"I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality."

~ Ursula Le Guin

The Indispensable Silver Lining

by Wisława Szymborska, from Poetry (April 2006)

They say he read novels to relax,
But only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If anything like that turned up,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.   

True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’d had enough of dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggles to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,   
seducers scurrying to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,   
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.

See also: "Wisława Szymborska," by Janusz R. Kowalczyk, Culture.Pl  


Charlie Darwin

by Low Anthem, from Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

Set the sails I feel the winds a'stirring
Toward the bright horizon set the way
Cast your wreckless dreams upon our Mayflower
Haven from the world and her decay

And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin
Fighting for a system built to fail
Spooning water from their broken vessels
As far as I can see there is no land

Oh my god, the water's all around us
Oh my god, it's all around

And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin
The lords of war just profit from decay
And trade their children's promise for the jingle
The way we trade our hard earned time for pay

Oh my god, the water's cold and shapeless
Oh my god, it's all around
Oh my god, life is cold and formless
Oh my god, it's all around

After the Birth of the Simple Light

My good friend, Kit, read her favorite poem and chatted about it on Read Me Something You Love

Fern Hill
by Dylan Thomas, from The Poems of Dylan Thomas 

Kit Spahr reading Fern Hill by Dylan ThomasNow as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
     The night above the dingle starry,
          Time let me hail and climb
     Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
          Trail with daisies and barley
     Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
     In the sun that is young once only,
          Time let me play and be 
     Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
          And the sabbath rang slowly
     In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
     And playing, lovely and watery
          And fire green as grass.
     And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
     Flying with the ricks, and the horses
          Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
     Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
          The sky gathered again
     And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
     Out of the whinnying green stable
          On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
     In the sun born over and over,
          I ran my heedless ways,
     My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
     Before the children green and golden
          Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
     In the moon that is always rising,
          Nor that riding to sleep
     I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
          Time held me green and dying
     Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Download (27.7MB)

"It's Better to Read a Good Writer than Meet One"

Excerpts from "John Irving: By the Book," The New York Times, June 7, 2012:

Illustration by Jillian TamakiI am a slow reader; when I’m tired, I move my lips. I almost read out loud. My grandmother read to me, and my mother — and my father. My father was the best reader; he has a great voice, a teacher’s voice. Yes, I grew up around books — my grandmother’s house, where I lived as a small child, was full of books. My father was a history teacher, and he loved the Russian novels. There were always books around.


There is no one book that students of writing “should” read. With young writers, I tried to focus on the choices you make before you write a novel. The main character and the most important character are not always the same person — you have to know the difference. The first-person voice and the third-person voice each come with advantages and disadvantages; it helps me to know what the story is, and who the characters are, before I choose the point-of-view voice for the storytelling. 


There’s nothing I need or want to know from the writers I admire that isn’t in their books. It’s better to read a good writer than meet one.


There are a lot of outsiders in my novels, sexual misfits among them. The first-person narrator of “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is called (behind his back) a “non-practicing homosexual”; he doesn’t just love Owen Meany, he’s probably in love with Owen, but he’ll never come out of the closet and say so. He never has sex with anyone — man or woman. Dr. Larch, the saintly abortionist in “The Cider House Rules,” and Jenny Fields, Garp’s mother in “The World According to Garp,” have sex only once and stop for life. The narrator of “The Hotel New Hampshire” is in love with his sister. The two most heroic characters in my new novel, “In One Person,” are transgender women — not the first time I’ve written about transgender characters. I love sexual outsiders; the world is harder for them.

The Language You Use Every Day

"Some people are bird watchers, others are celebrity watchers; still others are flora and fauna watchers. I belong to the tribe of sentence watchers. Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. I appreciate fine sentences. I am always on the lookout for sentences that take your breath away, for sentences that make you say, 'Isn't that something?' or 'What a sentence!' Some of my fellow sentence appreciators have websites: Best Sentences Ever, Sentences We Love, Best First Sentences, Best Last Sentences.

Invariably the sentences that turn up on these sites are not chosen for the substantive political or social or philosophical points they make. They are chosen because they are performance of a certain skill at the highest level. The closest analogy, I think, is to sports highlights; you know, the five greatest dunks, or the ten greatest catches, or the fifteen greatest touchdown runbacks. The response is always, 'Wasn't that amazing?' or 'Can you believe it?' or 'I can't for the life of me see how he did that,' or 'What an incredible move!' or 'That's not humany possible.'

