Oct. 21, 2009


by Kay Ryan

Patience is
wider than one
once envisioned,
with ribbons
of rivers
and distant
ranges and
tasks undertaken
and finished
with modest
relish by
natives in their
native dress.
Who would
have guessed
it possible
that waiting
is sustainable—
a place with
its own harvests.
Or that in
time's fullness
the diamonds
of patience
couldn't be
from the genuine
in brilliance
or hardness.

"Patience" by Kay Ryan from Say Uncle. © Grove Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Alfred Nobel, (books by this author) born in Stockholm (1833), for whom the Nobel Prizes are named. He was the owner of a company that manufactured weapons, which earned him a great fortune, and he was also the inventor of dynamite. He even came up with the name for the dangerous explosive himself; at first he thought of calling it "Nobel's Safety Powder" but in the end settled on "Dynamite," related to the Greek word for strength.

Nobel's enormous legacy — the impetus to leave the prize money now awarded to Nobel laureates — actually stemmed from an event that left him with feelings of great indignation. After his older brother Ludvig died, a French newspaper printed a scathing obituary of Alfred Nobel, who was in fact alive and well. The writer was allegedly confused about who had died, and he used the obituary to write a condemnation of Alfred's life and work. "Le marchand de la mort est mort ('The merchant of death is dead')," the newspaper proclaimed — and also, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday."

Alfred Nobel read the obituary about himself and was so upset that this was to be his legacy that he rewrote his will to establish a set of prizes celebrating humankind's greatest achievements. He wrote this final will about a year before he died and signed it at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris. He left 94 percent of his assets to create and endow five Nobel Prizes: physics, chemistry, physiology or medical works, literature, and peace. The first four were to be chosen by Swedish committees and presented in Stockholm; the peace prize was delegated to a Norwegian committee and is presented in Oslo.

The way Alfred Nobel's instructions were written for the prize in literature are open to (mis)interpretation, and because the instructions were in his will and he was not around to offer clarification about what he meant, there's been a lot of confusion and debate over the years about what sort of literary works are eligible for the Nobel literature prize. The prize, he wrote in Swedish, should be awarded to the most outstanding work in literature "i idealisk riktning." In Swedish, this can mean either in either an "idealistic" direction or in an "ideal" direction.

If it means "ideal," then the criteria for judging center on the quality of the writing itself, its aesthetic or thematic value. But if it's interpreted as "idealistic," the criteria for judging revolve around the ideals or goals of the writer, and in this case aesthetic and stylistic value are mostly rendered irrelevant. For the first decade of its existence, the Nobel Committee opted for the latter interpretation, choosing writers who espoused idealism, and during this time Nobel-nominated writers like Tolstoy, Ibsen, Zola, and Mark Twain were rejected for the prize. But even after the more liberal interpretation of Nobel's words became the standard for judging, a great number of luminous literary giants have been excluded by the Nobel Committee, including Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, and Borges.

The Nobel awards ceremony is held every year on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death. Laureates are announced in October. Then there is "Nobel Week" where the year's laureates give speeches and then the King of Sweden hands the laureates their prizes in Stockholm. The peace prize is the exception; the ceremony is held in Oslo and the prize is distributed by the Chairman of the Nobel Committee, while the King of Norway looks on. Each laureate receives a gold medal featuring the face of Alfred Nobel, a diploma, and about a million dollars.

There's also now an annual ceremony to award the Ig Nobel Prizes, held on the campus at Harvard and handed out by real Nobel laureates. The prizes, established in 1991, are a parody of the Nobel awards and are for achievements that "first make people laugh, and then make them think."

Recent science and technology awards have gone to vets in France "for discovering that the fleas that live on a dog can jump higher than the fleas that live on a cat" (Biology); and to Argentinean scientists "for their discovery that Viagra aids jet lag recovery in hamsters" (Aviation); and a Princeton professor claimed the prize in literature recently for his 17-page cognitive psychology report entitled "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly."

The awards ceremony, held in early October each year, always concludes with the proclamation: "If you didn't win a prize — and especially if you did — better luck next year!"

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