Feb. 16, 2011

The Blind Old Man

by Robert Bly

I don't know why so much sweetness hovers around us.
Nor why the wind blows the curtains in the afternoons,
Nor why the earth mutters so much about its children.

We'll never know why the snow falls through the night,
Nor how the heron stretches her long legs,
Nor why we feel so abandoned in the morning.

We have never understood how birds manage to fly,
Nor who the genius is who makes up dreams,
Nor how heaven and earth can appear in a poem.

We don't know why the rain falls so long.
The ditchdigger turns up one shovel after another.
The herons go on stitching the heavens together.

We've never heard about the day we were conceived
Nor the doctor who helped us to be born,
Nor that blind old man who decides when we will die.

It's hard to understand why the sun rises,
And why our children are mostly fond of us,
And why the wind blows the curtains in the afternoon.

"The Blind Old Man" by Robert Bly, from Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey. © W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Richard Ford, (books by this author) born in Jackson, Mississippi (1944). When he was a boy, his mother told him that their neighbor across the street was a writer. He wasn't really sure what that meant, but he could tell it was something important from the way she said it. It turned out that neighbor was Eudora Welty. Ford went to the same elementary school as Welty, and they even had some of the same teachers. But he didn't meet her until many years later.

When he was eight, his father had a heart attack, and he died from a second heart attack when Richard was 16. For much of his childhood, Ford went back and forth between Mississippi and Little Rock, Arkansas. His grandmother and her second husband, a former prizefighter, ran a hotel in Little Rock, and Ford said, "I did everything in the hotel. I worked in it and I played in it. A lot of things go on in great big hotels, behind closed doors, and I saw behind those doors. Recklessness and mistakes." After high school, he went to Michigan State University to study hotel management. But he switched to English. He wasn't a naturally gifted student, but he worked hard and it paid off. After college, he tried to work for the Arkansas State Police, but he was rejected. Then he got discharged from the Marines because he had hepatitis. He tried law school — his plan was to be a lawyer for the Marine Corps, and then work for the FBI — but he didn't like it, and he dropped out. Unsure of what to do next, he decided to give writing a try.

His first novel was A Piece of My Heart (1976), his only novel set in the South. A few years later, he was teaching at Princeton, and Eudora Welty came to do a reading there. He was nervous about meeting her because he was sure she disliked his novel — he said, "I had a feeling she probably knew about it; that it was full of dirty words and sex and violence." He introduced himself and said that he was from Jackson; she said, "Oh, you are?" and nothing else. He was depressed, convinced that she hated his book and disapproved of him.

Ten years after A Piece of My Heart, Ford published The Sportswriter (1986), the first of his trilogy about Frank Bascombe, a novelist-turned-sportswriter-turned-realtor from New Jersey. Ford did a book signing for The Sportswriter at Lemuria Books in Jackson, and not many people turned up besides some of his old neighbors. He said: "Suddenly I looked up and there was Eudora. She'd driven over to the bookstore. She had a deep voice — and I'm making her sound more imperious than she was; she was very sweet — but she said, 'Well, I just had to come pay my respects.'" Ford was relieved that he had written something worthy of Welty's respect. He said: "Knowing her and having her like my work has been one of the great cherishable events in my life. Writing stories and writing essays are really received habits, and who I received them from is her. Living in Jackson and being around her made it perfectly plain that being a writer was quite all right. Those kinds of things instilled in you at an early age, even unspoken, are quite valuable. In 1968 when I considered writing, I didn't even have to think 'But, OK, is it even worthwhile.' I knew it was worthwhile because Eudora did it."

Ford and Welty became good friends. Ford shared an anecdote about his writing mentor: "One hot spring day, I was walking with Eudora Welty through a little shopping mall. It was her birthday, April 13th. There was a surprise party waiting at a bookstore down the way. She was 86. As we walked rather slowly along the glass storefronts, we came to where a wide, smiling, pink-faced man was inflating colorful balloons. As each balloon filled and fattened, the cylinder emitted quite a loud whoosh of air. Eudora looked about to find the sound. 'Balloons,' I said. I had her hand. 'Someone's apparently having a do.' 'Oh,' she said. Those luminous, pale blue eyes igniting, her magical face suppressing once again an amused smile. 'I just thought it was someone who saw me, sighing.'"

When Welty died in 2001, at the age of 92, Ford was a pallbearer at her funeral, and he was her literary executor. He co-edited Welty's Library of America: Collected Writings. He had to sort through all the versions of her stories and decide which ones she considered more authoritative — for example, whether to honor a version edited by William Maxwell for The New Yorker or the one she hand-edited for the book galleys.

