Jan. 9, 2002


by Billy Collins

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Passengers," by Billy Collins from Picnic, Lightning (University of Pittsburgh Press).


At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
with the possible company of my death,
this sprawling miscellany of people—
carry-on bags and paperbacks—
that could be gathered in a flash
into a band of pilgrims on the last open road.
Not that I think
if our plane crumpled into a mountain
we would all ascend together,
holding hands like a ring of skydivers,
into a sudden gasp of brightness,
or that there would be some common place
for us to reunite to jubilize the moment,
some spaceless, pillarless Greece
where we could, at the count of three,
toss our ashes into the sunny air.
It's just that the way that man has his briefcase
so carefully arranged,
the way that girl is cooling her tea,
and the flow of the comb that woman
passes through her daughter's hair . . .
and when you consider the altitude,
the secret parts of the engines,
and all the hard water and the deep canyons below . . .
well, I just think it would be good if one of us
maybe stood up and said a few words,
or, so as not to involve the police,
at least quietly wrote something down.

It's the birthday of novelist Philippa Gregory, born in Nairobi, Kenya (1954), who now lives in Hartlepool, England. She's the author of a trilogy of novels about the Laceys, a family of wealthy 18th-century landowners. Wideacre (1987) was the first in the series.

It's the birthday of Irish playwright Brian Friel, born Bernard Patrick Friel, near Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland (1929). He was working as a teacher in Londonderry when his short stories began appearing in the New Yorker. This early success encouraged him to become a full-time writer. His first major play was Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964); since that time, he has written over two dozen plays, including Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990).

It's the birthday of the 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon, born in Yorba Linda, California (1913). He ran for president in 1960, and lost to John F. Kennedy by only 113,000 out of 69 million votes cast. Two years later, he lost the race for governor of California and announced that he was quitting politics, saying, "You won't have Richard Nixon to kick around any more." But in 1968 he ran for President a second time, this time defeating the Democratic nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey.

On this day in 1909, the Antarctic expedition led by Sir Ernest H. Shackleton was forced to turn back just ninety-seven miles short of reaching the South Pole.

It's the birthday of French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, born in Paris (1908). She's the author of novels and autobiographical works, including Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), but she is best known for her influential study of women in society, The Second Sex (1949). Gloria Steinem said: "If any single human being can be credited with inspiring the woman's movement, it's Simone de Beauvoir."

It's the birthday of the man who created "Blondie"—Murat Bernard (Chic Young), born in Chicago (1901). The strip started in 1930 as the story of a playboy and his flapper girlfriend. After a year or two, a manager at King Features approached Young with a suggestion. "Why don't you have them marry? You know more about married life than you do about dating anyway." Dagwood and Blondie were married on February 13, 1933, and Young's comedy of high society was recast in middle-class suburbia.

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
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show