Jul. 22, 2006

Letter to N.Y.

by Elizabeth Bishop

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Letter to N.Y." by Elizabeth Bishop from The Complete Poems 1927-1979. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Letter to N.Y.
For Louise Crane

In your next letter I wish you'd say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you're pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,

and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves
and suddenly you're in a different place
where everything seems to happen in waves,

and most of the jokes you just can't catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so terribly late,

and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.

—Wheat, not oats, dear. I'm afraid
if it's wheat it's none of your sowing,
nevertheless I'd like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Stephen Vincent Benét, (books by this author) born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1898). He was one of the most popular poets of his day, and today he's remembered for his epic poem about the Civil War, John Brown's Body (1928). It was one of the best-selling poems of all time, 15,000 lines of rhymed verse, telling the story of the Civil War from beginning to end. It made Benét a fortune, but he lost most if it in the stock market crash of 1929.

It's the birthday of novelist Tom Robbins, (books by this author) born in Blowing Rock, North Carolina (1936). He's known for novels such as Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976), Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas (1994), and Villa Incognito (2003). After college, he hitchhiked around the United States until he was drafted and sent to Korea. He taught meteorology to South Korean fighter pilots.

Robbins worked for a while as a journalist in Seattle and got involved in the counterculture movement. He wrote his first novel, Another Roadside Attraction (1971), which became a word-of-mouth best-seller among college students and hippies.

Robbins has gone on to write many more best-selling books. He says that when he starts a book, he has no idea of what the story will be. He never outlines and never revises. He just works on each sentence until he thinks it's perfect, sometimes for more than an hour, and then he moves on to the next one. He said, "I'm probably more interested in sentences than anything else in life."

It's the birthday of the painter Edward Hopper, (books by this author) born in Nyack, New York (1882). By the time he was twelve years old, he was already six feet tall, skinny, and gangly. He studied art and took a trip to Paris as a young man, which was where he fell in love with light. He said that the light in Paris was unlike any light he'd ever seen before. He tried to recreate that light in his paintings at the time.

He worked for a while as an illustrator for an advertising agency in New York City, a job that he hated. But in his spare time, he drove around and painted uniquely American places: train stations, gas stations, corner saloons. He also became one of the first American painters to paint office scenes—people working late at the office, sitting at desks high above the city.

Hopper had only sold one painting by the time he was forty years old, but his first major exhibition in 1933 at the Museum of Modern Art made him famous. He lived and worked in the same walk-up apartment in New York's Washington Square from 1913 until 1967. He ate almost every meal of his adult life in a diner, and he tried never to ride in a taxi. He loved the theater, but even after he made it big as an artist, he continued to sit in the cheap seats. He never had any children with his wife, and he never included a single child in any of his paintings. The closest he got to depicting a child was his painting "New York Pavements," which shows a nun pushing a baby carriage. His painting "Four Lane Road" is his only painting that shows people communicating: a woman is yelling at a man.

Edward Hopper said, "Maybe I am slightly inhuman. ... All I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house."

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