Sep. 15, 2011

They Accuse Me of Not Talking

by Hayden Carruth

North people known for silence. Long
dark of winter. Norrland families go
months without talking, Eskimos also,
except bursts of sporadic eerie song.
South people different. Right and wrong
all crystal there and they squabble, no
fears, though they praise north silence. "Ho,"
they say, "look at them deep thinkers, them strong
philosophical types, men of peace."
                                                                   But take
notice please of what happens. Winter on the brain.
You're literate, so words are what you feel.
Then you're struck dumb. To which love can you speak
the words that mean dying and going insane
and the relentless futility of the real?

"They Accuse Me of Not Talking" by Hayden Carruth, from Collected Shorter Poems. © Copper Canyon Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is "Battle of Britain Day" in the United Kingdom, commemorating the day in 1940 when the tide turned in the Royal Air Force's struggle to turn back the German Luftwaffe and prevent a German invasion of Britain. Adolf Hitler hadn't planned, or even wanted, to invade Britain; once France fell, he called for peace and fully expected Winston Churchill to agree to what he felt were generous terms. Churchill refused, and when it became apparent that Britain was not bluffing, Hitler hastily planned for an invasion. The Germans had begun their main offensive on August 13, with a series of attacks on air bases, aircraft factories, and radar stations in southeastern England. Air Marshal Hermann Göring's plan was to wear down the British air defense and clear the way for a ground invasion. Britain's RAF were outnumbered, but the nation's radar early warning system, Chain Home, was the most advanced in the world, and it took the element of surprise away from the German bombers. Nevertheless, the airmen were overtaxed, and Churchill acknowledged this in his radio address on August 20, with the famous words, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Early in September, German planes dropped bombs on a residential neighborhood in London, probably by accident. The British retaliated by bombing Berlin, and Hitler, infuriated, redirected all efforts toward bombing London and other cities. Beginning September 7, London was bombed for 57 straight nights. Other cities, such as Coventry and Liverpool, were also attacked that fall. But it was apparent by mid-September that the RAF would not be subdued, and though the Battle of Britain continued until the end of October, Hitler postponed the planned invasion until after the winter. By that time, he had turned his sights to the east and Russia, and Britain was safe.

Today is the birthday of François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613) (books by this author). He didn't receive much formal education; instead, he was a student of human nature. He became a public figure after he joined the army, and became a leading member of the Fronde, a series of squabbles between the French nobility and the monarchy of Louis XIV. In spite of all his political activities, he's best remembered for his writing. He translated his observances into a collection of rather cynical epigrams, which he called Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims, in 1665. He published this first edition anonymously, but he published subsequent editions under his own name. He published four more editions of Maximes in his lifetime, eventually writing more than 500 epigrams, including:

"We promise according to our hopes; we fulfill according to our fears."

"If we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others."

"True love is like the appearance of ghosts; everyone talks about it but few have seen it."

"Nothing is given so profusely as advice."

"There are good marriages, but no delicious ones."

"We confess to little faults only to prove to ourselves that we have no great ones."

Today is the birthday of the first true American novelist: James Fenimore Cooper (books by this author), born in Burlington, New Jersey, in 1789. He was the 11th of 12 children, and when he was a year old, the family moved to the wilderness of upstate New York — to Cooperstown, which was founded by his father. James grew up running wild in the woods with his numerous siblings. He acquired the habit of reading from his mother, who turned to books to alleviate the loneliness of their remote location. He went to Yale, but was expelled for being an incorrigible prankster; the last straw was teaching a donkey to sit in his professor's chair. He took up writing when he was disgusted with the quality of books available in America and his wife challenged him to write a book of his own. His first, Precaution (1820), was an attempt to write like Jane Austen, and it was a failure. But his second, The Spy (1821), proved to be quite popular. He's best remembered for The Leatherstocking Tales, a series of novels featuring frontiersman Natty Bumppo. The series includes The Last of the Mohicans (1826), which has been made into a movie several times.

It's the birthday of humorist, actor, and drama critic Robert Benchley (1889) (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts. When he was nine, his older brother, Edmund, was killed in the Spanish-American War. His mother cried out, "Why couldn't it have been Robert?"

He became managing editor of Vanity Fair in 1919, and that was where he met Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood. The three of them would go to lunch together at the Algonquin Hotel and complain about their jobs, and those sessions formed the core of what would become the Algonquin Round Table. He was only with Vanity Fair briefly, because Parker was fired in January 1920, and he and Sherwood resigned in protest. He was hired by Life magazine a few months later, and worked as a drama critic for about nine years. He was also a regular contributor to The New Yorker during that time, and in 1921, he published his first essay collection, Of All Things!

