Feb. 21, 2007

Funeral Blues

by W. H. Auden

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Poem: "Funeral Blues" by W. H. Auden from As I Walked Out One Evening: Songs, Ballads, Lullabies, Limericks, and Other Light Verse. © Vintage Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the few contemporary novelists to sell a lot of books to young men, Chuck Palahniuk, (books by this author) born in Burbank, Washington (1962). He wanted to be a writer in college, but his writing professors didn't like him. So he got a job as a diesel mechanic at Freightliner Trucks, which paid well but made him miserable. He became addicted to drugs and alcohol. And then he moved to a house near a hill that somehow blocked his TV's reception. At first he was unhappy without television, but it inspired him to start reading on a regular basis for the first time since he was a teenager. He discovered the work of contemporary fiction writers like Amy Hempel and Denis Johnson, and they inspired him to start writing fiction of his own.

The first novel Palahniuk tried to publish was turned down by a series of publishers because it was too violent and bleak. So for his next novel, he decided to write something even more violent and even more bleak. The result was his novel Fight Club (1996), about a cult leader who encourages his followers to get together at night and engage each other in fistfights as a way of escaping their meaningless lives.

Fight Club didn't get much publicity when it came out, but it started selling by word-of-mouth among young men in high school and colleges across the country. It was made into a movie in 1999. Since then, all of Palahniuk's novels have become best-sellers, and his fans pack his readings like cult members themselves. When he first started doing readings, people would come up to him and ask where the fight clubs were in their neighborhood, and he'd have to say, "There isn't one ... I made it up."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer David Foster Wallace, (books by this author) born in Ithaca, New York (1962). Growing up, he was a nationally ranked junior tennis player, but when he got to college, his teachers singled him out as someone who might become an important philosopher. He took a year off to drive a school bus in his parents' town of Urbana, Illinois, and when he got back to school he decided to write a work of fiction for his senior philosophy thesis. It became his first published novel, The Broom of the System (1987).

He spent the next several years trying to live the life of a hip, successful writer, but instead he grew increasingly miserable. He started sitting in on Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Boston, and found them to be incredibly powerful and uplifting. They gave him an idea for a science fiction novel about a future America where everyone is addicted to something. That novel was Infinite Jest (1996), which became a best-seller even though it was more than 1,000 pages long with 100 pages of footnotes.

Wallace has since become known for writing about the specifically modern American condition of extreme self-consciousness. His short story "Good Old Neon" begins, "My whole life I've been a fraud. I'm not exaggerating. Pretty much all I've ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired. It's a little more complicated than that, maybe. But when you come right down to it it's to be liked, loved. Admired, approved of, applauded, whatever. You get the idea."

It's the birthday of columnist and humorist Erma Bombeck, (books by this author) born in Dayton, Ohio (1927). She got a column at a small Ohio paper and wrote about the daily trials and tribulations of the average housewife. Within a few years, she was one of the most popular humor columnists in America.

It's the birthday of novelist Ha Jin, (books by this author) born in Liaoning Province, China (1956). He came to this country to study American literature and began writing poetry and fiction. He published his first book of poetry, Between Silences, in 1990 and got a job teaching creative writing at Emory University. He chose to write in English, rather than having someone translate his work from the Chinese. He said, "I slowly began to squeeze the Chinese literary mentality out of my mind. ... For the initial years, it was like having a blood transfusion." His most recent book is War Trash (2005).

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