Ford himself has written many well-respected novels. His sequels to The Sportswriter were Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006); Independence Day won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer, the first novel ever to do so. His most recent book of short stories is A Multitude of Sins (2002).

He said: "I try to be candid and level with people, and not purvey a bunch of horseshit. And it makes, I think, the whole act of writing more human to readers. It doesn't in any way ever demystify it, because I think it cannot be demystified, fundamentally. I'm just a regular guy, two feet on the ground, and if I can write a good book — and I think I have — then it makes people feel like maybe they could do that if they wanted to do it."

And, "My first advice to an aspiring writer is to talk yourself out of it if you can possibly do it, because you'll probably fail and make yourself miserable doing it. I feel about myself that I'm anomalous — a rare combination of fear, an affection for language, a reverence for literature, doggedness, and good luck. Plus, I married the right girl."

And, "Some critics have occasionally suggested that I impose on characters certain possibilities of thought or language or emotional experience, which that particular character, or to put it more gruesomely, those kinds of characters wouldn't likely be able to think or talk about. But my attitude is that there are no such things as kinds or types of characters in fiction or in life. Eloquence or penetrating understanding can visit anybody. In fact, it's fiction's business to try to enlarge our understanding of and sympathy for people. If to do that I have to strain your conventional understanding about humans — well that's also art's proper business and my hope is that I'll repay your indulgence."

And, "The thing about being a writer is that you never have to ask, 'Am I doing something that's worthwhile?' Because even if you fail at it, you know that it's worth doing."

It's the birthday of Henry Adams, (books by this author) born in Boston (1838). His grandfather was John Quincy Adams and his great-grandfather was John Adams. He wasn't too thrilled about coming from such a prominent family, but he was encouraged to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a lawyer, historian, and Massachusetts legislator. Like the three generations before him, he went to Harvard, and then to law school. Then, as John Adams had done for his son, John Quincy Adams, Henry's father offered his son a position as his private secretary. Years later, Adams wrote about himself in the third person in The Education of Henry Adams: "As for Henry Adams, fresh from Europe and chaos of another sort, he plunged at once into a lurid atmosphere of politics, quite heedless of any education or forethought. His past melted away. The prodigal was welcomed home, but not even his father asked a malicious question about the Pandects. At the utmost, he hinted at some shade of prodigality by quietly inviting his son to act as private secretary during the winter in Washington, as though any young man who could afford to throw away two winters on the Civil Law could afford to read Blackstone for another winter without a master. The young man was beyond satire, and asked only a pretext for throwing all education to the east wind. [...] Of all the crowd swarming in Washington that winter, young Adams was surely among the most ignorant and helpless, but he saw plainly that the knowledge possessed by everybody about him was hardly greater than his own. Never in a long life did he seek to master a lesson so obscure. Mr. Sumner was given to saying after Oxenstiern: — 'Quantula sapientia mundus regitur!' Oxenstiern talked of a world that wanted wisdom; but Adams found himself seeking education in a world that seemed to him both unwise and ignorant. [...] He had little to do, and knew not how to do it rightly, but he knew of no one who knew more."

He served as his father's private secretary for seven years, accompanying him to England after Abraham Lincoln appointed the senior Adams as a diplomat. When Henry came back, he decided that despite his father's wishes, he did not want to go into politics. Instead, he became a political journalist, and wrote smart and sometimes nasty political editorials. He particularly disliked Ulysses S. Grant, whom he described as "pre-intellectual, archaic, and would have seemed so even to the cave-dwellers." He became increasingly more frustrated with political life and decided to be a historian instead. His books included a nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison and biographies of George Cabot Lodge and Albert Gallatin. But he is best known for his autobiographical The Education of Henry Adams.

He said, "I want to be advertised and the easiest way is to do something obnoxious and do it well."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of critic and biographer Van Wyck Brooks, (books by this author) born in Plainfield, New Jersey (1886). His biographies of American writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman helped to create a sense of history in American literature.

By the time he was 13 years old, he knew he wanted to study literature at Harvard, and that's what he did. He wrote critical articles on classic American writers, and in the 1920s he published books on Mark Twain and Henry James. He's best known for his five-volume history of literature in America, which began with The Flowering of New England (1936). He said the purpose of his writing was "to create an American memory," and he worked hard to make sure lesser-known American writers weren't overlooked.

He was a socialist, and he argued in his books that ever since the first Pilgrims, American art and literature has had to contend with materialism and greed. He said, "The creative impulses of man are always at war with the possessive impulses."

Brooks said, "The American mind, unlike the English, is not formed by books, but by newspapers and the Bible."

And he said, "The man who has the courage of his platitudes is always a successful man."

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




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