Nov. 10, 2004

Banking Rules

by James Tate

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem:"Banking Rules" by James Tate, from Return to the City of White Donkeys © Harper Collins, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Banking Rules

I was standing in line at the bank and
the fellow in front of me was humming. The
line was long and slow, and after a while
the humming began to irritate me. I said to
the fellow, "Excuse me, would you mind not
humming." And he said, "Was I humming?
I'm sorry I didn't realize it." And he went
right on humming. I said, "Sir, you're
humming again." "Me, humming?" he said.
"I don't think so." And then he went on
humming. I was about to blow my lid. Instead,
I went to find the manager. I said, "See
that man over there in the blue suit?" "Yes,"
he said, "what about him?" "He won't stop
humming," I said, "I've asked him politely
several times, but he won't stop." "There's
no crime in humming," he said. I went back
and took my place in line. I listened, but
there was nothing coming out of him. I said,
"Are you okay, pal?" He looked mildly peeved,
and gave me no reply. I felt myself shrinking.
The manager of the bank walked briskly up
to me and said, "Sir, are you aware of the
fact that you're shrinking?" I said I was.
And he said, "I'm afraid we don't allow that
kind of behavior in this bank. I have to ask
you to leave." The air was whistling out
of me, I was almost gone.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Vachel Lindsay, born in Springfield, Illinois (1879). His parents wanted him to become a doctor, but he dropped out of medical school after three years and tried to make a living writing poetry. He became a vagabond, wandering across the country, trading his poetry for food. He said, "I will never forget the easy, dreaming Kentucky and the droning bees in the blue grass...and the queer feeling of being the family disgrace."

In 1913 Poetry magazine published Lindsay's poem "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," and it was a big hit. He went on to write many collections of poetry including The Tree of the Laughing Bells (1905) and Every Soul Is a Circus (1929).

It's the birthday of Oliver Goldsmith, born in Pallas, County Longford, Ireland (1730). He only wrote for fifteen years, but he produced everything from essays to poetry to fiction and plays. He's best remembered for his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), his long poem The Deserted Village (1770), and his play She Stoops to Conquer (1773).

He said, "I love everything that's old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine."

It's the birthday of German playwright Friedrich Von Schiller born in Marbach, Germany (1759). One of the most important playwrights of German literature, he's best known for his historical plays, Don Carlos (1787) and Wallenstein (1798). He began writing at a time when Germans were jealous of the literary works being produced by England, France, and Italy. Among Germans there was talk that the German language itself might not be appropriate for literature. When Schiller appeared on the scene, Germans were so grateful to have a major literary figure that they revered him as if he were a god.

Schiller grew up in a part of Germany that was ruled by a Duke who saw himself as the absolute dictator. Schiller wanted to enter the clergy as a young man, but the Duke forced him to enter a military academy where he was forbidden to leave school, receive visitors, or write letters. While living under these conditions, he began to write his first play, The Robbers (1781), about a noble man who drops out of society and join a band of criminals.

Schiller secretly sent the play to a theater director outside of the Duke's jurisdiction, and the play began to break all box office records. When the Duke learned of it, he had Schiller jailed for two weeks and forbid him to ever write again. So Schiller deserted the army, a capital offense at the time, and went into hiding. He eventually became so successful that the Duke gave up on trying to capture him.

Schiller once attended a performance of his play The Maid of Orleans (1824), and after the first act, the audience began to shout, "Long live Schiller!" He got a standing ovation, and as he left the theater, everyone fell silent, bowing their heads and removing their hats, clearing a path before him. Parents held their children up to see him.

Schools in Germany are named after him, there are many monuments raised in his memory, and today Germans are celebrating his birthday as a national holiday.

It's the birthday of theologian Martin Luther, born in Eisleben, Saxony (1483), which is now located in Germany. He's best known as the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation, but he was also an extraordinarily productive writer. Between the years of 1516 to 1546, he published an article on religion every other week, totaling more than sixty thousand pages. It has been estimated that during his writing life, his published writings made up twenty percent of all the literature being published in Germany at the time.

In addition to his own writing, Luther spent much of his late life working on a translation of the Bible into German. There had been a few German translations before his, but they were purely literal translations. He wanted to appeal to average people, and he tried to use words that would be understood by common Germans. He said, "[The translator] must ask the mother at home, children in the street, the common man in the market and look them in the mouth, and listen to how they speak, then translate accordingly."

Toward the end of his life, Luther began to regret how many books he had written. He said, "The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing. . . . I wish that all my books were consigned to perpetual oblivion."

Today, most of Luther's writings are only read by theologians, but his words survive in his popular hymns. He knew that many people couldn't read, and he believed hymns could communicate ideas more broadly. He also just loved music. He said, "My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary." His hymns are sung in churches throughout the world.

Martin Luther said, "God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars."

It's the birthday of Karl Shapiro, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1913). He became famous at an early age for his poems about World War II. His collection of war poetry V-Letter and Other Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. He spent the rest of his career trying to prove that he was more than a war poet. When other poets were disgusted by the modern world, he wrote poems celebrating things like Buicks, drug stores, and Hollywood.

He put himself at odds with most other poets of his generation by attacking T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In a famous essay he wrote in 1959, he said poetry was a diseased art and the carriers of the disease were Eliot and Pound. He called them the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of modern poetry.

Many of Shapiro's contemporaries, such as Robert Lowell and John Berryman, died young or killed themselves. Shapiro outlived them all. The Journal of the American Medical Association mistakenly included him in a list of writers who had committed suicide, and in 1978, the New York Times crossword puzzle used his name as the answer for the clue "late U.S. poet." He went on living for more than a decade, and titled his 1990 autobiography Reports of My Death. His last collection The Wild Card: Selected Poems, Early and Late came out in 1998.

Karl Shapiro said, "Poetry is a separate language. It's a language in which you never really come to the point. You're always at an angle."

It's the birthday of writer Neil Gaiman, born in Portchester, England (1960). He writes serious comic books and turns them into graphic novels. Growing up in England, he knew what comic books were, but the comic books published in England weren't very exciting. One day, a friend of his father gave him a box of old DC and Marvel comic books from America, and he fell in love with them. He stayed up late every night, reading them by the light from the hallway.

He said, "The most important dreams, the most manipulable of cultural icons, are those that we received when we were too young to judge or analyze." He wanted to take those icons of his youth and write about them in a serious, literary way.

In 1987, DC Comics let Gaiman pick one of their old, failed comic book characters and revive him. Gaiman chose a character called the Sandman, who uses sleeping gas to catch criminals. Gaiman kept the name but changed everything else, turning the character into the god of both dreams and stories.

He chose different artists to draw the seventy-five issues, and he filled the series with references to myths, folklore and literature, especially Shakespeare. In 1991, a single issue of The Sandman called "A Midsummer Night's Dream" became the first comic book to win the World Fantasy Award.

People like Stephen King and Norman Mailer became fans of the Sandman series, and it was also one of the first comic books to appeal to women. The seventy-five issues were collected and published in ten volumes, the first of which was The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes (1991). It launched the graphic novel as a serious art form.

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