And always the admiration is a rueful recognition that you couldn't do it yourself even though you also have two hands and feet. It is the same with sentences that do things the language you use every day would not have seemed capable of doing. We marvel at them; we read them aloud to our friends and spouses, even, occasionally, to passersby; we analyze them; we lament our inability to match them.

One nice thing about sentences that display a skill you can only envy is that they can be found anywhere, even when you're not looking for them."

~ Stanley Fish, from How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

Web Freedom isn’t Free

From “Living Singles,” by Virginia Heffernan, New York Times Sunday Magazine, Feb. 27, 2011:

The market for narrative nonfiction shrank not because people got dumber or lost their attention spans; narrative nonfiction, like so many 20th-century forms, fell on hard times when the Web came along, and readers stopped paying for content…

…When the iPhone first appeared, followed by the Kindle and then the iPad, it became clear that e-books and apps provided a way to siphon the resources of the Internet to individuals, who could now sample that energy without having to be vulnerable to the Web’s commercialism. That was an enormous breakthrough. Anyone who’s honest with herself knows that the Web stopped being a great place for consumers of culture a year or two ago. You think you’re reading the Web these days, but it’s reading you — gathering data on you, trying to sell you stuff, pushing you to other links. On the Web, reading is shopping. And sometimes you don’t want to shop.

kindle-coffee The Kindle in particular brought me the first moment of peace from Web noise that I’d had in a long time. True, I thought I loved the Web noise when the only alternative was to recede into analog culture — but I have adored the silence I’ve found on the Kindle.

I never thought I’d back off the Web, but I have. The once-glorious freedom of the Web was not free. Its price is a bone-deep commercialism that cannot yet be circumvented. For convenience, comprehensiveness and social life, I still visit, but now I see these visits as at least as risky and irritating as they are liberating and exhilarating.

Read the whole essay here…

PS I’ve really enjoyed this column and am sad to see it go. Visit ArtsBeat to keep an eye on Virginia Heffernan’s eyewitness traffic reports from the intersection of media and technology.

Poetry Deal Breakers

A response from Billy Collins to the question, Could you say a little about the deal breakers that keep you from reading a poem?

"Well, the word cicada. I won’t tolerate that. I’m just sick of them. So if I’m reading a poem and I come across the word cicada, I stop. Deal breaker. That’s it. I mean, that’s one easy one to answer.

I guess other poems that I tend not to finish are poems that exhibit a kind of presumptuousness in that the first couple of lines, I feel like I’m suddenly in an ambulance with someone and he or she is being taken to the psychiatric ward and is telling me about some inner psychic terror that their suffering from without having really introduced themselves. And that seems to be a form of kind of psychological bad manners.

I appreciate poems that are clear and then mysterious. I think poems that work for me are poems in which a writer really appreciates and understands the difference between what to be clear about and what to be mysterious about. So what cards to turn over and what cards to leave face down. And if you leave all the cards face down—I mean some poems read that way to me—there’s really no game. It’s just kind of fifty-two bits of obscurity. And if you turn them all over, it’s just too obvious. So I think the manipulation of the clear and the mysterious, in the right way, are deal makers for me.”   

From Billy Collins Live: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space, April 20, 2005


The Love of Strangers

“A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedies, whatever it be, remorse, lost love or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table.”

~ William Butler Yeats, from A General Introduction for My Work

Billy Collins, from “Dear Reader,” a reading and lecture delivered at the Key West Literary Seminar:

A friend of mine was walking along Madison Avenue, let’s say, with the New Yorker writer Roger Angell, one of the great sports writers of America…Someone recognized Angell  and stopped him and began to flatter him about his writing and tell him what a great writer he was. Then my friend and Angell continued to talk…Angell said to my friend, “That’s what it’s all about.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s what writing is all about.”


“The love of strangers.”

Which is a sort of neuroses. Most people are satisfied with the love of people around them, although that love tends to be insufficient at most times. Whereas writers tend to court the love of total strangers and I am probably more guilty than anybody. I tend to begin each of my books with a prefatory poem that’s actually addressed to the reader. It’s my way of acknowledging the presence of the reader.

