Dec. 4, 2003

The Late News

by David Kirby

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Poem: "The Late News," by David Kirby, from I think I am Going to Call My Wife Paraguay (Orchises).

The Late News

The anchorwoman is unsmiling, even somber,
for her biggest stories are about death,
and even when she has a feature
on a twelve-year-old college student
or a gorilla who understands sign language,
there is something tentative about her relief:
she knows that the Great Antagonist
will strike again, and soon.

The weatherman smiles a lot,
but he is making the best of a bad thing,
for the weather is necessary, yes,
but boring. As for the actors
in the commercials, they are jovial
yet insincere, for they do not love the lotions,
sprays, and gargles they urge us to buy,
products that are bad for us anyway and overpriced.

Only the sportscaster is happy, for sports news
is good news: money always changes hands,
and if someone has lost that day, someone else has won.
Should anyone die, that's death, not sports,
and death is the anchorwoman's department.
Even if the Soviets should fire all their missiles at us
and vice versa, the sportscaster will still be happy:
you can't cover everything in a half hour,
for crissakes, and sports will be all that is left.
There will be no jobs to go to,
and our cars won't work,
and there will be no electricity,
but you can make a ball out of anything,
and then all you need is a line to get it across
or a hoop to put it through.
The sportscaster knows how the world will end:
not with a whimper, not with a bang,
but with a cheer.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of English writer Herbert Read, born in Yorkshire, England (1893). He wrote over sixty books of poetry, art criticism, and essays. He was especially well known for arguing that art should play a greater role in the public's education, in such books as Education Through Art (1974). Read said, "The only sin is ugliness, and if we believed this with all our being, all other activities of the human spirit could be left to take care of themselves. That is why I believe that art is so much more significant than either economics or philosophy. It is the direct measure of man's spiritual vision."

It's the birthday of British writer Samuel Butler, born in Nottinghamshire, England (1835). He came from a family of clerics, and his father assumed Samuel would also become a minister. He went to a parish in London, and it was there that he realized that people who had been baptized were not necessarily morally superior to people who hadn't been baptized. He started questioning Christianity in letters to his father, and eventually lost all faith in religion. He left the parish and sailed off to New Zealand to become a sheep farmer. He made a decent living, and began to read widely. He was fascinated with Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), which had recently been published, and he corresponded with Darwin for a time. In 1872, he published a satire called Erewhon, which both supported and challenged Darwin's ideas about evolution. Readers loved it, but it was the only book Butler wrote that had any success until his death in 1902.

After he died, an incomplete novel that Butler had begun thirty years earlier, The Way of All Flesh, was found in his desk drawer. When it was published in 1903, it sold more copies than any of his works did when he was alive. Critics called it a masterpiece. His notebooks and memoirs were published, and he suddenly became known as a great Victorian writer. The writer V.S. Pritchett said, "The Way of All Flesh is one of the time-bombs of literature. One thinks of it lying in Samuel Butler's desk for thirty years, waiting to blow up the Victorian family and with it the whole great pillared and balustraded edifice of the Victorian novel."

It's the birthday of nineteenth century Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, born in the village of Ecclefechan, Scotland (1795). He studied German literature at school, and after graduating he found work teaching and writing articles for magazines. But he was depressed-he suffered from dyspepsia, and worried about finding a wife and about pleasing his parents. He wanted to write something but abandoned all of his projects almost as soon as he started them. He wrote to a friend, "I must do something-or die, whichever I like better." Finally, he came up with the idea for a book that combined autobiography and philosophy, and he began working on what would become his big breakthrough, Sartor Resartus (1833-1834).

Carlyle started writing a history of the French Revolution at the beginning of the 1830s, and finished it in 1835. He lent the manuscript to his friend, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, but Mill's housekeeper mistook the pile of paper for waste and threw it in the fire. Mill was furious with his housekeeper and offered Carlyle two hundred pounds in compensation. Carlyle said that he felt like a man who "has nearly killed himself accomplishing zero." But he went right back to work and rewrote the entire book in less than two years. The French Revolution was published in 1837, and it was a great success. George Eliot said, "No novelist has made his creations live for us more thoroughly than Carlyle has made Mirabeau and the men of the French Revolution. . . . What depth of appreciation, what reverence for the great and godlike under every sort of earthy mummery!"

Carlyle was interested in the great, towering figures of history, like Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, and Shakespeare. He wrote a book called On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841), in which he says, "No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men." Some people in the first half of the twentieth century saw the book as a rejection of democracy, and Carlyle has become less popular than he once was.

Thomas Carlyle said, "He who would write heroic poems should make his whole life a heroic poem."

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