you remember your parents' wedding date?
Your own? Like a glass of milk? Some champagne?
How many rhymes in a sonnet? Something you ate?
Who invented Bacos? Think it will rain?
Lie back now. Shall I bring you some chips?
What's the answer? It's rising to your lips.

"Twenty Questions" by Maura Stanton, from Immortal Sofa. © University of Illinois Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1901 that the first Nobel Prizes were awarded.

The first prize in literature went to Sully Prudhomme, who wrote melancholy, formal poems in French, and whom nobody reads anymore. He said, "In my soul rages a battle without victor. Between faith without proof and reason without charm."

Since 1901, depending on how you count citizenship, 11 Americans have won the Nobel Prize in literature — Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czeslaw Milosz (who had dual citizenship in Poland), Joseph Brodsky, and Toni Morrison. No American has won since Morrison in 1993, and in fact last year the secretary of the Swedish academy publicly complained about American literature. He said, "Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world. … The U.S. is too isolated, too insular."

It's the birthday of Emily Dickinson, (books by this author) born in Amherst in 1830. The famous recluse loved to read, and her favorite writer was Shakespeare, but she kept up with and admired her contemporaries in England and America.

She liked George Eliot, Emily Brontë, and also Charles Dickens — she sent him a letter calling him "dear Dickens," to thank him for teaching her about using language. Her favorite contemporary poets were Robert Browning, John Keats, and especially Elizabeth Barrett Browning, another famous recluse. On the other hand, Dickinson had this to say about Walt Whitman: "I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful." And she said, "Of Poe, I know too little to think — Hawthorne appalls — entices […] of Howells and James, one hesitates."

She said: "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

It's the birthday of poet Carolyn Kizer, (books by this author) born in Spokane, Washington, in 1925. She helped found a poetry journal, Poetry Northwest, and has published eight books of poetry, most recently Cool Calm & Collected (2001). And she chaired important institutions and won big awards like the Pulitzer Prize. But with all these distinctions, she is most proud of something else entirely: her performance of her work. She said, "Dylan Thomas was a success not because he was a great poet, but because he read magnificently. There are only a couple of women who read well, and I'm one of them. I'm modest about my poetry, but I'm not modest about my reading. I've worked hard to be good at it, and I'm proud of it."

It's the birthday of Melvil Dewey, born in Adams Center, New York (1851). He went to Amherst, and to support himself there he worked in the college library, and he decided that it needed to be reorganized. At the time, there was no consistent method that libraries used to organize books. Some numbered shelves, some arranged books by size just to look nice, and some libraries tried to alphabetize the whole library, which meant that every time they got a new book they had to redo the entire system. Dewey saw a better way to do this, but for awhile, he couldn't decide whether to be a missionary or to put his time into reorganizing the library system. But he chose the latter, and he started to figure out a system of categories and subcategories, based on older ideas. As he researched, he wrote in his diary, "My heart is open to anything that's either decimal or about libraries."

And he came up with the Dewey Decimal System, which is still used today in many libraries, a series of classifications divided and subdivided into subjects and assigned a decimal number to each book.

It's the birthday of poet Thomas Lux, (books by this author) born in Northampton, Massachusetts (1946). His books of poetry include Memory's Handgrenade (1972), The Blind Swimmer: Selected Early Poems 1970–1975 (1996), and most recently, God Particles (2008).

He said: "With modernism came this new notion that poetry is something that is not as direct or accessible, and poetry became something that needed to be deciphered, a kind of riddle. […] And, of course, a lot of people are put off by this. A lot of people read poetry, and they don't understand it and it makes them feel resentful. They also tend to think if they don't understand it that means it's good poetry because you're not supposed to understand poetry. […] You can have poems that are clear enough, accessible enough, that people can understand. The best of these are not going to be any less original than those poems that are obscure."

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 »