Nov. 19, 2006


by Daniel Hoffman

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Philosophy" by Daniel Hoffman, from Makes You Stop and Think: Sonnets. © George Braziller. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


In sophomore year the great philosopher,
Then ninety, out of retirement came, to pass
His wisdom on to one more generation.
Reading his last lecture to our class,

That afternoon the mote-filled sunlight leaned
Attentively with purpose through the tall
Windows in amber buttresses that seemed
To gird the heavens so they wouldn't fall.

The blaze of his white mane, his hooded eyes,
The voice that plumbed us from reflection's skies
So far above temptation or reward—

The scene has never left my mind. I wrote
His lecture down, but, in an old trunk, my notes
Have crumbled, and I can't recall a word.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Sharon Olds, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1942). Olds studied as many languages as she could in college, including French, Italian, German, Greek, and Middle English. She went on to get a Ph.D. in American Literature at Columbia. She spent 10 years trying to write good poetry, but she felt that she was just imitating other poets. Then, when she was 30 years old, she said, "I had kind of a religious experience. I made a vow to Satan on the steps of Columbia University. ... I said, I will give up all I have learned here if I can just write my own poems and I don't care if they're good. I just want to write my own stuff."

A few years later, Olds was still struggling when she heard about a writing workshop that would be held at the local YMCA with the poet Muriel Rukeyser. It turned out to be the last class that Muriel Rukeyser taught, and Olds said that it changed her life. She said that Rukeyser's advice was to write about the things that they tell you to forget.

She finally published her first book of poems, Satan Says, in 1980, when she was 37. She said, "I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky."

Olds has since published many more collections including The Dead and the Living (1984), The Father (1992), and Blood, Tin, Straw (1999).

It was on this date in 1861 that Mrs. Julia Ward Howe sat down and wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The poem was first published in the February 1862 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and later set to the popular melody "Glory Hallelujah."

It was on this day in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln (books by this author) got up in front of about 15,000 people seated at a new national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and delivered the Gettysburg Address.

The men killed in the battle had been buried hastily in shallow graves with haphazard wooden markers, but in the months since the battle, a man named David Wills oversaw the task of identifying and burying the dead properly. There would be a ceremony to dedicate the new cemetery, and Wills invited the most popular poets of the day to write something in honor of the occasion they all declined. So David Wills invited Edward Everett, a well-known speaker who was famous for his speeches about battlefields.

It was almost as an afterthought that Wills decided to invite President Lincoln to the ceremony, and Lincoln chose to attend the ceremony even though his wife begged him not to. One of their sons was sick, and they had recently lost another son to illness. But Lincoln thought the event was too important to miss. It would give him a chance to clarify the reasons for continuing to fight the war, even as it continued to claim tens of thousands of lives.

No one is sure exactly when Lincoln wrote his speech. Most people who knew him said that he spent a great deal of time writing every public statement he ever made, so he probably composed the first draft in Washington D.C. Witnesses said they saw him working on the speech on the train ride to Pennsylvania, and others said that they saw him working in his room the night before the event."

It was a foggy, cold morning on this day in 1863. Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon the sun broke out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator Edward Everett spoke for more than two hours. At that time, a two-hour speech was quite normal. Everett described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once.

When Everett was finished, Lincoln got up, and pulled his speech from his coat pocket. It consisted of 10 sentences, a total of 272 words. The audience was distracted by a photographer setting up his camera, and by the time Lincoln had finished his speech and sat down the audience didn't even realize he had spoken. But the speech was reprinted in newspapers around the country, and it went on to become one of the most important speeches in American history.

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