Elder Olson, AB'34, AM'35, PhD'38

Poet and professor Elder Olson, AB’34, AM’35, PhD’38 (1909–1992) in an undated photo. (Photography by Stephen B. Lewellyn, AB’48, UChicago Photographic Archive, apf1-06652, University of Chicago Library)

Directions for building a house of cards

“You must have patience, and a steady hand.”

This is a house of cards. To build this house
You must have patience, and a steady hand.
That is the difficulty. You must have a steady hand
No matter what has happened, and unless something has happened
You will not care to build this house of cards.

And you must have cards, enough to tell your fortune
Or make your fortune, but to build this house
You must see all fortunes merely as so many cards,
Differing, no doubt, but not for you.
You must know this, and still keep a steady hand.

And you must have patience, and nothing better to do
Than to make this toy because it was your way
To make a toy of fortune, which was not your toy,
Until at last you have nothing better to do
Than to build this final thing with nothing inside,

Fool’s work, a monument to folly, but built with difficulty
Because everything is difficult once you understand
That after what has been, nothing can be
But things like this, with nothing inside, like you.
You must see this, and somehow keep a steady hand.

Elder Olson, AB’34, AM’35, PhD’38, a founder of the Chicago school of literary criticism, taught English at UChicago from 1942 until his retirement in 1977. He died in 1992.

“Directions for Building a House of Cards” from Olson’s Penny Arcade by Elder Olson. © 1975 by Elder Olson. Originally published in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Reproduced by permission of the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.