From “Writing and Winning” by Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker (October 18, 2010). Click here to read the full piece.
Since the first strum on the oldest lyre, literature has been about competition and the possibility of recognition. Pindar, the father of lyric poetry, took as his chief subject the winning of games, and the spirit of the end-zone dance has been with us ever since. Horace satirized everything except his own appetite for fame. Milton mourned Lycidas not because he stood beyond all prizes but because he died before the prizes would be won. The subtlest souls still show up in Stockholm to make the speech. Fame, honor, the laurel, and the bays, this more even than getting back at the girls, or the boys, who left you for another—the writer’s other great motivation—is the poetic passion.