Dec. 4, 2010

Missoula in a Dusty Light

by John Haines

Walking home through the tall
Montana twilight,
leaves were moving in the gutters
and a little dust...

I saw beyond the roofs and chimneys
a cloud like a hill of smoke,
amber and dirty grey. And a wind
began from the street corners
and rutted alleys,
out of year-end gardens, weed lots
and trash bins;
                the yellow air
came full of specks and ash,
noiseless, crippled things that crashed
and flew again...
grit and the smell of rain.
And then a steady sound,
as if an army or a council,
long-skirted, sweeping the stone,
were gathering near;
disinherited and vengeful people,
scuffing their bootheels,
rolling tin cans before them.

And quieter still behind them
the voices of birds
and whispering brooms:
                    "This Land
has bitter roots, and seeds
that crack and spill in the wind..."

I halted under a blowing light
to listen, to see;
and it was the bleak Montana wind
sweeping the leaves and dust
along the street.

"Missoula in a Dusty Light" by John Haines, from News from the Glacier. © Wesleyan University Press, 1982. Reprinted with permission.

It was on this day in 1791 that the first edition of the British newspaper The Observer was published. It's the oldest Sunday paper in the world.

The publisher, a man named W.S. Bourne, thought the newspaper would make him rich. But instead it sent him spiraling into more than a thousand pounds of debt, and after just a few years, he tried to sell off the paper. First, he tried to convince some anti-government organizations to buy the newspaper. But they didn't want it, so instead he turned around and tried to sell it to the British government. But they didn't want to buy it either. However, the British government — then under the reign of King George III, who'd recently lost the Revolutionary War and 13 colonies in America — did decide to subsidize the newspaper, in exchange for having a say in what sorts of news stories went into it.

The paper spent a lot of the 1800s filled with government propaganda and sensational gossip, but with new editors gradually turned toward serious. In the mid-20th century, news stories replaced advertisements on the front page, and the paper became owned by a trust. It employed a number of famous writers as journalists, including George Orwell, Vita Sackville-West, Arthur Koestler, and Conor Cruise O'Brien.

In 1993, it was acquired by The Guardian, a daily newspaper. In 2005, it became the first newspaper to offer podcasts.

Exactly 90 years after The Observer was first published, came the first edition of the Los Angeles Times, published on this day in 1881.

At first, it was an evening paper, and one that was published only every week and a half. And like The Observer, it had financial trouble right away. Within a few years, it was bankrupt, and so the printer hired an Army lieutenant colonel to be the paper's editor. He bought the paper as well, and he turned its financial fortune around, transforming the paper into a moneymaking venture. And he also made sure that the newspaper shed a glimmering light on the city of Los Angeles, singing its praises and trying to convince people to migrate there and help the young city expand.

It was during the 1960s that the Los Angeles Times made its move toward serious journalism. It began to model itself on The New York Times, and it paired up with The Washington Post for content-sharing. It also hired more journalists, and started to pay them all better, and sent them to cover national and international events in addition to just local news. The Los Angeles Times received four Pulitzer Prizes during the 1960s, which was more than had won in the previous nine decades combined, since its inception.

It once had a circulation of more than 1 million, but now is at about 600,000. It's the second most widely circulated metropolitan paper after The New York Times, and the fourth of any newspaper in the country, after 1) USA Today, 2) The Wall Street Journal, and 3) The New York Times.

From the archives

It's the birthday of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, (books by this author born in Prague (1875), who made a career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books. One princess let him live for a while in her Castle Duino near Trieste, a medieval castle with fortified walls and an ancient square tower. Rilke's room had a view of the gulf of Trieste, which he loved. In a letter from his room he wrote, "I am looking out into the empty sea-space, directly into the universe, you might say."

It was that winter of 1912, alone in the castle, that Rilke later said he heard the voice of an angel speaking to him about the meaning of life and death, and he started a poem that began with the lines, "And if I cried, who'd listen to me in those angelic / orders? Even if one of them suddenly held me / to his heart, I'd vanish in his overwhelming / presence. Because beauty's nothing but the start of terror we can hardly bear, / and we adore it because of the serene scorn / it could kill us with. Every angel's terrifying."

Rilke wrote two poems about angels in almost a single sitting, and he knew that he had begun his most important work, but then he got stuck. He eventually left the castle, the First World War broke out, and he struggled to write anything for the next decade, while he was slowly beginning to suffer the symptoms of leukemia. Finally, in February of 1922, he managed to finish in a single month what he'd started a decade before. The result was a cycle of 10 long poems that he called The Duino Elegies, about the difference between angels and people, and the meaning of death, and his idea that human beings are put on earth in order to experience the beauty of ordinary things.

In the Ninth Elegy, Rilke wrote: "Maybe we're here only to say: house, / bridge, well, gate, jug, olive tree, window — / at most, pillar, tower ... but to say them, remember, / oh, to say them in a way that the things themselves / never dreamed of existing so intensely."

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




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