Jul. 19, 2004

The Purpose of Time Is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once

by X. J. Kennedy

MONDAY, 19 JULY, 2004
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once," by X.J. Kennedy, from The Lords of Misrule. © Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission.

The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once

Suppose your life a folded telescope
Durationless, collapsed in just a flash
As from your mother's womb you, bawling, drop
Into a nursing home. Suppose you crash
Your car, your marriage—toddler laying waste
A field of daisies, schoolkid, zit-faced teen
With lover zipping up your pants in haste
Hearing your parents' tread downstairs—all one.

Einstein was right. That would be too intense.
You need a chance to preen, to give a dull
Recital before an indifferent audience
Equally slow in jeering you and clapping.
Time takes its time unraveling. But, still,
You'll wonder when your life ends: Huh? What happened?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist A.J. Cronin, born in Cardross, Dumbartonshire, Scotland (1896). His novels include The Citadel (1937) and A Thing of Beauty (1956). He graduated from medical school in 1919 and worked as a doctor for the next eleven years, during which time his only publications were his M.D. thesis and a report on medical regulations in Britain. Then, in 1930, he became seriously ill and went to the Scottish highlands to convalesce. He had always wanted to write a novel, and it was while he was recovering from his illness that he finally gave it a try. The result was Hatter's Castle (1931), about a Scottish hatmaker who is descended from nobility. The book was such a big success that it allowed Cronin to quit his job as a doctor and devote himself to writing for the rest of his life.

It was on this day in 1954 that the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was publishedThe Fellowship of the Ring. Seventeen years had passed since the publication of The Hobbit (1937), to which The Fellowship of the Ring was a sequel. Tolkien had written The Hobbit for his own amusement, not expecting it to sell very well. It's the story of a small, human-like creature with hairy feet, named Bilbo, who goes off on an adventure through Middle Earth and comes back home with a magical ring. Tolkien once wrote, "I am in fact a hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, I like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking .... I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour ... go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much."

C.S. Lewis gave The Hobbit a great review in The Times Literary Supplement, and it went on to become a bestseller. Tolkien's publisher was so excited by the sales of the book that he started to ask Tolkien when the sequel was coming out. Tolkien hadn't planned on writing a sequel, but he had written a book of his own invented mythology, which he called The Silmarillion. He decided that instead of trying to publish the mythology, he would incorporate it into his next novel, and in December of 1937 he began writing a sequel to The Hobbit.

He decided that the new book would be about Bilbo's nephew Frodo, but for a long time he had no idea what kind of adventure Frodo would have. Finally, he decided that the story would center on the magical ring, which hadn't been an important part of The Hobbit. Tolkien spent the next seventeen years working on The Lord of the Rings. He was a professor at Oxford, so he had to write in his spare time, in between lectures, scholarly essays and grading papers. He usually wrote at night, warmed by the stove in his study in his house in Oxford.

The book became more complicated as Tolkien went along, and it was taking much longer to finish than he had planned. He went through long stretches where he didn't write anything and considered giving the project up altogether. He wanted to make sure all of the details about the geography, language and mythology of Middle Earth were consistent. He made elaborate charts to keep track of the events of his story, showing dates, days of the week, the direction of the wind, and the phases of the moon. His son Christopher helped him out by drawing a detailed map of Middle Earth.

Finally, in the fall of 1949, Tolkien finished writing The Lord of the Rings. He typed the final copy out himself, sitting on a bed in his attic, balancing the typewriter on his lap, and tapping it out with two fingers.

The Lord of the Rings turned out to be more than half a million words long. Tolkien not only wanted to publish it in one volume, he wanted to publish his book of background mythology, The Silmarillion, along with it. But paper had become expensive in England after World War II, and Tolkien couldn't find anyone who was willing to publish such long books. Finally, he went back to his original publisher, who agreed to publish The Lord of the Rings in three volumes. The first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, came out on this day in 1954.

Only about three and a half thousand copies were printed, but it turned out to be incredibly popular, and it went through a second printing in just six weeks. W.H. Auden and C.S. Lewis both gave it glowing reviews. Lewis wrote, "This book is like lightning from a clear sky .... In the history of Romance itself—a history which stretches back to the Odyssey and beyond—it makes not a return but an advance or revolution: the conquest of new territory."

The next two volumes of The Lord of the Rings were published within two years. Sales continued to go up every year for the next ten years, and by 1968 more than three million copies had been sold around the world. Today that number is closer to thirty million, and the recent film release of The Lord of the Rings has led to an even bigger increase in the book's popularity.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show