Jul. 2, 2005

Why do poets write

by Richard Jones

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Why do poets write?" by Richard Jones, from The Blessing. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.

Why do poets write?

My wife, a psychiatrist, sleeps
through my reading and writing in bed,
the half-whispered lines,
manuscripts piled between us,

but in the deep part of night
when her beeper sounds
she bolts awake to return the page
of a patient afraid he'll kill himself.

She sits in her robe in the kitchen,
listening to the anguished voice
on the phone. She becomes
the vessel that contains his fear,

someone he can trust to tell
things I would tell to a poem.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Thomas Cranmer, born in Nottinghamshire, England (1489). He was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who suggested to King Henry VIII that he didn't need to get the Pope's permission to divorce his wife. Cranmer presided over the divorce trial. He helped encourage England's break from Rome, which resulted in the Anglican Church, and he was devoted to giving Christianity an expression in English.

The great achievement of his life was compiling the Book of Common Prayer. Thomas Cranmer was responsible for choosing the passage from Job that would be read at so many funerals for centuries, "Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery." He is responsible for the wedding vow, "I take thee to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part."

He is also responsible for the phrase, "What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder."

After the death of Henry VIII and the accession of Queen Mary, who was Catholic, to the throne, Thomas Cranmer's fortunes changed. Mary had him imprisoned for his attacks on the Catholic Church, and he was eventually burned at the stake.

It was on this day in 1881, President James Garfield was fatally wounded by an assassin's bullet. He was in a train station in Washington, on his way to his college reunion at Williams College.

It was on this day in 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan took off from New Guinea, heading for Howland Island on their round-the-world trip. They disappeared over the Pacific Ocean and were never seen again.

It's the birthday of Wislawa Szymborska, born in Poland (1923). When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, few people outside of Poland had ever heard of her. Her early poems dealt with the horrors of World War II and the Stalin era. Her later poems are more personal, and her work is famous for its gentle humor.

When she accepted the Nobel Prize, she said, "They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me, anyway."

It was on this day in 1961, Ernest Hemmingway committed suicide in Ketchum, Idaho, shooting himself early one morning in the head with a shotgun.

It's the birthday of Hermann Hesse, born in Calw, Germany in 1877. He's the author Steppenwolf and other books, including Siddhartha. He wrote Siddhartha when he was disillusioned after World War I. He was disgusted about the war, and disgusted with the idea of nationalism. His marriage was falling apart and his son had gotten sick. And so Hesse left his family, moved to a tiny Swiss village on a lake and lived in almost complete isolation. It was there that he wrote a book loosely based on the life of Buddha, about a man searching for enlightenment.

And it's the birthday of the theater director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, born in Kent, England (1900). During the '30s, he was a major director with productions at the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells theaters. He was one of the first to write plays specifically for radio performance on the BBC.

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