As I’m reading contemporary poetry, they tend to fall into two categories which are sort of indefinable. In one category, I feel that the poet is aware of my presence and in the other I feel that an act of typewriting or someone is committing an act of literature oblivious to my participation in it.

You might call these two kinds dogs and cats. Dogs are really interested in people, as you know, whereas cats are much more self-referential…I think of the poem as a social encounter.

Jorge Luis Borges writes:

braeburnpage The taste of the apple  lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of the poem and the reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the pages of a book. What is essential is the aesthetic act, the thrill, the almost physical emotion with each reading.


Dear Reader
by Billy Collins, from Picnic, Lightning

Every morning I sit across from you
at the same small table,
the sun all over the breakfast things—
curve of a blue-and-white pitcher,
a dish of berries—
me in a sweatshirt or robe,
you invisible.

Most days, we are suspended
over a deep pool of silence.
I stare straight through you
or look out the window at the garden,
the powerful sky,
a cloud passing behind a tree.

There is no need to pass the toast,
the pot of jam,
or pour you a cup of tea,
and I can hide behind the paper,
rotate in its drum of calamitous news.

But some days I may notice
a little door swinging open
in the morning air,
and maybe the tea leaves
of some dream will be stuck
to the china slope of the hour—

then I will lean forward,
elbows on the table,
with something to tell you,
and you will look up, as always,
your spoon dripping milk, ready to listen.


A Long, Hard Slog

Lessons from General Grant,” by Francis Wilkinson, The Week, November 26, 2010:

I'm a tragically slow reader, so I choose my books carefully. Lately, I've been reading the memoirs of U.S. Grant, albeit at a tortoise pace that makes my typical slow motion look like an Evelyn Wood demo. I've kept the book bedside for a couple years now, and still Appomattox is nowhere in sight. I move through chapters like heavy artillery through mud.

Yet the pace suits me — and the material. The war was a long, hard slog. And Grant's reflections have such resonance that I keep putting the book down to listen to the echoes. The fight against Mexico in 1846, Grant laments, was a "political" war waged on a false premise. Has a contemporary ring, doesn't it? The general who presided over the greatest destruction of American life in history — more than 600,000 soldiers on both sides died — also surprises with compassion. Contemptuous of slavery and committed to crushing the rebellion, Grant nonetheless has an ample soft spot for the enemy, taking risks to protect his foes' dignity. When Grant is ordered to handle rebels "without gloves" — including evicting Southern civilians from their homes and arresting them — he simply ignores the command. In fact, he fails to make a single arrest, having "deemed it better that a few guilty men should escape than that a great many innocent ones should suffer." It’s hard to resist projecting this thoughtful, anguished titan — a civil libertarian up to his epaulets in carnage — into the era of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Grant didn't shrink from violence, but he didn't surrender principle, either. He did his duty, and he won. I peeked at the ending.

Can’t Read if We Don’t Teach Them


Lyrics from Shine
by John Legend, for the documentary Waiting for “Superman”

So dark, but I see sparks, if we don't snuff them out.
We gotta let them flame, let them speak their name.
Let them reach up to the clouds.
Can't eat if we don't feed them.
Can't read if we don't teach them.
There's no line if we just hide them.
Don't just let them die.

Let them shine.
Let them shine on.
Let them shine.
Let them shine on.

Stars flicker in the distance, lonely out in space.
They sing out when we're not listening, because we don't see their face.
We can let them die, we can make them high.
Hold the little miracles that live inside.
Let them shine.

Don’t Look to Be Saved

Volkszählung (Census), by Anselm Kiefer, 1991“The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They're Caesar's praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, 'Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.' Most of us can't rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven't time, money or that many friends. The things you're looking for…are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don't ask for guarantees. And don't look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.”

~ From Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury


An Endless Stream

"Sometimes technology outpaces humanity's ability to process it. I think that's where we are right now. My mind has been sliced and diced in so many ways. There's so many packets of information coming at me... It's just shocking: how is literature supposed to survive when our brain has been pummeled with information all day long at work — if we're white collar workers. When we go home, are we really going to open a thick text with 350 pages and try to waddle through it?…Here's the thing with this new technology. I think it's incredibly effective. I just don't think it's made anyone much happier. If anything, we are now always connected but we don't know what we're connected to. It's just an endless stream of information."

~ Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story, talking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air (August 2, 2010).