Jun. 11, 2013

In Spite of Everything, the Stars

by Edward Hirsch

Like a stunned piano, like a bucket
of fresh milk flung into the air
or a dozen fists of confetti
thrown hard at a bride
stepping down from the altar,
the stars surprise the sky.
Think of dazed stones
floating overhead, or an ocean
of starfish hung up to dry. Yes,
like a conductor's expectant arm
about to lift toward the chorus,
or a juggler's plates defying gravity,
or a hundred fastballs fired at once
and freezing in midair, the stars
startle the sky over the city.

And that's why drunks leaning up
against abandoned buildings, women
hurrying home on deserted side streets,
policemen turning blind corners, and
even thieves stepping from alleys
all stare up at once. Why else do
sleepwalkers move toward the windows,
or old men drag flimsy lawn chairs
onto fire escapes, or hardened criminals
press sad foreheads to steel bars?
Because the night is alive with lamps!
That's why in dark houses all over the city
dreams stir in the pillows, a million
plumes of breath rise into the sky.

"In Spite of Everything, the Stars" by Edward Hirsch, from Wild Gratitude. © Knopf, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the novelist William Styron (books by this author), born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1925. As a teenager, he enlisted in the Marines to fight in World War II, but by the time he'd finished training and set sail for Japan, the war had ended. He moved to Brooklyn, New York, and got a job as an office boy at the McGraw-Hill publishing house. He was supposed to write book jacket copy, but he was so disgusted with most of the books that he filled all his summaries with insults and foul language. After throwing several paper airplanes and water balloons out the window of his office, he got fired. So he decided to try to make it as a writer.

In a letter to his father, he said: "Writing for me is the hardest thing in the world, but also a thing which, once completed, is the most satisfying. ... I am no prodigy but, Fate willing, I think I can produce art." In 1951, when he was 26 years old, he published his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness. It's the story of a beautiful young woman named Peyton Loftis who commits suicide. It got great reviews, and critics compared Styron to William Faulkner.

Styron was awarded the Rome Prize, and before his time in Italy, he decided to spend a summer in Paris. There he met a group of ex-pat writers that included Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton, and James Baldwin. He said, "I had just published a first novel and was a celebrity, though one of very low rank since few of the Americans in Paris had heard of my book, let alone read it." He was only in Paris for about six weeks, but he helped found The Paris Review, which debuted in 1953. Styron was one of the first writers interviewed for the "Art of Fiction" section. Matthiessen and Plimpton conducted the interview, and they wrote: "Styron, shading his eyes, peers down into his coffee. He is a young man of good appearance, though not this afternoon; he is a little paler than is healthy in this quiet hour when the denizens of the quarter lie hiding, their weak eyes insulted by the light." In that interview, they asked him: "Do you enjoy writing?" and Styron replied: "I certainly don't. I get a fine, warm feeling when I'm doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let's face it, writing is hell." At the end of the interview, Matthiessen and Plimpton asked Styron about the purpose of young writers. He replied: "The purpose of a young writer is to write, and he shouldn't drink too much. He shouldn't think that after he's written one book he's God Almighty and air all his immature opinions in pompous interviews. Let's have another cognac and go up to Le Chapelain."

Styron went on to write The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), Sophie's Choice (1979), Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990), and The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps (2009).

He said, "The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis, and we'd have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads."

It's the birthday of poet David Lehman (books by this author), born in New York City (1948). He started out writing poems in the style of his favorite New York poets, including Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery, a group known as the New York School. He has even written a book about those poets, called The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (1998). In 1995, Lehman went to a poetry reading by the poet Robert Bly, where Bly announced that he had been writing a poem a day every day before he got out of bed in the morning. Lehman liked the idea so he decided to try it himself, beginning in January 1996. He published his daily poems in the collections The Daily Mirror (2000) and The Evening Sun (2002).

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
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