Dec. 30, 2013

No Hemlock Rock (don't kill yourself)

by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Don't kill yourself. Don't kill yourself.
Don't. Eat a donut, be a blown nut.
That is, if you're going to kill yourself,
stand on a street corner rhyming
seizure with Indonesia, and wreck it with
racket. Allow medical terms.
Rave and fail. Be an absurd living ghost,
if necessary, but don't kill yourself.

Let your friends know that something has
passed, or be glad they've guessed.
But don't kill yourself. If you stay, but are
bat crazy you will batter their hearts
in blooming scores of anguish; but kill
yourself, and hundreds of other people die.

Poison yourself, it poisons the well;
shoot yourself, it cracks the bio-dome.
I will give badges to everyone who's figured
this out about suicide, and hence
refused it. I am grateful. Stay. Thank
you for staying. Please stay. You
are my hero for staying. I know
about it, and am grateful you stay.

Eat a donut. Rhyme opus with lotus.
Rope is bogus, psychosis. Stay.
Hocus Pocus. Hocus Pocus.
Dare not to kill yourself. I won't either.

"No Hemlock Rock (don't kill yourself)" by Jennifer Michael Hecht from Who Said. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said, "I always prefer to believe the best of everybody, it saves so much trouble." That's (Joseph) Rudyard Kipling (books by this author), born in Bombay, India (1865), best known for his books Kim (1901) and The Jungle Book (1894).

Kipling's father was a British artist who got an appointment to run an art school in Bombay, India, and it was there in Bombay that Kipling grew up surrounded by Hindu servants. He loved his home with its huge garden full of flowering trees. Since he was below the age of caste, he was allowed to explore the city freely and meet all kinds of people who told him ghost stories and taught him songs that would have shocked his parents had they understood the language as well as he did.

But after a series of typhoid and cholera outbreaks, Kipling's parents decided to send him back to England for his own safety. They arranged for him to live at the house of a couple they'd contacted through an ad in a newspaper. The woman who ran the house turned out to be much stricter than Kipling's parents. He was constantly being thrown in the basement for various offenses, and he was once sent to school with a sign on his back that said, "Liar." He later said, "That made me pay attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell: and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort." One of his frequent punishments was to be sent to his room to read the Bible, which he loved.

He went to an army school for lower-middle-class boys and spent all his time reading and telling jokes. His father worried that after graduation Kipling would move to London to become a bohemian; so instead, he was sent off to the northwest corner of India where the British were fighting a war with Afghanistan. Kipling got a job there as one of only two staff members on the Civil and Military Gazette, a daily newspaper for British soldiers.

Living in such dangerous circumstances, Kipling developed insomnia that he suffered from for the rest of his life. And so on top of the 15 hours a day he spent writing newspaper articles about the war, he stayed up late at night writing fiction and poetry for local newspapers. He published his first collection of poems, Departmental Ditties and Other Verses (1886), and his first collection of stories, Plain Tales from the Hills (1888). He said, "If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." After six years of publishing his work, he sold everything he'd written for 250 pounds to a company that began selling paperback editions of his collected works in railway stations around India.

Those paperback editions became more successful than anyone had ever expected, and suddenly magazines and newspapers were begging Kipling to write for them. Though he'd never fought in a battle himself, his poems about the lives of soldiers became classics among British soldiers around the world. He moved back to London where he'd become a literary celebrity, which made him uncomfortable.

So he traveled the world for a few years and finally settled in Vermont. And it was there, in a rented cottage surrounded by snow, he began to reimagine the India of his childhood, and he wrote the book for which he's best known today, The Jungle Book (1894), about a boy raised by wolves who grows up with the other jungle animals.

Kipling was mainly considered a poet in his own lifetime, and he was offered both a knighthood and the post of British poet laureate. He turned both offers down. In 1907, he became the first British writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In his poem, "The Appeal," Kipling wrote:

It I have given you delight
        By aught that I have done,
Let me lie quiet in that night
        Which shall be yours anon:

And for the little, little, span
        The dead are born in mind,
Seek not to question other than
        The books I leave behind.

It was on this date in 1924 that astronomer Edwin Hubble announced the discovery of other galaxies. At the time, it was thought that our Milky Way galaxy represented the entirety of the universe. Hubble was studying the Andromeda Nebula using the 100-inch Hooker Telescope at Mount Wilson observatory in California. With a weaker telescope, nebulae just looked like clouds of glowing gas, but with the Hooker telescope — the most powerful telescope in the world at that time — Hubble was able to distinguish individual stars within the nebula. One of the stars in the Andromeda Nebula turned out to be a Cepheid variable: a particular type of star that pulsates and is very bright. Astronomers had figured out a decade earlier that, by observing a Cepheid variable and measuring its brightness and the length of time it takes to go from bright to dim and back again, they could calculate the star's distance from the Earth. Hubble crunched the numbers and realized that the star he was observing was 800,000 light-years away, more than eight times the distance of the farthest star in the Milky Way. It was then that he realized that the "cloud of gas" he'd been observing was really another vast galaxy that was very far away. He renamed the Andromeda Nebula the "Andromeda Galaxy," and went on to discover 23 more separate galaxies. His findings proved that, unimaginably vast though it seemed to us, our Milky Way was just one of many little islands of stars.

It's the birthday of novelist, poet, and composer Paul Bowles (books by this author), born in New York City (1910). Bowles studied briefly at the University of Virginia, choosing the school because Poe had gone there, but he left to study music in Paris. He became a composer, music critic, and poet, writing musical scores for more than 30 plays, many of them on Broadway, and for movies as well. He did not devote himself to writing until after World War II.

His first and most famous novel was The Sheltering Sky (1949), about an American couple travelling in Morocco. In it, Bowles wrote: "The desert landscape is always at its best in the half-light of dawn or dusk. The sense of distance lacks: a ridge nearby can be a far-off mountain range, each small detail can take on the importance of a major variant on the countryside's repetitious theme. The coming of day promises a change; it is only when the day had fully arrived that the watcher suspects it is the same day returned once again — the same day he has been living for a long time, over and over, still blindingly bright and untarnished by time."

The novel helped cause a U.S. literary migration to Tangier, and he became a resident there in 1952.

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 »