Jan. 31, 2002

January 31

by David Lehman

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "January 31," by David Lehman from The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry (Scribner Poetry).

January 31

The sky is crumbling into millions of paper dots
the wind blows in my face
so I duck into my favorite barbershop
and listen to Vivaldi and look in the mirror
reflecting the shopfront windows, Broadway
and 104th, and watch the dots blown by the wind
blow into the faces of the walkers outside
& here comes a thin old man swaddled in scarves,
he must be seventy-five, walking slowly,
and in his mind there is a young man dancing,
maybe seventeen years old, on a June evening-
he is that young man, I can tell, watching him walk

It's the birthday of writer Kenzaburo Oe, born in Ose, Japan (1935). His first novel, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (1958), depicts the war's effects on the idyllic life of a rural youth. Oe's life and writing changed in 1963, however, when his son was born with a cranial deformity that caused him to be permanently mentally-handicapped. The following year, Oe wrote A Personal Matter, a novel based on his experiences with his infant son. He told an interviewer, "Every time we surpass one difficulty or another, we feel as though we are a little higher than we were before. We are ascending - like a staircase, somehow…with the birth of my son, my heart opened." Many of his later books, including Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (1969) and My Deluged Soul (1973), were also based on his experiences as his son grew older. Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.

It's the birthday of novelist and children's writer Mordecai Richler, born in Montreal, Canada (1931).

It's the birthday of novelist Norman Mailer, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1923). He had his first bestseller, The Naked and the Dead, which was based upon his experiences in the Philippines in World War Two, at the age of twenty-five. He won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for Armies of the Night, a narrative about the anti-war march on the Pentagon, and the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Executioner's Song, which chronicled the life and death of convicted killer Gary Gilmore.

It's the birthday of poet and writer Thomas Merton, born in Prades, France (1915). He had always been interested in mysticism and monasticism, and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1939. Two years later he entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, and was ordained a priest in 1949. Merton wrote more than sixty books during his lifetime, the most famous of which was Seven Story Mountain (1948), an autobiographical work about his journey from self-indulgence to self-discipline. He said: "Happiness is not a matter of intensity, but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony."

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer John O'Hara, born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (1905), who was one of the most popular and financially successful writers of the nineteen fifties and sixties. He grew up in a small town in which there was obvious tension between its Roman Catholic and Protestant citizens. That was the basis for his first novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934), set in a fictional small town called Gibbsville. O'Hara always wrote at night. He would watch television until 1:00 a.m., and then sit down at the typewriter for several hours. He wrote thirty-six books and more than three hundred short stories. His most famous works include Butterfield 8 (1935), and Pal Joey (1940).

It's the birthday of western novelist Zane Grey, born in Zanesville, Ohio (1872). According to all accounts, he wrote more than fifty novels, and they sold millions of copies around the world. He is best known for his Riders of the Purple Sage and he went on to write fifty-four more books, all in longhand, many of which were made into highly successful movies.

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