Jul. 28, 2013


by Gerald Stern

Once, when there were no riches, somewhere in southern
Mexico I lost my only pen in the
middle of one of my dark and flashy moments
and euchered the desk clerk of my small hotel
out of his only piece of bright equipment
in an extravagance of double-dealing,
nor can I explain the joy in that and how I
wrote for my life, though unacknowledged, and clearly
it was unimportant and I had the money and
all I had to do was look up the Spanish and
I was not for a second constrained and there was
no glory, not for a second, it had nothing to
do with the price of the room, for example, it only
made writing what it should be and the life we
led more rare than what we thought and tested
the art of giving back, and some place near me,
as if there had to be a celebration
to balance out the act of chicanery,
a dog had started to bark and lights were burning.

"Pluma" by Gerald Stern, from Last Blue. © Norton, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet John Ashbery (books by this author), born in Rochester, New York (1927). He grew up on his family's fruit farm near Lake Ontario. He went to a small, rural school, and although they read some poetry, all of it was old. Then he won a contest, and the prize was Louis Untermeyer's anthology Modern American and British Poetry. He didn't understand many of these contemporary poems, but he was fascinated by them — poems by W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. He went on to Harvard, and he published his first book, Some Trees (1956), when he was 29. He has been publishing ever since. His most recent collection is Quick Question, which came out last year. He was presented with a National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2012.

He said: "I don't quite understand about understanding poetry. I experience poems with pleasure: whether I understand them or not I'm not quite sure. I don't want to read something I already know or which is going to slide down easily: there has to be some crunch, a certain amount of resilience."

It's the birthday of the philosopher Karl Popper (books by this author), born in Vienna (1902). He was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. He came up with the theory that what defines a scientific idea is that it can be falsified. He realized that the real work of scientists is not to look for evidence that their theories are correct, but to look as hard as they can for evidence that their theories are false. The closest a scientist can ever come to proving that his or her theory is true is failing to find evidence that the theory is false. Popper used this same theory to argue that astrology, metaphysics, Marxist history, and Freudian psychoanalysis were not sciences because there is no way they could ever be falsified. He published his ideas in The Logic of Discovery (1934) and became famous.

It's the birthday of children's author Beatrix Potter (books by this author), born in South Kensington, England (1866). She is best known for her 23 illustrated storybooks about Peter Rabbit.

She said, "Believe there is a great power silently working all things for good, behave yourself and never mind the rest."

It's the birthday of the novelist Malcolm Lowry (books by this author), born in Cheshire, England (1909) whose masterpiece is Under the Volcano, set during the Day of the Dead in Mexico, 1938, about a former British consul who, like Lowry himself, has a problem with alcohol and a troubled marriage.

Lowry died a mysterious death caused by alcohol and an overdose of sleeping pills in 1957. No one is sure if it was a suicide or not, but it happened to fall on the same date as the suicide of a childhood friend.

Lowry composed his own epitaph:
Malcom Lowry
Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank, daily,
And died playing the ukulele.

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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