He also wrote and acted in several short films from the late 1920s onward, usually humorous monologues. Through the 1930s and into the '40s, he gradually moved away from writing, becoming more and more interested in films, but all his work carried the same thread of the self-deprecating and mildly inept intellectual. By 1943, he had given up writing, and in 1945 he died of cirrhosis of the liver. He once said, "I know I'm drinking myself to a slow death, but then I'm in no hurry."

He wrote, "There are two kinds of people in the world, those that believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't." And, "We call ourselves a free nation, and yet we let ourselves be told what cabs we can and can't take by a man at a hotel door, simply because he has a drum major's uniform on."

Today is the birthday of English mystery writer Agatha Christie (books by this author), born Agatha Miller in Torquay in 1890. During the first and second World Wars, she worked at a hospital dispensary; this gave her a knowledge of pharmaceuticals and poisons that would later serve her well as the author of more than 70 murder mysteries, including Murder on the Orient Express (1933), Death on the Nile (1937), and the play The Mousetrap (1952), which has been running continuously on London's West End since 1952, the longest initial run of any play in history. Her first husband, Archie Christie, was an aviator with the Royal Flying Corps; they had a daughter, and he left her for another woman in 1926. Her second husband was archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan; she once said, "An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Ron Carlson (1947) (books by this author), born in Logan, Utah. He's written several short-story collections and the occasional novel. His last two books have been novels, in fact, and relatively slim ones at that. But never fear; with all his short fiction practice, he's learned to pack a lot of storytelling into those pages. "I am a writer who wants his writing to have density," he told a New West interviewer. "You don't need a four-pound book. I want the story to have real voltage. A little writing can carry lots of volts."

He was once asked to describe his writing technique. He responded, "A spillage. Then I mop like crazy."

Today is the birthday of poet and novelist Valerie Bloom (1956) (books by this author). She was born in Clarendon, Jamaica, and moved to England when she was 23, where she's lived ever since. Her first book of poetry, Touch Mi! Tell Mi!, was published in 1988. She writes her poetry in English or in Jamaican patois, and she usually gives her audiences a few patois lessons before reading her work. She conducts writing workshops in schools, and often incorporates singing and dancing into her master classes. She believes that "part of the beauty of poetry is the music in the words, and a vital part of music is often the poetry in the lyrics." She has written two novels for young readers: Surprising Joy (2003) and The Tribe (2007).

Today is the birthday of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (books by this author). She was born in Enugu in 1977, the fifth of six children. She was a voracious reader and writer from an early age, and at one point she lived in a house that had once belonged to fellow Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. She's written two novels: Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). She often writes about the Nigerian-Biafran war of the late 1960s, and her second novel came about after four years of research into the conflict. She also published a collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, in 2009.

When she isn't writing, she is frequently on a lecture circuit of American colleges, educating academics on "the real Africa" as an antidote to the one-dimensional portrayal that's typical in the Western media. "If somebody writes about middle-class Africans they say, 'Oh no, write about the real Africa. Write about Mugabe being terrible in Zimbabwe,'" she told The Independent. "You don't write about people who fall in love on the street. You don't write about Africans who have money and go on vacation because that's not 'real.' The real Africa is starving, or being bullied by Mugabe, or dying of AIDS."

Today is the birthday of British author and former model Sophie Dahl (books by this author), born in London in 1977. She's the granddaughter of children's author Roald Dahl, and she inspired the character of Sophie in his book The BFG (1982), about a little girl who is kidnapped by a Big Friendly Giant. The real Sophie's childhood was nearly as full of adventure as her fictional counterpart's; her mother, Tessa, dragged her all over the world, to London, New York, and an ashram in India. Tessa, also a writer, suffered from depression, and had drug and alcohol problems; she recently entered a convent to become a nun. Sophie is not bitter, though. "My childhood was such an odd one, but with such magic," she told the Guardian in 2007. She was very close to her grandfather, who provided a sense of stability, encouraged her in her bookishness, and fed her toast and marmalade.

She published her first book in 2003: an illustrated novella called The Man With the Dancing Eyes. She's also written a novel (Playing With the Grown-Ups, 2008) and a cookbook (Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights, 2009). Her six-part series on food and nostalgia, The Delicious Miss Dahl, just finished its run on the BBC.

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