Aug. 20, 2003

A Physics

by Heather McHugh

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "A Physics," by Heather McHugh, from Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968-1993 (Wesleyan University Press).

A Physics

When you get down to it, Earth
has our own great ranges
of feeling-Rocky, Smoky, Blue-
and a heart that can melt stones.

The still pools fill with sky,
as if aloof, and we have eyes
for all of this-and more, for Earth's
reminding moon. We too are ruled

by such attractions-spun and swaddled,
rocked and lent a light. We run
our clocks on wheels, our trains
on time. But all the while we want

to love each other endlessly-not only for
a hundred years, not only six feet up and down.
We want the suns and moons of silver
in ourselves, not only counted coins in a cup. The whole

idea of love was not to fall. And neither was
the whole idea of God. We put him well
above ourselves, because we meant,
in time, to measure up.

Literary Notes:

The Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland, is 99 years old today. It was established in Dublin on this day in 1904 when an Englishwoman, Annie Horniman, a friend of William Butler Yeats, paid for the conversion of an old theatre on Abbey Street. Plays by Yeats, Lady Gregory, and John Millington Synge were on the playbill that year. It was the first state-funded theatre in the English-speaking world.

Leon Trotsky was fatally wounded on this day in 1940, on the orders of Joseph Stalin. Together with Lenin, Trotsky was one of leaders of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and after Lenin died and Stalin took control, Trotsky became Stalin's main critic. Trotsky thought that the Russian Revolution needed revolutions in other countries, especially in western Europe, to be permanently successful, but Stalin thought the Soviet Union could be self-sufficient. Trotsky called for more democracy, with more power in the hands of the workers instead of Stalin's ruling elite. Stalin exiled Trotsky in 1929, and eventually sent the Spanish communist Ramon Mercador as an agent to assassinate him.

On this day in 1741, the Danish navigator Vitus Bering became the first white man to reach Alaska. Peter the Great, the tsar of Russia, had sent him on an earlier expedition to see if Asia and North America were connected by a land bridge, but Bering never actually saw the North American coast. In 1741 Bering went back and explored the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands.

It's the birthday of the poet Heather McHugh, born in San Diego, California (1948). She's a poet who loves word play. She called herself the "world's shyest child," and she made her first book of poems out of cardboard and ribbon when she was five. She went to school in an old-fashioned four-room schoolhouse, and later at a Catholic school. She said she's "the only writer in America who loved the nuns." Her ninth-grade geography teacher told her she wouldn't get in to Radcliffe College, but McHugh aced her exams and entered Harvard at age 16. While she was at Harvard, she took a graduate class taught by Robert Lowell. She had just published a poem in The New Yorker but she didn't tell anyone about it. She was surrounded by older students, and she smoked cigarette after cigarette so she wouldn't look naïve. She published her first book of poems, Dangers, in 1977. Her latest, Eyeshot, will be out in October.

It's the birthday of H(oward) P(hillips) Lovecraft, born in Providence, Rhode Island (1890). He was a master of the Gothic tale, which is a story of horror and suspense, usually set in a gloomy old castle or monastery with underground passages, dark battlements, and trapdoors. Lovecraft said, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."

It's the birthday of romance fiction writer Jacqueline Susann, born in Philadelphia (1921). She wrote the novel Valley of the Dolls (1976), about three pill-popping actresses who go to the big city to make a splash. Even though critics hated it, it broke all records for sales of a novel. More than anyone before her, she used her public persona and the mass media to sell books. She developed a system for promoting Valley of the Dolls that helped to revolutionize the way books are marketed. She went on coast-to-coast tours, appeared on local radio and television stations, and made personal appearances in bookstores to read and sign autographs. Her manager sent letters to local booksellers and suggested that they buy commercials to promote her appearances.

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