Dec. 22, 2010


by Tony Hoagland

I feel as if we opened a book about great ocean voyages
and found ourselves on a great ocean voyage:
sailing through December, around the horn of Christmas
and into the January Sea, and sailing on and on

in a novel without a moral but one in which
all the characters who died in the middle chapters
make the sunsets near the book's end more beautiful.

—And someone is spreading a map upon a table,
and someone is hanging a lantern from the stern,
and someone else says, "I'm only sorry
that I forgot my blue parka; It's turning cold."

Sunset like a burning wagon train
Sunrise like a dish of cantaloupe
Clouds like two armies clashing in the sky;
Icebergs and tropical storms,
That's the kind of thing that happens on our ocean voyage—

And in one of the chapters I was blinded by love
And in another, anger made us sick like swallowed glass
& I lay in my bunk and slept for so long,

I forgot about the ocean,
Which all the time was going by, right there, outside my cabin window.

And the sides of the ship were green as money,
             and the water made a sound like memory when we sailed.

Then it was summer. Under the constellation of the swan,
under the constellation of the horse.

At night we consoled ourselves
By discussing the meaning of homesickness.
But there was no home to go home to.
There was no getting around the ocean.
We had to go on finding out the story
                                                        by pushing into it—

The sea was no longer a metaphor.
The book was no longer a book.
That was the plot.
That was our marvelous punishment.

"Voyage" by Tony Hoagland, from Hard Rain. © Hollyridge Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man Entertainment Weekly called "America's greatest unknown writer." Poet Fred Chappell said that this writer is "not an underappreciated novelist; he is an undiscovered continent." He is often compared to Nabokov, and a few years ago The New Yorker called him "Faulkner crossed with Tom Robbins." It's writer Donald Harington (books by this author) that they're each talking about; he was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, on this day in 1935. He's the author of more than a dozen highly acclaimed but badly selling novels, including Lightning Bug (1970), The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (1975), The Cockroaches of Stay More (1989), The Choiring of the Trees (1991), and Butterfly Weed (1996).

He grew up in Little Rock and hated it there. But he loved summers with his grandma in a little Ozark village called Drakes Creek, and it became the basis for his fictional town of Stay More, the setting for almost all his novels. He described Stay More as "a community of some 113 souls in the Ozark Mountains of Newton County," a place whose residents were called "Stay Morons." It's a place The New York Times once described as "populated by shrewd hillbillies, reclusive millionaires, an itinerant motion-picture projectionist, a candidate for governor who wants to abolish hospitals and schools, and … talking insects who constitute their own Ozark subsociety."

Harington was in grad school at Harvard in the 1960s, studying art history, when he read a book that he really loved; he said it made for the "greatest single reading experience [he] ever had." That book was Set This House on Fire (1960) by William Styron. And shortly later, he read a newspaper review bashing that book. He decided to write to Styron to let him know how much he admired the book and how much it meant to him.

They became friends, and Styron encouraged Harington to quit teaching art history and begin writing seriously. He moved into a tiny New England shack, wrote a novel, and sent it off with Styron's seal of approval to Random House, where it was rejected. But they asked to see other things he'd written, and so he gave them a story about a 20-something-year-old Little Rock-born curator of a Boston organization devoted to "arcane Americana," to the "preservation of certain important relics, both tangible and intangible, of the Vanished American Past, or VAP as we abbreviate it around the office." It became his first novel, The Cherry Pit (1965), which was nominated for the Pen-Faulkner award.

He went on to write the novels Some Other Place. The Right Place (1972), Let Us Build Us a City: Eleven Lost Towns (1986), Ekaterina (1993), and Butterfly Weed (1996). He harbored what he called a "long-standing antipathy toward the New York Times Book Review," which he considered "abusive of its power," and so he started using the names of unfavorable reviewers, he said, as the names for "villains, dread diseases, and pernicious plants in several of [his] books." An unkind reviewer of one novel became the villain in a subsequent novel.

In 2008, he published Farther Along, and last year he published Enduring (2009). He died from pneumonia last year. Earlier this year, by a vote of 399-0, Congress passed House Resolution 1040, "Honoring the life and accomplishments of Donald Harington for his contributions to literature in the United States."

His book When Angels Rest begins:
"WHEN I WAS THOROUGHLY ELEVEN, WORKING ON TWELVE, I first met you. You were not part of the gang that beat me up, but you watched them do it. That was the first and only thing I knew about you for the longest time: you liked to watch. Of course you also liked to listen; did you hear it when the bone snapped in my arm? I did. And that was when I suddenly knew you were there. Probably, without even knowing it, I had been waiting for you a very long time."

Donald Harington said: "If you are destined to become a writer, you can't help it. If you can help it, you aren't destined to become a writer. The frustrations and disappointments, not even to mention the unspeakable loneliness, are too unbearable for anyone who doesn't have a deep sense of being unable to avoid writing."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of poet Kenneth Rexroth, (books by this author) born on this day in South Bend, Indiana (1905). He lived on Chicago's West Side, traveled around the States, and then settled in San Francisco when the city was the new destination for young artists. There, he hung out with poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He published more than 50 books of poetry, including The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944) and In Defense of the Earth (1956). He once said, "Man thrives where angels would die of ecstasy and where pigs would die of disgust."

It's the birthday of composer Giacomo Puccini, born in Lucca, Tuscany (1858). Puccini's four greatest operas all begin with a love story, focus on the female lead, and end tragically. They are La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madame Butterfly (1904), and Turandot, which was left incomplete at Puccini's death in 1924.

Today is the birthday of Thomas Higginson, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1823), whom we know today as the publisher of Emily Dickinson's poetry. He received a letter from Dickinson in the spring of 1862 with four of her poems asking, "Mr. Higginson ... Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?" He read the poems, but he did not know what to make of them. After her death, he helped edit and publish her poetry, rewriting many of her verses, and making them more acceptable for society. Later, scholars would spend years undoing his changes.

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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