Oct. 24, 2012

The Preacher

by Louis Jenkins

When times were hard, no work on the railroad, no work down on the farm, some
of my ancestors took to preaching. It was not so much of what was said as the way
in which it was said. "The horn shall sound and the dog will bark and though you
be on the highest mountain or down in the deepest valley when the darkness comes
then you will lie down, and as the day follows the night you will surely rise again.
The Lord our God hath made both heaven and earth. Oh, my dear brothers and
sisters we know so well the ways of this world, think then what heaven must be
like." It required a certain presence, a certain authority. The preacher was treated
with respect and kept at a bit of a distance, like a rattler. There wasn't much money
in it but it was good for maybe a dozen eggs or a chicken dinner now and then.

"The Preacher" by Louis Jenkins, from Before You Know It. © Will O' the Wisp Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Denise Levertov (books by this author), born in Ilford, England (1923). She decided to become a poet, but she didn't want to go to graduate school. Instead, she got her nurse's training and spent three years as a civilian nurse during the Blitz in London. She liked the work itself, but she didn't like the structure — she was just 19 years old, and she had been homeschooled her whole life. She said: "I didn't like the strain of taking even the one and only examination that I ever took in my life, and I didn't like the way in which one's personal life was regulated. I was always crawling in and out of windows to avoid curfews!" She wrote poems each night after her shift at the hospital, and published her first book, The Double Image (1946). She met and married an American poet, Mitchell Goodman, and after the war, they moved to the United States.

One of the poets she admired most was William Carlos Williams. In 1951, Levertov send Williams a fan letter; she was in her late 20s, and he was 68, recovering from his first stroke. After exchanging letters for a while, she took a bus up to his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey, to see him. Williams was a warm and receptive host, and after that, she would go to visit him a couple of times a year. She would arrive in time for lunch with Williams and his wife, Flossie, then spend a few hours reading him her poetry, sometimes reading his poetry aloud, and chatting about people they both knew. Williams became Levertov's mentor, and they exchanged letters until his death in 1962.

Levertov published more than 20 books of poetry, including With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959), The Freeing of the Dust (1975), Breathing in the Water (1984), and The Life Around Us (1997).

She said: "Strength of feeling, reverence for mystery, and clarity of intellect must be kept in balance with one another. Neither the passive nor the active must dominate, they must work in conjunction, as in a marriage."

And, "I'm not very good at praying, but what I experience when I'm writing a poem is close to prayer."

It's the birthday of Broadway playwright Moss Hart (books by this author), born in a tenement house in Manhattan (1904). He said, "I grew up in an atmosphere of unrelieved poverty." His aunt Kate was as poor as the rest of the family, but she always tried to live beyond her means, and among her indulgences were trips to the theater. She often took her nephew along, and he was dazzled. He had to drop out of high school to work in a factory and help support his family, but he took any theater odd job he could find, including working in a booking office. One summer, he was hired as the social director for an adult summer camp for New Yorkers who wanted to escape to the Catskills. His job description involved "borrowing" material from hit Broadway plays and then reproducing it for the campers. So he would wait outside theaters until intermission, and then nonchalantly mingle in with paying audience members and sneak in for the second half, figuring that most shows saved their best material for the end. He wrote and performed plays, sketches, dances, songs, and monologues.

Through his work at the summer camp, he met a young businessman named Joseph Hyman, who was so impressed with Hart's talent that he lent him $200 as an investment in his writing. Hyman also found jobs for Hart's father and brother so that the young man would not have to support them anymore. Hart wrote a comedy about the new era of Broadway, since the arrival of sound; it was all right, but not great, and a producer suggested that he collaborate with established playwright George S. Kaufman. The two men hit it off, and when the play Once in a Lifetime (1930) was produced, it was a success.

Hart and Kaufman went on to collaborate on hit plays like You Can't Take It With You (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). Hart also directed plays — the most famous was the musical My Fair Lady (1956)— and wrote screenplays for films, including Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and Hans Christian Andersen (1952). He won a Pulitzer Prize for You Can't Take It With You and was dubbed "the Prince of Broadway." He made enough money to afford an 87-acre estate in Aquetong, Pennsylvania. One of his friends said, "Shows you what God would have done if he'd had the money." In 1959, he published the best-selling memoir Act One (1959), about his own rags-to-riches story.

In 1936, he married Southern belle Kitty Carlisle. After his death in 1961, his wife refused to let his diary be published. She died in 2007, and the diary turns out to be full of nasty comments, the type of comments that were totally absent from his autobiography. He described Dorothy Parker as "looking absolutely terrible [...] bitter and acid," Marlene Dietrich as "faded and a little cheap," Mel Ferrer as "a rather woe-begone Cocker Spaniel," Audrey Hepburn as "absolutely ruthless," and Gene Kelley as "looking like a waiter."

Moss Hart said: "So far as I know, anything worth hearing is not usually uttered at seven o'clock in the morning; and if it is, it will generally be repeated at a more reasonable hour for a larger and more wakeful audience. Much more likely, if it is worth hearing at all, it will be set down in print where it can be decently enjoyed by dawdling souls, like myself, who lumpishly resist the golden glow of dawn."

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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