Feb. 6, 2011

Modern Declaration

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I, having loved ever since I was a child a few things, never
        having wavered
In these affections; never through shyness in the houses of the
        rich or in the presence of clergymen having denied these
Never when worked upon by cynics like chiropractors having
        grunted or clicked a vertebra to the discredit of these
Never when anxious to land a job having diminished them by
        a conniving smile; or when befuddled by drink
Jeered at them through heartache or lazily fondled the fingers
        of their alert enemies; declare

That I shall love you always.
No matter what party is in power;
No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied
        interest wins the war;
Shall love you always.

"Modern Declaration" by Edna St. Vincent Millay, from Selected Poems. © HarperPerennial. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of lexicographer Eric Partridge, (books by this author) born on a farm near Gisborne, New Zealand (1894). He was a good student, and he started teaching school at the age of 16. He fought in World War I, finished college, and went to graduate school at Oxford. He became a professor, and taught in England for a few years. Then he founded a publishing house. After all that, he said, "Finally I did what I should have done long before: became a professional writer, mostly on the subject of English — usage, composition, grammar; slang and cant; clichés, jargon, punctuation, etc."

As a professional writer, he went to the same desk in the British Library every single day for about 50 years, and there he wrote books like A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937), A Dictionary of the Underworld (1949), and You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and its Allies (1978). Some scholars disliked Partridge because he himself wasn't all that scholarly — he preferred to make his books readable, even when he was writing about the language of Shakespeare or Jonathan Swift.

He said, "Every worthwhile book contains many faults, and every worthwhile writer commits them."

It's the birthday of the man nicknamed "the Sultan of Swat," "the Bambino," and, most famously, "Babe" Ruth, born George Herman Ruth Jr. in Baltimore, Maryland (1895). His mother gave birth to eight children, but only George — called "Little George" to distinguish him from his father, "Big George" — and one sister survived. He said later: "My earliest recollections center about the dirty, traffic-crowded streets of Baltimore's riverfront. Crowded streets they were, too, noisy with the roar of heavy trucks whose drivers cursed and swore and aimed blows with their driving whips, at the legs of kids who made the streets their playground. And the youngsters, running wild, struck back and echoed the curses. Truck-drivers were our enemies: so were the coppers patrolling their beats, and so too were the shopkeepers who took bruising payment from our skins for the apples and the fruit we 'snitched' from their stands and counters. A rough, tough neighborhood, but I liked it."

Young George ran wild while his parents devoted all their time to operating a seedy tavern; he almost never saw them. When he was seven, his father decided he couldn't take care of his son, so he took him to an orphanage and reformatory called St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. He signed over custody of George to the priests who ran the school. He was a terrible student; he drank and smoked and got into all sorts of trouble. But one of the priests, Brother Matthias, took George under his wing. He was in charge of disciplinary action for the school, so he saw quite a lot of George. Brother Matthias was 6 feet 6 inches, and 250 pounds. He taught George how to play baseball, and the boy was naturally talented at it. It was his one solace in a life of prayer, classes, and disgusting food.

He spent 12 years of his life at St. Mary's. Somehow, when he was 19 years old, the recruiter for the minor league Baltimore Orioles saw Ruth play and signed him on for a $600 contract, an amount that seemed incredible to him at the time. And so he went straight from Catholic school to the world of baseball. When he got to training camp, the other players were amused at how young Ruth was, and called him one of the recruiter's "babes," and the nickname stuck.

Ruth only stayed with the Orioles for five months, and then got sold to the major league Boston Red Sox in 1914. He spent most of the first year with the Red Sox optioned off to a minor league team, but by the next year he was playing regularly. By 1918, he was a star pitcher, and he helped the Red Sox win another World Series by pitching a record 29 scoreless innings. The Red Sox had been in five World Series and won them all, and they were having an especially good few years — they won the World Series in 1912, 1915, 1916, and now again in 1918. The next year, 1919, Babe Ruth decided to focus more on hitting than on pitching, and hit a record 29 home runs.

