Oct. 30, 2013

These Few Precepts

by Joyce Sutphen

            (For Marna)

I said to her, don't leave your life
scattered in boxes across the country,

don't slip away without tying down
the hatch, don't walk a mile out of

your way to avoid a crack, don't
worry about breaking your mother's

back. I'm sorry, I said, that I was
stupid when I married; I'm sorry I

chose for right instead of love, for
truth instead of beauty. They aren't

always the same thing you know,
despite what Keats said. Don't try

to do it all alone, and if you fail,
think of how well you've failed

and how all you really need is a good
view of the sky or a bit of something

—a flower petal or speckled stone—
Held close enough for the eye to

drink it in, and remember, I said,
I'll always love you, no matter what.

"These Few Precepts" by Joyce Sutphen, from First Words. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1938 that a cylindrical Martian spaceship landed in Grover's Mill, New Jersey, and began incinerating onlookers with an alien heat ray, an event that was covered by the Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations, and that caused widespread alarm and mass hysteria. News of the attack interrupted a program of live dance music, the reports growing more frequent and ominous as the hour wore on, until the New Jersey state militia had been obliterated and three Martian tripod battle machines began ravaging the landscape.

Of course, the broadcast was a hoax, a cleverly crafted Halloween prank composed of simulated on-the-spot news bulletins based on the H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds. The broadcast had been prefaced with the announcement that what would follow was a dramatic presentation by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air, but many listeners missed the introduction and panic ensued. People in New Jersey fled the area convinced they could smell poison gas and see fiery flashes from the tripods in the distance.

It has been estimated that of the 6 million people who heard the original broadcast, more than 1.5 million believed it to be true and more than a million others were genuinely terrified, and contemporary accounts tell of police stations swamped with calls. Within a month there were more than 12,000 newspaper articles on the broadcast and its impact, and as far away as Germany Adolf Hitler is said to have cited it as "evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy." Many listeners sued the network for mental anguish, claims that were all denied save one for a pair of size nine black shoes, by a man from Massachusetts who complained he'd had to spend what he'd saved for new shoes to escape the invading Martians. Welles insisted that that claim be reimbursed.

Welles and the Mercury Theatre were censured, but the broadcast secured Welles an instant, notorious fame. In 1988, Grover's Mills, New Jersey, celebrated its hour of fame by installing a Martian Landing Site monument near Grover's Mill Pond, not far from the remains of a water tower shot to pieces by its frightened residents 50 years before.

It's the birthday of the poet and critic Ezra Pound (books by this author), born in 1885 in Hailey, Idaho. Pound is famous for championing the Modernist movement, and he did this by celebrating and encouraging other writers like W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, H. D., James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot. He was Yeats's personal secretary, and he wrote articles praising Joyce (and also sent him money and spare clothes,) and he is most famous for taking T.S. Eliot's huge poem The Waste Land and suggesting cuts line by line, and eventually cutting out half of it.

After college, Ezra Pound moved to London, then to Paris, and then in the 1920s to Italy. He stayed in Italy during WWII, and he worked as a propagandist for the Axis powers, and in 1945 he was arrested for treason, and sent back to the U.S. to be tried. He was acquitted the next year, but under the condition that he was mentally ill, so he was put in an asylum. He had many visitors, poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, and he continued to write, to work on his Cantos, his major work, which was published in ten sections between 1925 and 1969. He even won awards while he was in the asylum. Finally in 1958, after many years of letters and appeals from writers, Pound was released, and he went back to Italy for the rest of his life.

It's the birthday of journalist and biographer Robert Caro (books by this author), born in New York City (1936), who has spent the last thirty years writing a four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, for which he has read 34 million documents at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, and he has conducted more than 1000 interviews. He lived in Johnson's hometown for three years, so that he could get to know the people there well enough that they would open up to him. He also tracked down every living member of Johnson's grammar school class. The third volume of the biography Master of the Senate came out in 2002 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

It's the birthday of the second president of the United States, John Adams, born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1735. While he was young he kept a diary, filled with his observations of people and events, and he used this technique after he grew up and went to Harvard and became a lawyer—he would make detailed notes on cases and then study them and reflect on them later. He was a good writer and philosopher, famous for the articles he wrote in opposition to the British Stamp Act, articles that linked that opposition to the ideals of the first Puritans.

John Adams said, "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide."

Today is the birthday of the man who said, "Television makes so much at its worst, that it can't afford to do its best." That's the pioneering broadcast journalist Fred W. Friendly, born Ferdinand Friendly Wachenheimer in New York City (1915). While still a boy, Fred and his family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where after college, Fred changed his name and began work as a reporter for the local radio station. He served as a war correspondent in World War II and joined CBS in 1950. Along with his colleague Edward R. Murrow, whom he'd first worked with in radio, Friendly essentially invented the news documentary for television. Weaving together unrehearsed interviews, reports from the field, and original film clips, his work earned him 10 Peabody Awards over his career. He worked as a producer for Murrow's influential "See it Now" documentaries, including his exposé on Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare, and soon took the helm as president of CBS News. A large persuasive man, with strongly held opinions, he frequently butted heads with the network executives over their commitment to hard news over commercial interests. His forthright criticism of the network's priorities caused him to leave CBS in 1966 when coverage of a hearing on Vietnam was scrapped in place of a rerun of I Love Lucy.

Friendly was an outspoken advocate for fairness and ethics in journalism, and after leaving CBS, he developed a series of popular seminars for public television that brought together journalists, educators, and politicians to discuss the most pressing issues of the day. He died at his home in the Bronx in 1998 at the age of 82. His colleague Dan Rather remembered him as "a fierce and mighty warrior for the best [...] principles in journalism, [...] for his friends, and for his country. He never gave up, he never gave in; he never backed down, and he never backed up."

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 »