May 13, 2004

Earth Your Dancing Place

by May Swenson

THURSDAY, 13 MAY, 2004
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Earth Your Dancing Place," by May Swenson, from Nature: Poems Old and New. Mariner Books. Reprinted with permission.

Earth Your Dancing Place

Beneath heaven's vault
remember always walking
through halls of cloud
down aisles of sunlight
or through high hedges
of the green rain
walk in the world
highheeled with swirl of cape
hand at the swordhilt
of your pride
Keep a tall throat
Remain aghast at life

Enter each day
as upon a stage
lighted and waiting
for your step
Crave upward as flame
have keenness in the nostril
Give your eyes
to agony or rapture

Train your hands
as birds to be
brooding or nimble
Move your body
as the horses
sweeping on slender hooves
over crag and prairie
with fleeing manes
and aloofness of their limbs

Take earth for your own large room
and the floor of earth
carpeted with sunlight
and hung round with silver wind
for your dancing place

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Charles Baxter, born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1947). He's known for writing about people in small Midwestern towns, in novels such as First Light (1987), The Feast of Love (2000) and his latest, Saul and Patsy (2003).

He started writing novels as soon as he got out of college. He said, "I was exhilarated by almost every one of my sentences. I suspected I was a genius but was careful to keep this stupendous secret to myself." The first three novels he wrote weren't accepted by publishers, and Baxter has since gotten rid of the manuscripts. He started thinking that maybe he wasn't cut out for writing after all, and he decided to write one last story before giving it up. That story, about a musician who decides to quit playing music and become a critic, was accepted for publication by a literary magazine. Baxter decided to keep writing, and a few years later his first book was published, a collection of stories called Harmony of the World (1984).

Baxter said, "To be a novelist or a short story writer, you first have to pretend to be a novelist or a short story writer."

It's the birthday of novelist and travel writer Bruce Chatwin, born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England (1940). He's known for writing about nomads and wanderers, and he's been moving from place to place his entire life. As a child he and his mother traveled throughout England, staying with friends and relatives, while his father served in World War II. His first job was self-appointed guide to Shakespeare's monument and tomb in the church in Stratford-on-Avon. When his father came home from the war, he took Bruce and his brother on trips to Britanny, Spain, Italy, Greece, and the Middle East. When Chatwin was fourteen, he traveled by himself to Sweden, living with a family who wanted practice speaking English.

He worked for an auction house for a few years, and became an expert in ancient and modern art. When he quit that job he went to graduate school in archeology, helping at archeological digs in Africa and Afghanistan. He became obsessed with the ancient nomads he was studying, how they lived with just a few possessions and avoided major wars for long periods of time. He started selling off his huge art collection and writing articles about nomadic societies.

He began writing a column for the London Times. For one of his articles, he went to see the ninety-three-year-old architect Eileen Gray in Paris. When Chatwin saw that she had a map of Patagonia on her apartment wall, he said he had always wanted to go there. She said, "So have I. Go there for me." Chatwin left the next day, leaving a cable for the London Times that said, "Have Gone to Patagonia."

While Chatwin was in Patagonia, he collected the material for what would become his first book, In Patagonia (1977). The book is made up of about a hundred short chapters. It's about Chatwin's personal adventure, but it's also about various people he met there and little bits of trivia—Welsh farmers who have come to raise sheep in Patagonia, an old woman who is traveling the world to see its vegetation, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who hid out in Patagonia to avoid capture. Chatwin said about the book, "While stringing its sentences together, I thought that telling stories was the only conceivable occupation for a superfluous person such as myself."

In Patagonia became an instant classic. When it was published in 1977, there weren't very many new travel books coming out; people said that there was no place left to write about that didn't already have a book devoted to it. Chatwin's popularity helped to inspire a new generation of travel writers in England and America—authors like Paul Theroux, Jonathan Raban, Peter Matthiessen, and Bill Bryson. Chatwin went on to write the travel books The Songlines (1987), What Am I Doing Here (1989) and Anatomy of Restlessness (1997).

It's the birthday of novelist Daphne du Maurier, born in London (1907). She spent most of her adult life in the coastal town of Cornwall, known for its stormy, unpredictable weather. In a book called Vanishing Cornwall (1967), she wrote, "Here was the freedom I desired, long sought-for, not yet known. Freedom to write, to walk, to wander, freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone." Her three most famous novels, Jamaica Inn (1936), Frenchman's Creek (1941), and Rebecca (1938), are all set in Cornwall.

Rebecca has been made into a play, an opera, and a TV series. Orson Welles made it into a radio drama, and Alfred Hitchcock made it into a movie. Last year, the BBC held something called the Big Read, in which the British public got to vote on their favorite books of all time. About 150,000 people cast votes, and Rebecca was named one of the nation's twenty favorite books. Since then, its sales have gone up dramatically.

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