Sep. 25, 2008

When I Call

by John Brantingham

As I talk to her,
I like to think of
our paperback copy
of Thomas More's
Utopia sitting

on the phone table.
No one reads Utopia
No one has ever
read Utopia
No one has ever

wanted to read
Utopia, not
even Thomas More.
The only action
it will ever see

is when she absently
flips its pages while
she talks to me . When
I call, I like to
think of her doing that.

"When I Call" by John Brantingham from Putting in a Window. © Finishing Line Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of William Faulkner, (books by this author) born in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi. Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1950, and in his acceptance speech he said:

"It is the poet's privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

It's the birthday of the poet and translator C. K. (Charles Kenneth) Scott-Moncrieff, (books by this author) born in Stirlingshire, Scotland (1889), the first person to translate the work of Marcel Proust into English.

This week, we continue to celebrate the anniversary of the Norman invasion of 1066. It was this week in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy first arrived on British soil. The French-speaking Normans eventually defeated Old English-speaking Saxons at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066 — which had a larger and more pronounced effect on the development of the English language than any other event in history. Within the course of a few centuries, English went from being a strictly Germanic language to one infused with a large Latinate vocabulary, which came via French.

The English word literature comes down from the Old French lettre. In the singular, the word in French refers to a member of the alphabet; when it's plural, it's as broad as it is in our phrase "Arts and Letters," encompassing literature and culture.

The pen with which we write may be mightier than the sword, but it was still a sharp object, at least when it first came into English from the Old French penne, "a feather with a sharpened quill." It was dipped in enque, which surely was spilled sometimes. This Old French word for ink came from a Latin word that described the purple fluid meant for a very specific use: the Roman emperor's official stamp of approval, his John Hancock.

Various genres of English literature derive their names from French roots, some of which ultimately derived from Greek. Poet, for example, we got from the Old French word poete, which entered French from Greek via Latin. In Greek, there's poiein, a verb meaning "to create." And in Greek there is poetes, "maker, poet." In Middle English, "poetry" at first referred to creative literature as a whole.

Tragedy in English is from the Old French tragedie via Latin from Greek tragoidia. The reasoning behind the Greek roots (tragos, meaning "goat" and oide "ode, song") is not entirely clear. On that note, mystery, from Old French mistere, was a word first used in English with the sense of "mystic presence" or "hidden religious" symbolism.

Comedy at first referred in English to a genre of stories in which the ending was a happy one. It also came into Middle English through Old French, via Latin from Greek, where it's a compound of the words "revel" and "singer." Comedian first referred to a person who wrote comic plays, and then — in the late 1800s — developed the sense of a person who stands in front of an audience and tells jokes.

Journal is from Old French jurnal, or "belonging to a day." At first, it was a sort of reference book that contained the times of daily prayers. In the 1600s, it acquired the meaning of "diary" and later became associated with newspaper titles and lent its root to journalism.

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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