Feb. 1, 2006

Three Houses, Three Dogs

by Daniel Donaghy

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Three Houses, Three Dogs" by Daniel Donaghy from Street Fighting. © BKMK Press. Reprinted with permission.

Three Houses,
            Three Dogs

My father came each night
to tuck me in, creaking down
our hall in work boots
he always wore, laces undone,
the stale mix of Schaefer's
and Pall Malls waking me
into the darkness he lived in,
my mother in bed,
my sister out, him whistling
for hours to Jim Reeves
or listening to news radio.
Years passed like that,
grammar and middle school,
three houses, three dogs
him rising each five A.M.
to wire boats at the Navy Yard,
never telling me what
he thought about those nights
before he tousled my hair
with root-thick fingers
and leaned down to kiss my cheek.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Galway Kinnell, born in Providence, Rhode Island (1927).

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Reynolds Price, born in Macon, North Carolina (1933).

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Langston Hughes, born in Joplin, Missouri (1902). He went to Columbia University for a year but then he decided that he wanted to learn from the world rather than books. He quit college, hopped a boat to Africa and as soon as the boat left New York Harbor he threw all his college books overboard. He took odd jobs on ships and made his way from Africa to France, Holland, Italy and finally back to the United States.

He got a job working as a busboy in a Washington, D.C. hotel and one day he left three poems he had written next to the plate of the poet Vachel Lindsey. Lindsey loved them and read them to an audience the very next day. Within a few years, Hughes had published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926).

He got involved in the Harlem Renaissance and he was one of the first African-American poets to embrace the language of lower-class black Americans. In his poem "Laughers" he made a list of what he called "my people": "Dish-washers, / Elevator boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers, / Nurses of Babies, / Loaders of Ships, /Rounders,/ Number writers, / Comedians in Vaudeville / And band-men in circuses—/ Dream-singers all."

It's the birthday of humorist S. J. (Sidney Joseph) Perelman, born in Brooklyn, New York (1904). He started working as a cartoonist when he was in college but he eventually switched to writing humorous essays for various magazines including the New Yorker. When his first collection of essays, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, came out in 1929, Groucho Marx wrote him a letter saying, "From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it."

Groucho persuaded him to come to Hollywood to write screenplays. He worked on Marx Brothers movies such as Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), but he hated Hollywood. He called it, "a dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth, the ethical sense of a pack of jackals, and a taste so degraded that it befouled everything it touched."

He eventually went back to writing essays for the New Yorker and published many collections, including The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1952) and Chicken Inspector No. 23 (1966).

One of his essays begins, "I guess I'm just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws."

He said, "For me [humor's] chief merit is the use of the unexpected, the glancing allusion, the deflation of pomposity, the constant repetition of one's helplessness in a majority of situations."

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