Mar. 1, 2005

The Water

by Robert Lowell

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The Water" by Robert Lowell, from Selected Poems. © Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Reprinted with permission.


It was a Maine lobster town—
each morning boatloads of hands
pushed off for granite
quarries on the islands,

and left dozens of bleak
white frame houses stuck
like oyster shells
on a hill of rock,

and below us, the sea lapped
the raw little match-stick
mazes of a weir,
where the fish for bait were trapped.

Remember? We sat on a slab of rock.
From this distance in time
it seems the color
of iris, rotting and turning purpler,

but it was only
the usual gray rock
turning the usual green
when drenched by the sea.

The sea drenched the rock
at our feet all day,
and kept tearing away
flake after flake.

One night you dreamed
you were a mermaid clinging to a wharf-pile,
and trying to pull
off the barnacles with your hands.

We wished our two souls
might return like gulls
to the rock. In the end,
the water was too cold for us.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Hass, born in San Francisco, California (1941). He's the author of several collections of poetry, including Human Wishes (1989) and Sun Under Wood (1996), and he served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997.

He said, "Take the time to write. You can do your life's work in half an hour a day."

It's the birthday of the novelist Ralph Ellison, born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1914). He only published one novel in his lifetime but it was one of the great novels of the twentieth century: Invisible Man (1952). He had to abandon a previous novel about World War II to finish it, and it took him seven years to write. He spent the rest of his life working on his next book, but he never finished it. The almost 2,000 page manuscript was edited down and published after his death as Juneteenth (1999).

It's the birthday of the poet Howard Nemerov, who was born in New York City (1920). His father was the president of one of the fanciest clothing stores in New York City, and young Howard was expected to go into his father's business. Instead, he said, "[I became] Howie, boy-intellectual." From the moment he was introduced to literature, he decided that he never wanted to do anything else but read, write and talk about it.

He promptly became a literature professor to support his writing and he was a teacher for the rest of his life. He's known for his funny, playful poems, and he believed that poems and jokes were similar art forms. He wrote, "Jokes concentrate on the most sensitive areas of human concern: sex, death, religion, and the most powerful institutions of society; and poems do the same."

When asked what his poems were about, Nemerov said, "[I write about] bugs; birds; trees; running water; still, reflecting water—even people sometimes." His Collected Poems came out in 1977.

Richard Wilbur was born on this day in New York City (1921). His father was an artist who painted pictures for advertisements, and Wilbur often posed as the young boy in the advertisements, swallowing the advertised vitamins or running home from the grocery with the advertised cereal. His father supported his interest in poetry, and he sold his first poem to a children's magazine when he was eight years old.

He entered the military during World War II, and he was supposed to go into cryptography. But his superior officer thought he had dangerously radical ideas, and reassigned him to the frontline infantry, where he witnessed his fellow soldiers being machine-gunned around him or driven over by jeeps. He said, "[Once] my foxhole-mate and I... dove into a rubbly ditch to avoid an eighty-eight shell... he wept to discover that the candy bar in his hand—a Butterfinger—was now full of broken glass."

During lulls in the fighting, Wilbur sat in his foxhole reading Edgar Allan Poe and writing poems about the war. But instead of writing about the battles he wrote more about the quiet moments, such as all the evenings he spent peeling potatoes in cold, dark Army kitchens. Those poems became his first book, The Beautiful Changes (1947), and it was a big success. 10 years later, he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collection Things of this World.

He was one of the America's leading poets at a time when most of America's leading poets were suffering from mental illness and alcoholism. While those other poets wrote about their madness in increasingly more experimental styles, Wilbur kept writing precise, rhythmical verse with meter and rhyme, living the mild mannered life of a successful writer and literature professor. Of the major poets of his generation, he is one of the last still living and writing. His Collected Poems came out last year.

Richard Wilbur said, "I think that all poets are sending religious messages, because poetry is, in such great part, the comparison of one thing to another... and to insist, as all poets do, that all things are related to each other, comparable to each other, is to go toward making an assertion of the unity of all things."

Robert Lowell was born in Boston (1917). He came from one of the most distinguished and famous families in Boston. He went to Harvard University like all his male ancestors had done, but he dropped out after two years. His friend Ford Madox Ford introduced him to the poet Allen Tate. Lowell pitched a tent in Tate's front yard and began writing poems at a furious pace. He said he learned from Allen Tate that, "[Poetry must] be tinkered with and recast until one's eyes pop out of one's head."

He wrote his early poems in the style of Milton, with elaborate meter and rhyme schemes, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his first major collection, Lord Weary's Castle (1946), which included poems about whale hunters and Napoleon.

But after World War II, Lowell began to write more and more about himself and the people he knew, his relatives and friends, and the most ordinary details of his daily life. He said, "Almost the whole problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel, and that takes an awful lot of maneuvering. You may feel the doorknob more strongly than some big personal event, and the doorknob will open into something you can use as your own."

His collection Life Studies (1959) was one of the most baldly autobiographical collections of poetry ever published at that time, and he wrote it in a conversational free-verse style. He was criticized at first for writing what was called "confessional poetry," but it quickly became the standard style of American poetry.

Lowell had an erratic life, suffering from manic depression, and three difficult marriages. One of his few stable relationships was with his friend, the poet Elizabeth Bishop. After they met for the first time, Bishop said, "It was the first time I had ever actually talked with someone about how one writes poetry... like exchanging recipes for making a cake."

They didn't see each other often after that, because they both traveled so much, but they kept in touch through letters. Lowell loved Bishop's poetry, and he made sure that she got all the grants and fellowships and professorships that she needed to keep writing. 10 years after they'd met, he admitted that he had once almost asked her to marry him.

He wrote to her, "I've never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc. the poetry would be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had."

He died in a taxi in 1977. His Collected Poems came out in 2003.

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