Thursday

Aug. 1, 2013

Still Life

by Carl Dennis

Now's a good time, before the night comes on,
To praise the loyalty of the vase of flowers
Gracing the parlor table, and the bowl of oranges,
And the book with freckled pages resting on the tablecloth.
To remark how these items aren't conspiring
To pack their bags and move to a place
Where stillness appears to more advantage.
No plan for a heaven above, beyond, or within,
Whose ever-blooming bushes are rustling
In a sea breeze at this very moment.
These things are focusing all their attention
On holding fast as time washes around them.
The flowers in the vase won't come again.
The page of the book beside it, the edge turned down,
Will never be read again for the first time.
The light from the window's angled.
The sun's moving on. That's why the people
Who live in the house are missing.
They're all outside enjoying the light that's left them.
Lucky for them to find when they return
These silent things just as they were.
Night's coming on and they haven't been frightened off.
They haven't once dreamed of going anywhere.

"Still Life" by Carl Dennis, from Ranking the Wishes. © Penguin Poets, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Herman Melville (books by this author), born in New York City, (1819). When he was 20, he worked as a cabin boy on a ship that went to Liverpool and back, the first of his many voyages. In 1841, he joined the crew of the whaler Acushnet. Inspired by his adventures at sea, Melville returned to New York and settled down to write about his travels.

After Melville got married, had four children, and moved to a farm in Massachusetts, he became friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne and went to work on Moby-Dick. Hawthorne encouraged him to make the novel an allegory, not just another adventure story. Melville became consumed with writing Moby-Dick. When he finished the novel he wrote to Hawthorne (to whom he also dedicated the book), "I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb." He thought it was his best book yet.

But when Moby-Dick came out in 1851, the public did not agree. It was too psychological. His American publisher only printed a few thousand copies, and most of those never even sold. After his next novel, Pierre (1852), got terrible reviews, publishers stopped wanting to publish Melville's work. The manuscript of his final work, Billy Budd, was found in his desk after he died, by which time he had become so obscure that The New York Times called him "Henry Melville" in his obituary.

It's the birthday of the first professional woman astronomer, Maria Mitchell, born in Nantucket, Massachusetts (1818). She was the third child of 10 born into a New England Quaker family. She was taught a bit by her father but largely self-educated. Her parents encouraged their daughters as well as their sons to excel, and she became a noted scientist, which was very rare for a woman back then. She was the first to discover a comet with the use of a telescope, in 1847, and was the first woman admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She taught astronomy at Vassar and had a crater on the moon named for her.

She said, "Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God."

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 »