Dec. 21, 2003

Piazza Piece

by John Crowe Ransom

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Piazza Piece," by John Crowe Ransom from Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.)

— I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying
To make you hear. Your ears are soft and small
And listen to an old man not at all,
They want the young men's whispering and sighing.
But see the roses on your trellis dying
And hear the spectral singing of the moon;
For I must have my lovely lady soon,
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.

— I am a lady in beauty waiting
Until my truelove comes, and then we kiss.
But what grey man among the vines is this
Whose words are dry and faint as in a dream?
Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream!
I am a lady young in beauty waiting.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1620, the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on the shores of Massachusetts. The Mayflower carried enough furniture for 19 cottages, as well as pigs, goats, guns, journals and bibles. Native American tribes had already skirmished with the Pilgrims as they explored the banks of Cape Cod. William Bradford, who became the governor of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that they reached the new continent and found nothing but "a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men."

For the first year, the Pilgrims and Indians lived peacefully together. They signed a peace treaty in the spring and had a plentiful harvest. But there was trouble the following January. The chief of a tribe called the Narragansett wanted no part in the peace treaty, and he sent Bradford a sheaf of arrows wrapped inside a snakeskin. Bradford sent the snakeskin back to him, stuffing it with bullets. Then the pilgrims built a wall around their village, eleven feet high and a mile all around.

A year later, in March 1623, Bradford sent a group of heavily armed men to a neighboring camp of English settlers. They had been told that the Indians there were planning a massacre. Led by Miles Standish, they arrived at the village and cornered four Indians. Standish took them into a hut and killed them with a knife. Then he ordered his men to kill all the Indians in the village, but some escaped into a swamp. He cut off one of the Indians' heads and brought it back to Plymouth, placing it on a spike for all to see. Later, a former minister to the Pilgrims sent a letter saying, "Oh! How happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you had killed any."

It's the birthday of the British novelist Anthony Powell, born in Westminster, England (1905). He's best known for his novel in 12 volumes, A Dance to the Music Of Time, published from 1951 to 1975. The books chronicle the daily life of a group of English acquaintances through much of the 20th century. Powell also wrote seven volumes of diaries and memoirs, as well as a prolific output of literary criticism.

Powell said, "It is always difficult to know how human beings really live. If you describe it, you often appear to be a humorous writer, even if you have merely reported exactly what happened."

It's the birthday of the German novelist Heinrich Boll, born in Cologne, Germany (1917). He grew up at the same time that Hitler rose to power, and wrote fiction about the way his country changed after the Second World War. He worked as an apprentice bookseller as a young man, and shortly afterward he began to write. He enrolled at a university to study classical philology, but he had barely begun his studies when he was drafted into the German army. He fought in the war from 1939 until Americans took him prisoner in 1945. Afterward, he returned to Cologne with his new wife. He repaired a house that had been destroyed in the bombings, and also began to work on his books. His best-known novel is Group Portrait With a Lady (1971), about the life of a war widow. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.

It's the birthday of Joseph Stalin, born in the village of Gori, Georgia (1879). He rose through the ranks of the Communist party to become a ruthless dictator for almost 30 years. Stalin was also one of the founders of the Pravda in 1912, the newspaper that eventually became the propaganda voice for the Soviet Union. He once said, "The writer is an engineer of the human soul."

Stalin was born into a poverty-stricken family, and his father abused him. As a child, he contracted smallpox and was left with permanent scars, while another illness crippled his left arm. His mother wanted him to become a priest, so he enrolled in an Orthodox theological seminary. He was expelled from school after he decided he was more interested in revolutionary politics than religion. Then he put all his energy into his work for labor activist groups, and he raised money by robbing government trains.

Stalin was one of Lenin's close associates during the Russian Revolution that began in 1917. He returned from fighting in Russia's civil war in 1920 and suddenly became gravely ill with appendicitis. It was thought that he might die. But a doctor performed a risky operation and he made a full recovery. He completed his rise to power after Lenin died in 1924.

Joseph Stalin said, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."

It's the birthday of Benjamin Disraeli, born in London (1804). He was Britain's first and only Jewish prime minister, as well as a best-selling novelist. Disraeli was always known as a man of fashion and high society. An acquaintance once said that he would go to a dinner party wearing "green velvet trousers, a canary-colored waistcoat, low shoes, silver buckles, lace at his wrists and his hair in ringlets."

His father was a writer, and he grew up around people who loved books but didn't care much about politics. Soon after he turned 20, he decided he wanted to write romance novels. His first book, Vivian Grey (1826), became one of the most talked-about novels of its time, even though Disraeli called it "as hot and hurried a sketch as ever yet was penned." He wrote several more books, and then entered politics as a member of the conservative Tory party. While in parliament, Disraeli was known as one of the "big Englanders" who wanted to expand the British Empire. He secured the Suez Canal for Britain and worked to prevent the expansion of Russia.

Disraeli didn't write a lot of novels during his years in politics, but he was fascinated with language all his life. Sometimes aspiring writers sent manuscripts for him to review. If he didn't like what he saw, he would reply, "Dear Sir: I thank you for sending me a copy of your book, which I shall waste no time in reading."

Disraeli said, "The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it."

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