Mar. 31, 2004

This Kind of Thing Doesn't Happen Often and When it Does You Should Pay Attention

by John Stone

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Poems: "This Kind of Thing Doesn't Happen Often and When It Does You Should Pay Attention," by John Stone, from Music from Apartment 8 (Louisiana State University Press).

This Kind of Thing Doesn't Happen Often and When It Does You Should Pay Attention

      i thank heaven somebody's crazy
      enough to send me a daisy
      --e.e. cummings

On Piedmont Road, going north,
before my car there floated forth

a soapy bubble in the traffic,
glistening and holographic.

It drifted down into my path,
this ghostly sphere from someone's bath.

I watched it bob and almost tickle
A Harley-Davidson motorcycle

then rise (as it got quite exhausted)
That's where I left it, fair and frosted.

For this unexpected act
I thank heaven (I think), in fact,

that someone went to all the trouble
to blow me a bubble.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the anniversary of the official opening of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (1889). It was built for the International Exhibition of Paris, commemorating the centenary of the French Revolution. At the time, it was the tallest structure ever built, at 1,000 feet. The architect Gustave Eiffel was a specialist in bridges, and the design for the Eiffel Tower was based on his previous bridge designs. He chose to leave the tower's skeletal structure exposed, because it was the easiest way to protect it from wind resistance.

When it was finished many Parisians thought it was horribly ugly. Artists and writers wrote a letter of protest, calling the tower a "truly tragic street lamp," a "mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed," and "a half-built factory pipe."

The writer Guy de Maupassant described the Eiffel Tower as, "A high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, [a] giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney." He hated the tower so much that he started eating in its restaurant every day, because, he said, "It is the only place in Paris where I don't have to see it." His hatred of the tower eventually drove him out of the city.

It was almost torn down in 1909, after the expiration of its lease, but the city saved it because its antenna was so useful for the new invention of radio. It's now the most widely recognized symbol of Paris.

It's the birthday of novelist Judith Rossner, born in New York City (1935). She was divorced and struggling to support her two children, working as a secretary in a methadone clinic, when she began writing a novel about a Catholic schoolteacher who spends her nights cruising Manhattan singles' bars. She had published three novels before, but none had sold many copies. She was hoping that her new novel would bring in enough money to allow her to take a year off and write full time. That novel, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1975), was so successful that she was able to quit her job for good. It became a huge bestseller and was made into a movie. She's gone on to write several more novels, including Attachments (1977), about a pair of conjoined twins and their wives; August (1983), about psychotherapy; and, most recently, Perfidia (1997).

It's the birthday of poet Andrew Marvell, born in Winestead, England (1621). In his lifetime he was known mainly as a satirist, poking fun at various writers and politicians. He wrote poetry in his free time but only showed it to friends. Then, after his death, his housekeeper claimed to have been his secret wife, and she published a book of his poetry that including his most famous poem "To His Coy Mistress" (1650), for which he is remembered today.

Marvell wrote, "Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime."

It's the birthday of poet, novelist, and critic Octavio Paz, born in Mexico City (1914). He grew up in a giant house that was slowly crumbling to bits, and his bedroom had only part of a wall. As a young man he began writing surrealist poems, which he published in collections such as Forest Moon (1933). His poetry won him a series of grants that allowed him to travel to Europe and the United States. After many years abroad, he returned to Mexico, and the experience of coming home inspired him to write a book-length essay on Mexican culture called The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950). Many critics now consider it his masterpiece. He went on to write many more books, and in 1990 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Once in an interview, he was asked what his plans were for the future. He said, "To abolish it."

It's the birthday of novelist John Fowles, born in Essex, England (1926). He described his hometown as, "A small town dominated by . . . the pursuit of respectability. The rows of respectable little houses inhabited by respectable little people had an early depressive effect on me, and I believe that they partly caused my intense and continuing dislike of mankind en masse. I like sparse populations and sparse meetings."

He worked for years as an English teacher, while writing on the side. In 1963, after throwing away more than a dozen manuscripts, he published his first novel, The Collector, about a man who collects butterflies and then one day kidnaps a young woman and keeps her in his basement, hoping to win her love. It got great reviews and became a bestseller, translated into more than ten languages.

He went on to publish many more novels, including The Magus (1965) and The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969). In 1988, in the middle of writing a new novel, he suffered a stroke, and during his recovery he found that he had lost his imagination and could no longer write fiction. Ever since, he has focused on writing philosophical essays, many of which are collected in his most recent book, Wormholes (1998).

Fowles said, "Passion destroys passion; we want what puts an end to wanting what we want."

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Marge Piercy, born in Detroit, Michigan (1936). She grew up poor, one of the only white girls in a black neighborhood, but she started writing when she was fifteen and became the first member of her family to go to college.

She moved to a poor section of Chicago and supported herself with a series of dreary jobs. She started reading Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and got involved in countercultural groups like Students for a Democratic Society. She said, "I was laboring for a sense of my self, origins, prospects, antecedents, intentions, a renewed sense of a living language natural to my mouth." After writing six novels that were all rejected by publishers, she published her first book, a collection of poems called Breaking Camp, in 1968. Then in 1976, she published her novel Woman on the Edge of Time, about a woman imprisoned in a mental hospital who has a vision of a utopian future. She has since published many more novels and books of poetry, including Braided Lives (1982) and Available Light (1988). Her memoir Sleeping With Cats came out in 2002.

It's the birthday of writer and translator Edward FitzGerald, born in Woodbridge, England (1809). He anonymously published a few small collections of poetry and several translations that got little attention in his lifetime. One of those translations, published in 1859, was a collection of poems called the Rubáiyát, by an obscure Persian poet named Omar Khayyam. FitzGerald had translated the poems loosely, because he believed in capturing the spirit of a poem rather than the literal meaning. He once said, "Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle." Near the end of his life, people began to read his translation of the "Rubáiyát" as a poem in its own right, and it became one of the most popular and widely quoted poems in English.

He wrote:

"Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
The Winter garment of Repentance fling:
      The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly--and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing."

It's the birthday of the man who wrote, "I think, therefore I am," mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, born in Touraine, France (1596). He studied law and would have entered the parliament, but he graduated from law school before he had reached the legal age for government service. So instead, he took a trip to the Netherlands and began studying mathematics and physics. He became interested in local magicians and alchemists, but when he looked into their activities, he found them all out as fakes. The experience made him a passionate skeptic, and he began to develop ideas for how to scientifically demonstrate truths in nature.

He eventually published his ideas in Discourse on Method (1637), in which he described his own experience of coming to doubt everything, even his own existence, until he realized that the one thing he could not doubt was the existence of his own thoughts. He concluded that if he was able to think then he must exist, and he so he wrote the famous line, "I think, therefore I am."

He chose to publish Discourse on Method in French instead of Latin, the language used by most European intellectuals, because he hoped that ordinary people would read it and learn to reason for themselves. The book made him one of the most renowned thinkers of his lifetime, and he is now generally considered the father of modern philosophy.

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