Jul. 4, 2005

How To Be a Poet

by Wendell Berry

MONDAY, 4 JULY, 2005
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Poem: "How To Be a Poet" by Wendell Berry from Given New Poems, © Shoemaker, Hoard, Washington, D.C. Reprinted with permission.

How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Independence Day. On this day in 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence, and the United States officially broke from the rule of England. The Declaration was written by Thomas Jefferson in a little second floor room on Market Street in Philadelphia—on a little lap desk that he designed himself. The Congress had wanted Benjamin Franklin to write it, but he declined, and then John Adams declined because he said Jefferson was ten times a better writer than he was.

Benjamin Franklin made a few new changes. Jefferson had written, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable." Franklin changed that to, "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

The Congress cut out an entire paragraph in which Jefferson had attacked the king for perpetuating the slave trade. They cut about 480 words out of his draft, leaving 1,337. Jefferson found the whole process rather painful.

The 4th of July became a big holiday after the war of 1812 and out on the American frontier, it was the one time of the year when everyone gathered in town from all over the countryside for parades and speeches, and the prettiest girl would be named the Goddess of Liberty, and politicians would get up and denounce the king and men would get drunk and insult each other, call each other Englishmen, and get into fights.

It's the birthday of the great American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, born in Salem, Massachusetts (1804). His first novel, Fanshawe, he considered so awful that he tried to track down and destroy every copy that he could find.

He lost his job when he was 45 years old. He was in despair. He came home, told his wife the news, and she said, "Now you can write your book." She opened up a desk drawer and there was a pile of gold pieces that she had saved out of the household allowance, $150, enough to support them for several months. He sat down and he wrote The Scarlet Letter, which came out the next year and made his reputation.

It was on this day in 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into his cabin on Walden Pond.

On this day in 1855, the first edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass was printed. It was 12 poems and a preface. The printers were friends of his and so they didn't charge Whitman for the work.

It's the birthday of Lionel Trilling, born in New York City (1905), the man who said, "Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal."

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
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