Sep. 20, 2003

The Coffee Cup

by Donald Hall

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The Coffee Cup," by Donald Hall, from Old and New Poems (Ticknor and Fields).

The Coffee Cup

The newspaper, the coffee cup, the dog's
   impatience for his morning walk:
These fibers braid the ordinary mystery.
   After the marriage of lovers
the children came, and the schoolbus
   that stopped to pick up the children,

and the expected death of the retired
   mailman Anthony "Cat" Middleton
who drove the schoolbus for a whole
   schoolyear, a persistence enduring
forever in the soul of Marilyn
   who was six years old that year.

We dug a hole for him. When his widow
   Florence sold the Cape and moved to town
to live near her daughter, the Mayflower
   van was substantial and unearthly.
Neither lymphoma nor a brown-and-white
   cardigan twenty years old

made an exception, not elbows nor
   Chevrolets nor hills cutting blue
shapes on blue sky, not Maple Street
   nor Main, not a pink-striped canopy
on an ice cream store, not grass.
   It was ordinary that on the day

of Cat's funeral the schoolbus arrived
   driven by a woman called Mrs. Ek,
freckled and thin, wearing a white
   bandana and overalls, with one
eye blue and the other gray. Everything
   is strange; nothing is strange:

yarn, the moon, gray hair in a bun,
   New Hampshire, putting on socks.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Ray Gonzalez, born in El Paso, Texas (1952). He's the author of poetry collections such as The Heat of Arrivals (1996) and short story collections such as The Ghost of John Wayne (2001). He is also one of the most important anthologizers of Latino literature. He has edited collections such as Muy Macho: Latino Men Confront Their Manhood (1996), and Touching the Fire: Fifteen Poets of the Latino Renaissance (1998).

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Stevie Smith, born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull, Yorkshire, England (1902). She lived in the same house from the time she was three years old until her death in 1971. She approached a publisher with her first book of poems when she was in her thirties. He told her to go away and write a novel instead. So that's what she did. Her first novel was Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), and she went on to write other novels and short stories, but her greatest love was always poetry. She wrote one of her short stories in meter, and later published it as a poem. She was known for writing light verse about dark subjects. Her most famous collection of poems is Not Waving but Drowning (1957). In the title poem she wrote, "Nobody heard him, the dead man, / But still he lay moaning; / I was much further out than you thought / And not waving but drowning." She also wrote, "This Englishwoman is so refined / She has no bosom and no behind."

It's the birthday of poet Donald Hall, born in New Haven, Connecticut (1928). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including The Dark Houses (1958), Kicking the Leaves: Poems (1978) and most recently Willow Temple: New and Selected Poems (2003). His first literary hero was Edgar Allen Poe. Hall said, "I wanted to be mad, addicted, obsessed, haunted and cursed; I wanted to have eyes that burned like coals, profoundly melancholy, profoundly attractive." He got a job teaching literature at the University of Michigan, but after seventeen years he decided to quit and live by his wits. He moved to the farm in New Hampshire that had belonged to his family for generations. He said, "I try every day to write great poetry—as I tried when I was 14 ... What else is there to do?"

It's the birthday of the muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1878). He's best known as the author of The Jungle (1906), a novel about the meat packing industry.

It's the birthday of one of the greatest editors of the twentieth century, Maxwell Perkins, born in New York City (1884). He joined the editorial staff of Charles Scribner's Sons when it was still the most conservative of all the major publishing houses. As a new employee, Perkins read a manuscript by a young man named F. Scott Fitzgerald and helped Fitzgerald rewrite it. When This Side of Paradise came out in 1920, the other editors at Scribner's thought it was filthy trash. One editor said he wouldn't even let his wife read it. It sold more than 50,000 copies, which was almost unheard of for a first novel at the time. It was the beginning of Scribner's becoming one of the most important publishers of fiction written by members of the so-called "Lost Generation."

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