Aug. 1, 2006

Counting the Mad

by Donald Justice

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Poem: "Counting the Mad" by Donald Justice from Selected Poems. © Atheneum. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Counting the Mad

This one was put in a jacket,
This one was sent home,
This one was given bread and meat
But would eat none,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long.

This one looked at the window
As though it were a wall,
This one saw things that were not there,
This one things that were,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long

This one thought himself a bird,
This one a dog,
And this one thought himself a man,
An ordinary man,
And cried and cried No No No No
All day long.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote the lyrics for our national anthem, Francis Scott Key, (books by this author) born in Frederick, Maryland (1779). He was thirty-five on September 13, 1814, when he composed the poem "The Star Spangled Banner." He wrote it on a truce ship in the harbor while the British bombed Fort McHenry, eight miles away.

It's the birthday of Herman Melville, (books by this author) born in New York City (1819). He's the man who wrote in his novel Moby-Dick (1851), "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

Melville had only become a writer by chance. When he was twelve, his father died, after having racked up a huge amount of debt. Melville was pulled out of school and sent to work at a bank for $150 a year. After several years of boring desk jobs, Melville decided to get out into the world, and so at the age of twenty he signed on with a whaling ship.

Melville's adventures as a sailor changed his life. He came back to the United States and began writing books about adventures on the high seas. His first book, Typee (1846), became a big success. Then in 1847, he borrowed an edition of Shakespeare from a friend. He'd always had trouble reading Shakespeare because he had poor eyesight, and most of the Shakespeare editions were printed with small type. But this one was printed in large type, and Melville was blown away by what he could finally enjoy. He wrote in a letter to his friend, "Dolt ... that I am, I have lived more than 29 years, & until a few days ago, never made close acquaintance with the divine William. ... I now exult over it, page after page."

Around the same time, he met Nathaniel Hawthorne for the first time, and between reading Shakespeare and meeting Hawthorne, he started to think about trying to write a great book that would rank with the masters of English literature. And so he began Moby-Dick, the story of a young man named Ishmael who joins a whaling expedition only to find that the ship's Captain Ahab is dangerously obsessed with hunting down a mysterious white whale that once tore off his leg.

Melville started Moby-Dick in the winter of 1850 and finished in the summer of 1851, writing all day every day without eating until four or five in the evening. But Moby-Dick was a total flop. Melville's readers wanted adventure stories, and Moby-Dick was an adventure story, but the adventure was obscured by the language. It takes more than a hundred pages before the characters even get on the boat. And once they're at sea, Melville keeps interrupting the action with philosophy and poetry. He devotes an entire chapter to describing the whiteness of the whale. It got terrible reviews, and almost nobody read it.

It wasn't until the 1920s, when American literature professors began a revival of interest in American fiction that Melville's work was rediscovered, and people realized that Moby-Dick was one of the greatest novels in the English language.

It was on this day in 1988 that Rush Limbaugh's nationally broadcast radio show had its premiere on WABC, eventually becoming the most popular radio talk show in the country. The FCC had recently dropped the "Fairness Doctrine," which had required radio and TV stations to provide balanced viewpoints on every political topic. This provided an opportunity for openly partisan talk shows, and Limbaugh's show was the first that became really popular. Within a few years, Limbaugh's show was airing on 580 stations, with more than ten million listeners.

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