Nov. 4, 2013


by C. K. Williams

Even when the rain falls relatively hard,
only one leaf at a time of the little tree
you planted on the balcony last year,
then another leaf at its time, and one more,
is set trembling by the constant droplets,

but the rain, the clouds flocked over the city,
you at the piano inside, your hesitant music
mingling with the din of the downpour,
the gush of rivulets loosed from the eaves,
the iron railings and flowing gutters,

all of it fuses in me with such intensity
that I can't help wondering why my longing
to live forever has so abated that it hardly
comes to me anymore, and never as it did,
as regret for what I might not live to live,

but rather as a layering of instants like this,
transient as the mist drawn from the rooftops,
yet emphatic as any note of the nocturne
you practice, and, the storm faltering, fading
into its own radiant passing, you practice again.

"Droplets" by C.K. Williams, from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said, "Poetry didn't find me, in the cradle, or anywhere near it: I found it." That's the poet C.K. Williams (books by this author), born in Newark, New Jersey (1936). He grew up in a poor family during the Depression. His early exposure to poetry was through his father, who loved to read to him from One Hundred and One Famous Poems. He went to college to play basketball, but after a required English course, he decided that he wanted to write poems.

After college he spent years trying to live the way he thought a poet should live. He read all the great writers, he worked menial jobs in the hope of gathering material, he befriended other poets, and he wrote a lot of bad poems.

Williams was Jewish, but he hadn't even heard of the Holocaust until he was in his early 20s — his parents had hidden the whole thing from him. Once he learned that it had existed, he read everything he could get his hands on about the Holocaust. Then he went to work on a long poem focused on Anne Frank, written with the language of the Song of Songs. But no matter how hard he worked, he couldn't get it right. It was 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed, and one day he read an article about racism in the South, written by a black novelist. Williams was indignant because he thought that things were going well for the cause of Civil Rights, and he started writing a letter to the editor about how things weren't so bad in the South, at least compared to the horrors of the Holocaust. Just a few sentences into his letter, he realized that he was completely wrong. And in that same moment, as he thought about his own hypocrisy, he had a feeling that he knew how to write the Anne Frank poem. He didn't stop writing until he had finished the poem, and he never looked back. He said, "After the Anne Frank poem ... I seemed to be able to write poems I wanted to write, in a way that satisfied me, that made the struggle with the matter and form and surface of the poems bearable, and, more to the point, purposeful."

"A Day for Anne Frank" became the first poem in his first book, Lies (1969). Many of his early poems were anti-war and political poems. He became famous for writing poems with very long lines, longer than would fit on the page.

He said: "I have three grandsons. Who, of course, are above average — way above average, needless to say. And when I'm with them I feel a sort of primeval hope, their vibrance, their optimism, the way they're so firmly in the world without thinking about it. When I'm not with them and I think about the world, I am not in a very hopeful mood. I'm in a very fearful mood."

It's the birthday of humorist Will Rogers (books by this author), born near present-day Oologah, Oklahoma (1879). He was the last of eight children, the son of a successful rancher. He never graduated from high school, and at an early age began performing in rodeo shows, specializing in roping tricks. His father tried to settle him down by enrolling him in a military academy, but he ran away and hopped a boat to South America. From there he took off to Africa, where he began performing in something called "Texas Jack's Wild West Show." He toured with various circuses in New Zealand and Australia until he finally found his way back to the United States, where he performed in vaudeville shows in New York City.

Rogers went on to become the original king of all media. In his lifetime, he was a Broadway showman, Hollywood actor, traveling public speaker, radio commentator, and newspaper columnist.

His career as a newspaper columnist only lasted for 13 years, but in that time he managed to publish more than 2 million words. His column was syndicated in almost 400 papers; it was the most widely read column of its day.

Will Rogers said: "There is no credit to being a comedian, when you have the whole government working for you. All you have to do is report the facts. I don't even have to exaggerate."

It was on this day in 1918 that British war poet Wilfred Owen (books by this author) was killed in World War I, at the age of 25. In the days before his death, Owen had been excited because he knew the war was almost over. The Germans were retreating and the French had joyfully welcomed the British troops. In his last letter to his mother, Owens wrote: "It is a great life. I am more oblivious than yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells. Of this I am certain: you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here." A few days later, he was trying to get his men across a canal in the early morning hours when they were attacked by enemy fire, and Owen was fatally wounded. The war ended the following week.

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
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