Feb. 21, 2005


by W. H. Auden

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Poem: "Song" by W.H. Auden, from As I Walk Out One Evening: Songs, Ballads, Lullabies, Limericks, and Other Light Verse. © Vintage Books. Reprinted with permission.


The chimney sweepers
Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;
     The lighthouse keepers
     Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck;
     The prosperous baker
Leaves the rolls in hundreds in the oven to burn;
     The undertaker
Pins a small note on the coffin saying, "Wait till I return,
     I've got a date with Love."

     And deep-sea divers
Cut their boots off and come bubbling to the top,
     And engine-drivers
Bring expresses in the tunnel to a stop;
     The village rector
Dashes down the side-aisle half-way through a psalm;
     The sanitary inspector
Runs off with the cover of the cesspool on his arm-
     To keep his date with Love.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of columnist and humorist Erma Bombeck, born in Dayton, Ohio (1927). She was a stay-at-home mother when she got a humor column at a small Ohio paper and wrote about the adventures 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).

She said, "My theory on housework is, if the item doesn't multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?"

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." 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).

Wallace 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 science fiction novel about a future America where everyone is addicted to something—sports, drugs, sex, or entertainment. That novel was Infinite Jest (1996), which was more than 1,000 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.

His most recent book is the collection of short stories Oblivion (2003).

It's the birthday of novelist Ha Jin born in Liaoning Province, China (1956). He was a telegraph operator in China when he learned English from a radio program, and began to read American fiction. He liked it so much that he traveled to the United States to study literature. 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.

Ha Jin 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 else 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). His most recent book is War Trash, which came out last year.

And it was on this day in 1925 the first issue of the New Yorker magazine appeared on newsstands, with its famous cover illustration of an aristocrat looking at a butterfly through a magnifying glass. The magazine would go on to become one of the most influential literary institutions in the United States.

It was founded by Harold Ross, a newspaperman who'd grown up in a mining town. He'd dropped out of high school when he was sixteen and began riding the rails around the country, working at various newspapers from New Orleans to California. He said, "If I stayed anywhere more than two weeks, I thought I was in a rut."

During World War I, he became the editor of Stars and Stripes magazine, which first put the idea in his mind that he might want to start a magazine of his own. He wanted to create a magazine that was intellectual but not pretentious, smart-alecky but not scandalous, serious but also entertaining. And he wanted to make use of all kinds of print media: journalism, reviews, essays, fiction, poetry, parody, graphic cover art, offhand sketches, cartoons, and jokes.

He raised money from a friend whose father had made a fortune in baking, and on February 21, 1925, the first issue of the New Yorker hit the stands. For the first year, the magazine lost about $8,000 a week, and it didn't help that Ross kept losing his personal income in poker games. He would pace nervously around the office, and since he kept several dollars of change in his pockets for taxicabs, he always jingled.

Whenever Ross grew frustrated with some aspect of the magazine, he shouted, "God, how I pity me!" But within a few years, the New Yorker was the most popular magazine among the metropolitan upper middle class.

Ross himself never fit in with the New Yorker's audience. He was gap-toothed, his hair always stood straight up on his head, and he spoke with a Western twang. His suits never fit him. He was an avid reader, but he often pretended he'd never read a book in his life. He thought that if he acted like a hick, his writers would never get too fancy with their language.

Ross was obsessed with the details of the magazine. He believed in accuracy above all else, and pioneered the use of fact checkers for everything, including fiction and cartoons. He never let a cartoonist draw a lamp without showing the cord plugged into a socket, and he never let a fictional character take off a hat unless it had been established that that character was wearing a hat. He said, "We have carried editing to a very high degree of fussiness here, probably to a point approaching the ultimate. I don't know how to get it under control."

Harold Ross said, "Magazines are about 85 percent luck. All an editor can do is have a net handy to grab any talent that comes along, and maybe cast a little bread on the waters." Ross died in 1951.

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 15, a friend asked him if he ever wrote poetry. He never had, but being asked the question made him want to start. He went on to become one of the greatest poets of the English language.

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