Sep. 30, 2010

Film Noir

by Nicholas Christopher

The girl on the rooftop stares out
over the city and grips a cold revolver.
Laundry flaps around her in the hot night.
Each streetlight haloes a sinister act.
People are trapped in their beds, dreaming of
the A-bomb and hatching get-rich-quick schemes.
Pickpockets and grifters prowl the streets.
Hit-men stalk informers and crooked cops hide in churches.
Are there no more picket fences and tea parties
in America? Does no one have a birthday anymore?
Even the ballgames are fixed, and the quiz shows.
Airplanes full of widows circle the skyline.
Young couples elope in stolen cars.
All the prostitutes were wronged terribly in childhood.
They wear polka dot skirts, black gloves, and trenchcoats.
Men strut around in boxy suits, fedoras, and palm-tree ties.
They jam into nightclubs or brawl in hotel rooms
while saxophone music drowns out their cries.
The girl in the shadows drops the revolver
and pushes through the laundry to the edge of the roof.
Her eyes are glassy, her hair blows wild.
She looks down at her lover sprawled on the sidewalk
and she screams.
A crowd gathers in a pool of neon.
It starts to rain.

"Film Noir" by Nicholas Christopher, from A Short History of the Island of Butterflies. © Penguin, 1986. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet laureate of the United States: W.S. Merwin, (books by this author) born in New York City on this day in 1927 and raised in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. He won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Carrier of Ladders and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for The Shadow of Sirius (published in 2008). He also won the 2005 National Book Award for Migration: New and Selected Poems.

He started writing poems when he was four or five years old, he said — at first, they were mostly hymns to give to his father, a Presbyterian minister. He studied literature and Romance languages at Princeton, gained the admiring attention of W. H. Auden, and published his first book of poems, A Mask for Janus, the year he turned 25.

He wrote plays for the Poet's Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, edited poetry for The Nation, and translated a lot of other people's poetry. He has translated verse from French and Spanish and Italian and Portuguese and Latin, and also from Yiddish and Japanese and Sanskrit. He translated Dante's Purgatorio and works by Pablo Neruda.

He lives in Hawaii on the lip of a dormant volcano in Maui, on what used to be a pineapple plantation. He's devoted to cultivating endangered palm trees and reforesting his land with native Hawaiian plants. He's deeply interested in Buddhism.

He once wrote: "Every year without knowing it I have passed the day/When the last fires will wave to me/And the silence will set out/Tireless traveler. ... Then I will no longer/Find myself in life as in a strange garment ...."

He said: "I think there's a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there's still time."

And he said: "Writing is something I know little about; less at some times than at others. I think, though, that so far as it is poetry it is a matter of correspondences: one glimpses them, pieces of an order, or thinks one does, and tries to convey the sense of what one has seen to those to whom it may matter, including, if possible, one's self."

His books of poems include The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973), Travels (1993), The Vixen (1996), Flower and Hand (1997),and The River Sound (1999).

In a poem called "Separation" Merwin wrote:

"Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of American writer Truman Capote, (books by this author) born in New Orleans (1924). When he was 17, he dropped out of school and got a job as an errand boy in the art department at The New Yorker magazine. He published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), when he was just 24 years old. But after writing a few more novels, Capote said, "I want to live more in the world that other people live in." And so he decided to try writing journalism, and he published In Cold Blood in 1966.

It's the birthday of writer and concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel, (books by this author) born in a small village in Transylvania (1928). He grew up in a Hasidic community and learned to love reading by studying the Pentateuch and other sacred texts. When he was 15, he and his family were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. His mother, sister, and father were all killed before World War II was over.

Wiesel survived the camp, but he couldn't write about his experiences for 10 years. Finally, a mentor, François Mauriac, persuaded Wiesel to write about the war. He wrote a 900-page memoir, which he condensed into the 127-page book called Night (1955). Night has become one of the most widely read books about the Holocaust. In 1986, Wiesel received the Nobel Prize in literature for his writing and teaching.

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