Dec. 8, 2010


by Glenn Shea

There among the aisles and chapels
it still goes on, the old life,
amidst the medieval racket
of post cards and sacred crockery,
the gabbled cloud of foreign tongues
and people peering at dark corners;
the old life persists, mostly among the old;
the woman leaning to kiss the Virgin's brocaded hem;
the murmur of the devout; white candles
and the clink of francs in the mission box.
A boy of eighteen knelt before the altar,
his face hid in his hands, the muddle
of the life outside pursuing him here as well.

For gems, the painted glass, and for choirs
the figures carved in stone;
Chartres stood their sketch of Paradise,
the place where, as best it could on earth,
time stopped. It was to be,
as an arch gives stone the power of flight,
the place where faith would give
the clay of flesh its flight, a semblance
whose stones would tug the heart towards prayer,
build in it the desiring of heaven.

I saw the boy again. At the west door,
beneath the rose of the Judgment,
he met a friend and took him to the font.
He put his fingertips in the holy water
and with them dripping made the sign of the cross
on the body of his friend:
touched his forehead first, the flat of his chest,
the left shoulder, then the right, and last
the slight swell of his belly.

The other in turn, fingers wetted,
touched the forehead of his friend, the chest,
left shoulder and right shoulder
and belly. They turned to go,
the bead mark of water on their brows.

And when I knelt before the altar,
I prayed: abject as any man is
in the weight of his faults, scanted
of hope, but who had seen at least the image
of what he desired: another like himself,
whose flesh he might inscribe
with the water of blessing.

"Chartres" by Glenn Shea, from Find a Place That Could Pass for Home. © Salmon Poetry, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known as Horace, (books by this author) born in 65 B.C. in Venusia, in southern Italy. His father was a freed slave who farmed in Venusia and then got a well-paying job in Rome, acting as an intermediary at auctions for a cut of the profit. He put all his money toward his son's education, and sent him to the best school in Rome. From there, Horace went to Athens, and fought on the losing side against Marc Antony and Octavian, who became the Emperor Augustus. So he lost all his family property and he was out of a job.

Luckily, Octavian declared amnesty for all the soldiers, and Horace headed back to Rome. He became friends with Virgil and other contemporary poets, and one of Augustus' advisors became his patron and gave Horace a farm. Horace liked country life, and he often stayed in bed for most of the morning.

He ended up a favorite of Augustus, who once said, "Be as mindful of Horatius Flaccus as you are of me!" The emperor sent Horace gifts, called him pet names, wrote him letters, and complained that not enough of Horace's poems were directed toward him. In one letter to Horace, he wrote: "Disonysius has brought me your small volume, which, little as it is, not to blame you for that, I shall judge favorably. You seem to me, however, to be afraid lest your volumes should be bigger than yourself. But if you are short in stature, you are corpulent enough. You may, therefore, if you will, write in a quart, when the size of your volume is as large round as your paunch."

Horace is best known for his Odes, a collection of poems celebrating everyday things.
He wrote an ode about winter, which begins:
See how Soracte stands glistening with snowfall,
and the laboring woods bend under the weight:
see how the mountain streams are frozen,
cased in the ice by the shuddering cold?

Drive away bitterness, and pile on the logs,
bury the hearthstones, and, with generous heart,
out of the four-year old Sabine jars,
O Thaliarchus, bring on the true wine.

(translated by A.S. Kline)

It's the birthday of poet James Tate, (books by this author) born in Kansas City (1943). His father was a pilot in World War II and died in a crash when James was just four months old. His mother remarried a man who looked like his father, but he left after a few months. Then she married a man who abused her. James was a pretty tough teenager, belonged to a gang in high school, and when he was 16 James took a gun and put it to his stepfather's head so that he would quit abusing his mother.

