Dec. 9, 2010

729 The Props assist the House

by Emily Dickinson

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul

"The Props assist the House" by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Léonie Adams, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn (1899). She grew up in a family of six children. Her father had a good memory and would recite passages from Milton or Shakespeare, which made her love poetry, and she started writing her own poems when she was seven years old.

She went on to Barnard College, and there she fell in with a group of smart, high-spirited girls who called themselves the "Ash Can Cats" after a beloved teacher told Léonie that when she and her friends came into class in the mornings after staying up all night reading poetry, they looked like ash can cats. They were also dubbed, at different times, "the mental and moral mess" and "the Communist Morons." They called themselves a family, with "children" and "parents." The parents were Léonie and Margaret Mead, the ringleaders of the group. But Mead was definitely the one in charge, outspoken and ambitious. Adams, on the other hand, was very shy, and often blushed when she was spoken to in public. Mead and Adams shared an apartment, and organized group dinners, poetry readings, and campus antics. The group of girls encouraged each other to bob their hair, a radical look for the time. They loved Edna St. Vincent Millay, and often when they went out to eat they would bring a candle, put it on its side, and light it at both ends while they recited "First Fig," which begins: "My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — / It gives a lovely light!"

One of the Ash Can Cats' favorite holidays was May Day. They made elaborate May baskets and delivered them to their favorite people. For their final year of May Day baskets — the year that the last of their group was graduating from Barnard — they went into Greenwich Village and took one to Edna St. Vincent Millay. Years later Margaret Mead wrote a letter to friends, and she said: "This May day which has been a day that my college group have always celebrated; one year we gave a maybasket to Edna St. Vincent Millay — and got caught in a narrow garden underneath a midnight moon and Léonie took her glove off to shake hands and flung it over the wall into the next garden. This year Cathy made a maybasket for Léonie, and put three of her own poems in it, and got herself caught and the poems read and came back with Léonie's new book — the first in 25 years — for me."

Mead was referring to Poems: A Selection, published in 1954. Adams published just four books of poems during her career — Those Not Elect (1925), followed soon after by High Falcon and Other Poems (1929) and This Measure (1933). And then she did take a long break, 21 years, before publishing Poems: A Selection.

On October 1st, 1948, Robert Lowell wrote a letter to his good friend Elizabeth Bishop. He wrote: "Léonie Adams is a queer one, so shy she mumbles inaudibly half the time, and very funny telling New York stories or about her induction tour of the Library — all for the intense lyrical Blakean kind of poetry, and though she hasn't published for almost 20 years carries around a little child's green copybook with scribblings for poems, and occasionally loses it. She said you'd told her Auden was much better than Yeats. And she'd said you'd outgrow it; and you'd said 'How old are you?' She's a great admirer of your poetry."

In her poem "Thought's End," Adams wrote:
            "O heart more frightened than a wild bird's wings
            Beating at green, now is no fiery mark
            Left on the quiet nothingness of things.
            Be self no more against the flooding dark;
            There thousandwise, sown in that cloudy blot,
            Stars that are worlds look out and see you not."

It's the birthday of poet John Milton, (books by this author) born in London (1608). He spent most of his life writing political tracts. He sided with Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War, and he advocated for freedom of the press, freedom to divorce, and the moral right of the people to overthrow a monarch. He got a job as Secretary of Foreign Tongues, composing official materials for the Commonwealth in Latin. Just three years after his appointment, he went totally blind from glaucoma at the age of 43. So from then on, he had to dictate. His main assistant was the poet Andrew Marvell. After the Commonwealth was overthrown in 1660 and Charles was restored to the throne, Milton feared for his life. But partly through the interventions of Marvell, he was spared, and retired to the country.

And it was there that he dictated his great epic poem Paradise Lost to a collection of nephews, friends, and hired scribes — and maybe his daughters, although there is plenty of debate about whether the girls had even been taught to write. He often composed in the early morning, in bed or sitting in a rocking chair, reciting lines to himself until someone came to write them down. After scribes had written down Milton's words, he would have them read the passage back to him so he could correct it. When it was finally completed to his satisfaction, Milton sold Paradise Lost in 1667. He agreed on a price of four £5 payments — the first upfront, the second after it sold 1,300 copies, the third after a second edition was brought out and sold as many copies, and a fourth payment after a third edition of the same volume. Milton made £10 on Paradise Lost before his death in 1674.

Milton coined more than 600 words, including the adjectives dreary, flowery, jubilant, satanic, saintly, terrific, ethereal, sublime, impassive, unprincipled, dismissive, and feverish; as well as the nouns fragrance, adventurer, anarchy, and many more.

It's the birthday of writer and illustrator Jean de Brunhoff, (books by this author) born in Paris (1899). He was a professional painter, and his wife, Cecile, was a classically trained pianist. They had two sons, and when one of them got sick, Cecile made up a story about an elephant to distract him. The boys loved the story so much that they went ahead and told it to their dad and asked him to draw some pictures. He did, writing the story along with it, and his older brother, a publisher, thought it was great. In 1931, The Story of Babar was published, and it was an immediate success. So de Brunhoff wrote six more Babar books. But only three of them were published before he died of tuberculosis, at the age of 37. The writer Ida Treat said that he was "tall, slightly stooped, with a smile that was somehow younger than his age … and the eyes were beautiful: the eyes of a man who lives much alone, who looks at the world and is not of it, mountaineer eyes, and a quick boyish smile."

De Brunhoff's oldest son, Laurent, was a talented artist as well. Ten years after his father's death, Laurent de Brunhoff was 22 years old and had studied at an art school in Paris, and he decided he was ready to resurrect his fathers' series. He has been writing and illustrating Babar books ever since.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote the Uncle Remus stories, Joel Chandler Harris, (books by this author) born in Eatonton, Georgia (1848). His father left his mother just before his birth, and Harris was ashamed to be considered an illegitimate child. He was shy growing up, but neighbors recognized his intelligence and helped pay for his education. He spent a lot of time at the local post office, where the postmaster would give him old papers and magazines to read. When he was 13 years old, Harris saw an advertisement for a printer's assistant at a newspaper published at a local plantation. He applied, and got the job.

While he was working for the newspaper, he met some of the slaves on the plantation. He loved listening to the stories they told about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and other animals in the Briar Patch. When the Civil War began, Chandler left the plantation to work for newspapers in cities all across the South.

He was working for the Atlanta Constitution when he began to publish the tales he had heard years earlier, under the title Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings (1880), the first of many Uncle Remus collections. He wrote the tales in a southern, African-American dialect that he claimed was an exact reproduction of the speech he heard as a young man. He said he wanted to teach his readers that "it is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice, but mischievousness."

The Uncle Remus stories were soon syndicated in newspapers across the country, and they were especially popular in the North. Since the time of their publication, Harris' reputation has gone through many different phases. For a while, he was considered a champion of African-American rights; later he was accused of stereotyping plantation slaves; now he's seen as a complex artist and entertainer. Linguists and folklorists used his stories for years as a primary source of material from 19th-century southern plantations. But scholars are now less convinced that his stories are completely authentic.

Joel Chandler Harris said, "Write about what you know and care deeply about. When one puts one's self on paper — that is what is called good writing."

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