But in January of 1920, the owner of the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. One reporter wrote: "Boston's greatest baseball player has been cast adrift. George H. Ruth, the middle initial apparently standing for 'Hercules', maker of home runs and the most colorful star in the game today, became the property of the New York Yankees." Another journalist complained that the team had "lost the greatest drawing card the game has ever known, and the esteem of many of thousands of supporters." After the sale of Babe Ruth, the Red Sox failed over and over to win the World Series, and people started referring to their failure as the "curse of the Bambino," their punishment for having sold Babe Ruth. It took them 86 years, until 2004, to win another World Series.

The New York Yankees, on the other hand, were thrilled to acquire Ruth, and he started the team on its path to success. In 1920, Ruth hit 54 home runs, more than the next three most successful hitters combined. In 1921, the Yankees won their first American League pennant, and in 1923 they won their first World Series. As of now, they have won the World Series 27 times, more than any other baseball team — in fact, more than any other team has even appeared in the World Series, much less won it.

Babe Ruth's legend continued to grow. In 1921, he hit 59 home runs. From 1923 until 1931, he led the league in home runs every year but one. He seemed larger-than-life at everything he did. The sportswriter H.G. Salsinger wrote: "He could eat more, drink more, smoke more, swear more, and enjoy himself more than any contemporary." Another sportswriter, Heywood Broun, called Ruth "a liberator who endeavored by personal example to show that no fun could ever hurt you." He was famous for not sleeping and still hitting home runs. His colleague Paul Derringer, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, said he once saw Ruth eat breakfast: he started out with a quart of bourbon and ginger ale, then moved on to a porterhouse steak, four fried eggs, a mound of potatoes, toast, and a pot of coffee.

In 1929, Ruth signed a contract for $80,000 a year, an unheard-of amount. A journalist asked Ruth if he thought it seemed right that he was making more than the president — Herbert Hoover earned just $75,000 a year. It was the year of the stock market crash, and Ruth replied: "Why not? I had a better year than he did."

The sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote a poem called "Son of Swat — Babe Ruth." In it, he wrote: "I've seen a few I thought could hit, / Who fed the crowd on four-base rations; / But you, Babe, are the only it — / The rest are merely imitations. / I've seen them swing with all they've got / And tear into it for a mop-up; / But what they deem a lusty swat / To you is but a futile pop-up."

It's the birthday of one of the earliest self-help writers, Walter B. Pitkin, (books by this author) born in Ypsilanti, Michigan (1878). Despite dropping out of college, he was offered a position as a professor at Columbia University, and he taught psychology, philosophy, and journalism there for about 40 years.

His books include The Psychology of Happiness (1929), Life Begins at Forty (1932), A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity (1932), Take it Easy: The Art of Relaxation (1935), and Road to a Richer Life (1949).

He wrote: "Life begins at forty. This is the revolutionary outcome of our New Era. Today it is half a truth. Tomorrow it will be an axiom."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of journalist Michael Pollan, (books by this author) born on Long Island, New York (1955). He's the author of best-selling books about food: The Botany of Desire (2001), The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), In Defense of Food (2008), and Food Rules (2010). His nutrition philosophy is: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

He said, "A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule."

And, "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."

It's the birthday of poet Victor Hernández Cruz, (books by this author) born in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico (1954). His parents moved to New York City when he was six years old, and he grew up on the Lower East Side. He started writing poetry when he was a teenager.

When he was 17, he and some friends found an old mimeograph machine and carried it up six flights of stairs to print 500 copies of Cruz's first book of poems, Papo Got His Gun (1966). He distributed the book to local bookstores and asked them to sell it for 75 cents each. An editor of a New York literary magazine happened to see the book, and he published several of the poems in the Evergreen Review.

Cruz was so excited about the publication that he dropped out of high school and joined a theater group that wrote and performed plays in the streets. He went on to become an important member of the group of writers known as the Nuyorican poets — poets from Puerto Rico who grew up in New York City and who write about the blending of the two cultures. He has published many books of poetry, including Snaps (1969), Tropicalization (1976), and most recently, The Mountain in the Sea (2006).

He said: "Exile and political upheaval have intervened with the lives of great writers and confronted them with the reality that they might have to express themselves in a language other than their mother tongue. The poetic voice is difficult to translate or even impossible, so your poems will be better in the language you developed poetically. Prose you could probably write at the same level in both languages. I am a writer with a Caribbean Spanish linguistic soul that uses the English language, appropriates the English and submits it to my flavors and my longings."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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