Feb. 21, 2004

Funeral Blues

by W. H. Auden

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Poem: "Funeral Blues," by W.H. Auden, from As I Walked Out One Evening (Vintage).

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 crÍpe 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 poet W(ystan) H(ugh) Auden, born in York, England (1907). He grew up in an industrial area of northern England. He loved the huge mining machines designed for breaking up rocks, and he originally wanted to become a mining engineer, but then one afternoon when he was fifteen, a friend asked him if he ever wrote poetry. He never had, but being asked the question made him want to start. He studied poetry in college and began to write his own, supporting himself as a schoolmaster at a series of prep schools. He became known as an incredibly versatile poet, experimenting with all kinds of verse forms. When other poets were writing personal lyrics, his poems addressed philosophy, psychology, art history and mythology.

As he witnessed the rise of fascism throughout Europe in the 1930s, he began to write political poems attacking nationalism. When Hitler invaded Poland, beginning World War II, he wrote the poem "September 1, 1939" in disgust. The poem began:

"I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night."
Auden argued that Nazism was just a symptom of the madness of Europe in general, and he used the poem as a kind of goodbye letter to the whole continent. It was one of the last political poems he ever wrote. He moved to the United States, even though many critics in England called him a deserter and a coward. He taught at various American universities and encouraged many younger poets, including Adrienne Rich. He died in 1973, and is now considered one of the greatest poets of the English language.

It's the birthday of columnist and humorist Erma Bombeck, born in Dayton, Ohio (1927). She became famous for her humor column called "At Wits End", about the daily madness of being a housewife. She knew she wanted to be a journalist from the eighth grade, and she had a humor column in her high school newspaper. She got a job at the Dayton Journal-Herald writing obituaries and features for the women's page, but when she married a sportswriter there, she chose to quit her job and stay home with the kids. She spent a decade as a fulltime mother, and then in 1964 she decided she had to start writing again or she would go crazy. She said, "I was thirty-seven, too old for a paper route, too young for social security, and too tired for an affair."

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. She went on to publish many books, including Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession (1983) and Family: The Ties That Bind . . . and Gag! (1987).

Bombeck wrote, "All of us have moments in our lives that test our courage. Taking children into a house with a white carpet is one of them."

It's the birthday of novelist and diarist Anaïs Nin, born in Paris, France (1903). Her father was a Spanish composer and her mother was a Cuban singer, and she spent the first ten years of her life traveling with them around the world. Her father abandoned the family when she was eleven, and she started writing a letter to him that became her diary. She kept the diary for the rest of her life, and it eventually totaled more than 35,000 pages.

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer David Foster Wallace, 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. One of his teachers actually told him that he was a genius. Wallace said, "It was the happiest moment in my life. I felt like I would never have to go to the bathroom again—that I'd transcended it." But 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 said, "I was white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated, had had way more career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and was sort of adrift." 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 novel about a future America where everyone is addicted to something—sports, drugs, sex, or entertainment.

That novel was Infinite Jest (1996), which became a bestseller even though it was more than 1000 pages long and included 100 pages of footnotes. It's about many things, including Alcoholics Anonymous, tennis, environmental catastrophe, Canadian terrorists, and a movie that's so entertaining it kills people.

It's the birthday of novelist Ha Jin, born in Liaoning Province, China (1956). He studied American literature in college, and in the mid-1980s, he traveled to the United States to get his PhD. He planned to return to China as soon as he finished his degree, but in June of 1989 he watched on TV as the Chinese Army attacked students demonstrating for democratic reform in Tiananmen Square. He decided at that moment that he would never return to China. He had never intended to become a writer, but his dissertation didn't make him a very good candidate for teaching positions in the United States, and he couldn't thing of anything else to do. He said, "Writing in English became my means of survival, of spending or wasting my life, of retrieving losses, mine and those of others." He published his first book of poetry, Between Silences (1990), and got a job teaching creative writing at Emory University. He began to write fiction as well, and 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 first book of fiction was Ocean of Words (1996), and he has also written several novels, including Waiting (1999), about a doctor in the Chinese Army who has been trying to end his arranged marriage for eighteen years but can't seem to tell his wife. His most recent book is The Crazed (2002).

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