Feb. 8, 2004

Lighting Your Birthday Cake

by Philip Appleman

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Lighting Your Birthday Cake," by Philip Appleman, from New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996 (University of Arkansas Press).

Lighting Your Birthday Cake

Of course we didn't come this far
without leaving a trail, but it's only
footprints on a beach; one wash
through our memories, and it's gone. Strange,
so much passion, commitment, doomed
to be drifted over like
Troy and Babylon, pitiful echoes now
of all those eager heartbeats.
You've always cared so much,
about us, sure, but really everything—
hungry kids, dolphins, over-
population, and the old foes: batterers, bishops,
gunslingers, chauvinists—nothing escapes
your rage or compassion; earthquakes in Asia
shake our midnight bedroom. You always knew
that the bright bird of sympathy
is the only godliness on earth,
hovering over these grubby streets
on better wings than angels'. Now
I can't believe in a world without
your bonfire of outrage, small flame of anguish,
pink glow of happiness.
Remember how I need your warmth:
as you blow out these candles, make a wish
to keep the fires burning.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Philip Appleman, born in Kendallville, Indiana (1926). He's the author of many books of poetry, including Kites on a Windy Day (1967) and Let There be Light (1991), and novels such as Apes and Angels (1989).

It's the birthday of Robert Burton, born in Leicestershire, England (1577). He only wrote one important book in his lifetime, but many still consider it a masterpiece: The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). His intention was to write a book about depression, in order to distract himself from his own depression, but he ended up writing a book about everything that came into his head, from literature and philosophy to diet, exercise, and the pleasure of kisses.

He called the book, "a rhapsody of rags gathered from several dunghills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out," and he filled it with quotations from more than 1300 writers. He wrote a preface that is more than a hundred pages long, and an index that included entries such as, "BALDNESS", "CROCODILES", and "SWALLOWS."

The book was incredibly popular when it was published, and Burton spent the rest of his life adding to it. James Boswell said that it was the only book that could get Samuel Johnson out of bed "two hours sooner than he wished to rise." It fell out of print in the nineteenth century, but it has been republished periodically ever since. The most recent edition came out in 2001.

It's the birthday of one of the fathers of science fiction, Jules Verne, born in Nantes, France (1828). He's best known for his novels A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). Growing up, he was obsessed with machines and travel. He loved to go to factories and to the shipyard, and when he was ten years old he tried to hop a boat to the West Indies, but his father caught him just before the boat set sail.

He fell in love with literature as a young man, and hoped to write important novels in the style of Victor Hugo. But in order to make money he was forced to write adventure stories and scientific articles for popular periodicals. Then, one day, he got the idea of combining an adventure story with his scientific knowledge. It was the height of the industrial revolution, and technology was on everybody's mind, but most writers who had written fiction about technology had taken a pessimistic view, predicting that technology would destroy the soul of humanity. Verne was an optimist, and he began to write a series of novels about people traveling around the world in exciting new vehicles, the first of which was Five Weeks in a Balloon (1869).

He anticipated many inventions in his fiction, including automobiles, airplanes, helicopters, fax machines, tanks, skyscrapers, televisions, and picture phones. His novels were hugely popular. When he wrote Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), a shipping company persuaded him to have his hero ride on one of their ships in the novel. It was one of the first examples of product placement advertising.

Jules Verne said, "Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real."

It's the birthday of novelist John Grisham, born in Jonesboro, Arkansas (1955). He's one of the best selling novelists in history, and his legal thrillers include The Pelican Brief (1992) The Rainmaker (1995) and The King of Torts (2003). His first success came with his second novel The Firm (1991), about a young law student who takes a job with a firm, which he later comes to realize is connected to the mafia. The novel was a huge bestseller, and Grisham went on to publish another novel every year for the rest of the 1990s, all of them bestsellers.

Some critics believe the reason he's so successful is that he writes about the corrupt American legal system, which so many Americans love to hate. Between 1965 and 1990, the number of lawyers in the United States increased from 296,000 to 800,000, at a rate more than four times as fast as the increase in general population. During that same period, lawyers became the targets of jokes and newspaper editorials, and people began to say that America had become the most litigious society in the history of the world. Grisham began publishing his novels at the height of anti-lawyer feeling in this country, and in most of his novels he writes about innocent people fighting for their lives against a vast army of evil lawyers.

It's the birthday of poet Elizabeth Bishop, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1911). Her father died when she was a little girl. Her mother had an emotional breakdown from grief and spent the rest of her life in various mental institutions. Elizabeth spent most of her childhood moving back and forth between her grandparents in Nova Scotia and her father's family in Massachusetts. For the rest of her life, she was obsessed with travel, though she never felt at home anywhere.

She was shy and quiet in college, but during her senior year she mustered up all her courage and introduced herself to the elder poet Marianne Moore, whom she deeply admired. The meeting was awkward at first, but then Bishop offered to take Moore to the circus. It turned out they both loved going to the circus, and they both also loved snakes, tattoos, semiprecious stones, exotic flowers, birds, dress-making, and recipes. Moore became Bishop's mentor and friend, and Bishop said that every time she talked to Moore she felt, "uplifted, even inspired, determined to be good, to work harder, not to worry about what other people thought, never to try to publish anything until I thought I'd done my best with it, no matter how many years it took."

Moore persuaded Bishop that poems could be precise descriptions of ordinary objects and places, and didn't have to be about big ideas. Bishop began to write poems about filling stations, fish, and the behavior of birds. Her poems rarely revealed her emotions. When other poets like Robert Lowell and John Berryman began to write confessional poems, she said, "[I] just wish they'd keep some of these things to themselves."

Bishop's first collection of poetry, North & South, came out in 1946. That same year she took a car trip to New Hampshire, but as she was driving, she impulsively decided to drive all the way to Nova Scotia, which she hadn't seen in more than fifteen years. The trip brought back all kinds of memories from her childhood, and it inspired many of her best poems, including "First Death in Nova Scotia" and "The Moose." When she moved to Brazil a few years later, she found herself thinking about almost nothing but Nova Scotia.

She was an extremely slow writer, and published only 101 poems in her lifetime. She worked on her poem "One Art" for more than fifteen years, keeping it tacked up on her wall so that she could rearrange the lines again and again until she got it right.

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