Feb. 22, 2005

To Capitalize Ungodly

by Matt Cook

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "To Capitalize Ungodly" by Matt Cook, from In The Small of My Backyard. © Manic D Press. Reprinted with permission.

To Capitalize Ungodly

In Colonial America
People would fire up the oxcart,
Go into town, and trade hay for firewood.
Then they would come home from all that, and unload the firewood.
Then they would sit around and read Virgil.

Men who could stack firewood neatly
Were considered good marriage prospects—
People would give out slaves as wedding presents.

During the wintertime, shopkeepers would scatter oyster shells
On sidewalks to improve footing.
People wondered whether or not to capitalize 'ungodly'.

For fun, people would have simple boating parties.
People would get malaria and then their ears would start ringing.

Remember that painting, that Gilbert Stuart painting of Washington?
Sure you remember that thing, everybody does, the really famous one—
Seriously, I used to like that picture a lot,
But then I realized that everything Stuart ever did looked like Washington.
I saw this self-portrait Stuart made of himself—
It looked exactly like Washington.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Gerald Stern, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1925). He wrote many collections of poetry, including Leaving Another Kingdom (1990), Bread Without Sugar (1992), and Odd Mercy (1995). He started to write poetry in college but he didn't know any other poets, so he didn't try very hard to get anything published. He later said, "I was too harsh a critic of my own work, and I couldn't focus my thoughts and feelings in a way that would satisfy me."

He only began writing poetry on a regular basis in middle age. He said, "I discovered... everything at once—voice, style, approach, and have been practically besieged by poems from that time on." He published his first poetry collection, The Pineys, in 1971, and has gone on to write many more collections.

It's the birthday of Edward Gorey, born in Chicago, Illinois (1925). He's known for writing and illustrating many morbidly funny books, including The Beastly Baby (1962), The Wuggly Ump (1963), and The Epiplectic Bicycle (1969). He said of his childhood., "I like to think of myself as a pale, pathetic, solitary child... But I wasn't at all. I was out there playing kick-the-can."

Gorey drew his first pictures when he was one and a half years old but he said, "I hasten to add they showed no talent whatsoever. They looked like irregular sausages." He taught himself to read at age three, and by the time he was five, he had read Dracula and Alice In Wonderland, which remained two of his favorite books for the rest of his life.

After high school, he served in the U.S. Army, working a desk job at a testing ground for mortars and poison gas. He studied French literature at Harvard, where people knew him as the guy who kept a tombstone in his campus apartment. He was incredibly tall, wore a black cape, and people said he looked like a Roman emperor.

He got a job drawing book covers for Doubleday, and started to produce a series of very strange, uncategorizable books of his own. These books looked like children's storybooks, but they were much too dark and violent to be read by children. The Hapless Child (1961) is about a little girl named Sophia who is picked on and abused, sold into slavery, forced to make artificial flowers, and finally run over by a car. His alphabet book The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963) teaches the ABCs by using the names of children who have been violently injured or killed. It begins, "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears."

Gorey had a hard time getting his books published, so he founded his own publishing house called Fantod Press and sold the books himself at obscure bookstores. He published under a series of pseudonyms, all anagrams of his own name, including Ogdred Weary, Wardore Edgy, Roy Grew-dead, and Drew Dogyear.

Because Gorey's books were printed in such small quantities, they became collector's items, and began to sell for up to a $1,000 each. Eventually, his early books were collected into an anthology called Amphigorey (1972), which became a best seller. By the time of his death in 2000, he had written and illustrated more than 100 books, and his work had been made into a Broadway musical.

It's the birthday of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, born in Rockland, Maine (1892). She was the most popular poet of the Jazz Age. Millay's collection A Few Figs from Thistles (1920) made her famous. When she gave readings of her poetry, she drew huge crowds of adoring fans, more like a rock star than a poet. One man who saw Millay perform her own work said, "The slender red-haired, gold-eyed Vincent Millay, dressed in a black-trimmed gown of purple silk, was now reading from a tooled leather portfolio, now reciting without aid of book or print, despite her broom-splint legs and muscles twitching in her throat and in her thin arms, in a voice that enchanted."

Many critics considered her the greatest poet of her generation. The poet Thomas Hardy famously said that America had produced only two great things: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She became the first woman poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, who wrote, "Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: / Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!"

It's the birthday of the first president of the United States, George Washington, born in Westmoreland County, Virginia (1732). He started out his career as a successful land surveyor and farmer, and he spent much of the rest of his life trying to get back to that. He was reluctant to advocate for armed rebellion against the British, but he eventually saw that it was inevitable. He was reluctant to serve as commander-in-chief of the revolutionary armies, but his colleagues persuaded him that he was the best man for the job.

Though he participated in the Constitutional Convention, Washington was reluctant to take any of the political positions in the new federal government. He wanted to go back to his farm. But once the Constitution was ratified, no one else seemed to be an appropriate choice for newly created office of the President. No other candidates were even considered. Washington was elected unanimously. He was the first elected president in world history.

Washington was in an awkward position as the first president, because he knew that he was helping to invent the presidency by everything he did in the office. He wrote, "Few... can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act... I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."

Washington knew the new United States needed a strong leader, but he didn't want to look too much like a king. He put up with the extraordinary inaugural parade, which stretched from Mount Vernon, Virginia to New York City. He rode past cheering crowds, underneath triumphal arches, and over barges decorated with flowers. He was celebrated in each town at night by cannons and fireworks. But once he arrived in New York, he wore a modest suit of brown cloth to his Inauguration, and he insisted on being called "Mr. President" rather than "Your Highness."

Washington did believe in a certain amount of formality. He always wore a sword in public, and he never spoke casually to anyone, including close friends, at public events. He didn't even shake hands; he just gave a formal bow. He also refused to tolerate disrespect from foreign nations. One of the first letters he received from a British official was addressed to "Mr. Washington." Washington decided that the letter had been addressed to a farmer in the State of Virginia, and he refused to open it until he had finished his term as President.

He also had to establish relationships with other branches of government. Early in his first term, he went to the Senate to ask for their advice and consent on a treaty with the Creek Indians. He sat and listened to the debate about the treaty. When the Senators decided to give the treaty documents to a committee for further study, Washington stood up angrily and said, "This defeats every purpose of my coming here." He was so frustrated with the process that he never returned to the Senate chamber to ask for advice or consent again, and no other President has done so either.

He could probably have served as President for the rest of his life, but he consciously chose to serve only two terms. It was one of the first times in history that a head of state gave up power voluntarily. Two terms became the unofficial tradition for Presidents until Franklin D. Roosevelt broke the tradition in 1940, and congress had to mandate it by an amendment to the Constitution.

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