Feb. 21, 2006

Nonsense Song

by W. H. Auden

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Poem: "Nonsense Song" by W. H. Auden from As I Walked Out One Evening. © Vintage International. Reprinted with permission.

Nonsense Song

My love is like a red red rose
Or concerts for the blind,
She's like a mutton-chop before
And a rifle-range behind.

Her hair is like a looking glass,
Her brow is like a bog,
Her eyes are like a flock of sheep
Seen through a London fog.

Her nose is like an Irish jig,
Her mouth is like a 'bus,
Her chin is like a bowl of soup
Shared between all of us.

Her form divine is like a map
Of the United States,
Her food is like a motor-car
Without its number-plates.

No steeple-jack shall part us now
Nor fireman in a frock;
True love could sink a Channel boat
Or knit a baby's sock.

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, born in Burbank Washington (1962). He comes from a family with a violent background. His grandfather murdered his grandmother when his father was little. Palahniuk's parents had a rocky marriage and he often had to turn up the TV at night to drown out the sound of fighting.

He wanted to be a writer in college, but his writing professors didn't like him. One tried to get him to drop the class, and another told Palahniuk that he'd never have an original thought. So Palahniuk started pouring his energy into living on the edge. He would go out to bars at night and take on an alternate identity, calling himself Nick. And he would use that identity to act out all of his aggression, getting into bar fights and other semi-legal activity.

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 miserable 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. Palahniuk decided he had a choice. He said, "I could either write something that's less dark and upsetting or I could write something that's ten times as dark and upsetting."

The result was his novel Fight Club (1996), about a cult leader named Tyler Durden, who encourages his followers to get together at night and fistfight each other 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.

It's the birthday of columnist and humorist Erma Bombeck, born in Dayton, Ohio (1927). 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."

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 wrote, "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."

His first novel came out in 1987 and then he fell into a depression. 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 bestseller even though it was more than 1,000 pages long with 100 pages of footnotes.

It's the birthday of poet W.H. (Wystan Hugh) 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. He originally wanted to become a mining engineer but, 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. So he did.

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