He wasn't interested in reading or poetry — he had planned a career as a gas station attendant. After he graduated from high school, he was shocked to realize that all his acquaintances were going off to college, so he tried to find somewhere that would accept him last-minute and with terrible grades, and he ended up at Kansas State College in Pittsburg, Kansas. There, he decided that he loved school, and that he wanted to be a poet. One of his teachers encouraged him to go to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, so instead of applying he just went to Iowa City, walked into the office, and said that he wanted to enroll. The secretary called up Donald Justice, who came right over to meet him, read through some poems, and told James Tate he was accepted. At the Workshop, he was amazed at the fact that everyone around him wrote poetry — he had known a fiction writer in college and a couple of artists, but never other poets.

He published his first collection, The Lost Pilot (1967), when he was just 23 years old, in his second semester at Iowa. It won the Yale Younger Poets competition. He has written more than 20 books of poetry since then, including his Selected Poems (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize; Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1995), which won the National Book Award; and most recently, The Ghost Soldiers (2008).

He said: "Most people don't have a sense of humor in the first place. So if they find themselves laughing at the end of an experience, they are almost distrustful of themselves — like, what happened to me? Today, for instance, on the tragedy side we could easily be talking about the hideous effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, or we could be talking about the Iraq war. But we can go out tonight and hear a great jazz band. We could spend a night with friends, laughing and drinking and toasting and saying how wonderful life is. Simultaneously, we all know that we're enshrouded in tragedy, lies, and all kinds of evil. Torture, for God's sake! And heaps of evil beyond what we can contemplate, and yet life is wonderful for those of us who haven't been directly affected. So we walk around balancing the two all the time. I, for one, am not giving in. I am not going to walk around in tears all day long. I still want to have a good day if I can. In my poems, I try — God knows, probably unsuccessfully — to bring that home."

It was on this day in 1660 that a female actress appeared on stage in the role of Desdemona in Othello, probably the first appearance by a professional actress in England. For many years, the parts of women were played by boys or men. The British first saw female actresses on stage much earlier, in 1629, when a traveling troupe from France included women as well as men. But they were not received well — according to one audience member, the women were "hissed, hooted, and pippin-pelted off the stage." In 1632, William Prynne published an 1,100-page document called Histriomastix, condemning the theater, particularly female actresses. In his index, he included the entry: "Women-Actors, notorious whores."

But by 1660, Thomas Killigrew's King's Company felt confident enough to feature a woman as Desdemona in a performance of Othello at the company playhouse at Vere Street. There is no record of who the actress was, but most scholars guess that it was Margaret Hughes, whom Samuel Pepys described as "a mighty pretty woman."

An actor came out before the opening scene to deliver a prologue that would let the audience know about the big change, and explain why the male actors weren't working out so well.

He said:
"I come, unknown to any of the rest.
To tell the news: I saw the lady drest.
The woman plays today, mistake me not,
No man in gown or page in petticoat.
A woman to my knowledge, yet I cann't,
If I should dye, make affidavit on't.
In this reforming age
We have intents to civilize the stage.
Our women are defective, and so sized
You'd think they were some of the guard disguised;
For, to speak truth, men act, that are between
Forty and fifty, wenches of fifteen;
With bone so large and nerve so incompliant,
When you call Desdemona, enter giant."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the humorist James Thurber, (books by this author) born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). He was one of the most important early staff writers for The New Yorker magazine, but he had a lot of trouble getting hired there. He started submitting humor pieces to The  New Yorker in 1926, when the magazine was barely a year old. He said, "My pieces came back so fast I began to believe The New Yorker must have a rejection machine."

He took a job at the New York Evening Post, but he knew he wanted to write humor, so he kept at it. He was living in a basement apartment with his first wife. She thought that after 20 of his humor pieces had failed to find a publisher, he should probably give up. But one night, he set his alarm clock to go off 45 minutes after he'd fallen asleep, and he woke up in sleepy daze and wrote the first thing that came to mind: a story about a man going round and round in a revolving door, attracting crowds and the police and eventually setting the world record for revolving door laps. It became his first piece to be published in The New Yorker.

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