Saturday, June 23, 2018


Ah, "news"!  What place should we give it in our lives?  I concede that it has some practical benefits.  For instance, it provides us with warnings of volcanic eruptions, approaching typhoons, and imminent tornadoes.  (Yet, in our day and age, even these warnings are likely to be given a political overlay of some sort.)

All in all, it is best to dispense with news entirely.  Paying attention to it drags us into the politicization of life that has been poisoning our culture (such as it is) for years, and which proceeds apace.  The internal editing required is not worth the time and effort.  Our souls were sent here on more important business.  Time is short.


The people in the park
are not news:
they only go to prove
what everyone knows --
the sufficiency
of water and a few trees.

The people in the gallery
are not news either:
they are here for more trees
and the permanence of water
of various kinds:  everything
from the seastorm to spring rain.

Walking in the street,
we are not news, you and I,
nor is the street itself
in the first morning sun
which travels to us from so far out
sharpening each corner with its recognition.

wilting underfoot, news
always about to lose its savour,
the trees arch over the blown sheets
rain is reducing to a transparent blur
as if water with trees were alpha and omega.

Charles Tomlinson, The Vineyard Above the Sea (Carcanet 1999).

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947)
"The Harbour Window" (1910)

Here is my news for the week.  Patches of purple-pink and pink-white sweet peas have appeared in the meadows that slope down to the bluffs above the waters of Puget Sound.  Beside the paths I walk, the blackberry bushes are blossoming:  countless five-petaled white stars. Tiny crab apples are growing on a solitary tree that stands beside a wide field.  On a windy day, the tall grass in the field tosses and sways like a sea.

                         No Newspapers

Where, to me, is the loss
     Of the scenes they saw -- of the sounds they heard;
A butterfly flits across,
     Or a bird;
The moss is growing on the wall,
     I heard the leaf of the poppy fall.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).  The poem was written in 1900.

Thomas Creswick (1811-1869) and Alfred Elmore (1815-1881)
"Dorothy Vernon's Doorway, Haddon Hall" (1865)


Spottydog said...

Thank you.
Last night I decided to stop reading and listening to the news - it always sets a pall over the coming day. And this morning this is in my inbox.

Stephen Pentz said...

Spottydog: Well, that's a nice coincidence! Your description of the impact of the news is perfect: it does indeed cast "a pall" over the day (and night). Best to leave it out of one's life. Easier said than done, of course: it is a habit that is hard to break (speaking for myself). But a day without news always feels lighter and more serene.

Thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Tim Guirl said...

I don't watch the news or listen to it on the radio. But I do read the newspaper, which gives me the opportunity to choose what I read. I try to find stories that have some sort of humanity in them to soften the brutal realities with which our world is full.

Music of the right sort can be an antidote to the news. When I am playing Bach on the piano with my 2-year-old grandson on my lap and 8-month-old granddaughter taking a front-row seat in her walker, all seems momentarily right with the world.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you for stopping by.

Great point about music being "an antidote to the news." And the scene you paint is a lovely one. Such antidotes are all around us, all the time, aren't they? And they often involve the ones we love.

As for reading the newspaper, I take your point about being able to choose what you read. However, I'm afraid I'm a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to newspapers: seeing the front page of the latest edition in a sidewalk newspaper dispenser, I am usually put off by the headlines (because of the news conveyed and/or the politicized nature of the headline itself). But that's just curmudgeonly me!

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me --
The simple News that Nature told --
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see --
For love of Her -- Sweet -- countrymen --
Judge tenderly -- of Me
--Emily Dickinson

Perhaps Dickinson, as she often is, is correct in thinking that the only kind of news an imagination or sensibility should be interested in: the news that Nature tells us: The flower in bloom, the bird taking flight, plashless, into the azure sky, the slow but steady summer rain, absent its companions thunder and lightning, that fell softly last night at midnight. The world of nature going about its business is news enough. Should we waste our time on "high deeds done in Hungary"? Is it not telling that Dickinson says her "letter to the world" (and she uses the singular "letter")comprises "the simple news that Nature told," nothing more, just the simple news that nature laid on her doorstep each morning.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for Dickinson's poem, and for your own meditation on the poem and on "news." "The simple News that Nature told" is lovely, and perfect. Reading the poem, and thinking of Dickinson in general, E. M. Forster's comment on his friend C. P. Cavafy suddenly came to mind: "a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe." (From "The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy," in Pharos and Pharillon (1923).) It seems to me that Dickinson is always standing at a slight angle to the universe: and what a beautiful and wondrous way of looking at the universe she opens to us.

Thank you again.

Wurmbrand said...

"News is bad for you -- and giving it up will make you happier."

here's the wise C. S. Lewis on newspapers:

(1) "I never read the papers. Why does anyone? They're nearly all lies, and one has to wade thru' such reams of verbiage and "write up" to find out even what they're saying." – From Letters to an American Lady - Letter Dated October 26th, 1955

(2) ". . . Even in peacetime I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand." – From Surprised by Joy (1956), “Fortune’s Smile”

(3) “The most unliterary reader of all sticks to ‘the news’. He reads daily, with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know.” – From An Experiment in Criticism (1961), “The Reading of the Unliterary”


Dale Nelson

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you very much for sharing these wonderful observations on "news." They articulate much more eloquently than I can what I was vaguely attempting to get at in the post.

I'm embarrassed to say that my knowledge of Lewis's work is extremely limited, so the passages you share are all new to me. Each of them is marvelous.

I recall reading the piece by Rolf Dobelli in the past, and being enthusiastically in agreement with everything that he says. I still feel the same way.

After receiving your comment, I did some research and came across Dobelli's website, where he has posted an essay titled "Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet" (2012). It is a precursor to his Guardian article. The two are very similar, but one of the 16 reasons for avoiding news that appear in the essay does not appear in the Guardian article (unless I missed it): "News is toxic for societies." Exactly. The 2012 essay closes with a section titled "What to do instead," which begins: "Go without news. Cut it out completely. Go cold turkey." Easier said than done, of course. But I believe it is the best way to go.

Thank you again. I greatly appreciate your sharing these. And thank you as well for visiting again. I hope you'll return soon.

Ann said...

It’s midwinter over here and the delightful news is that the golden wattle is beginning to burst into bloom. The perfume ladens the air and surrounds you like an invisible mist. Heaven on earth!

Stephen Pentz said...

Ann: Thank you for that "news"! This sort of news is welcome, as opposed to the other sort. I have never, unfortunately, experienced the fragrance of the golden wattle. However, after receiving your comment, I did some internet research: it is lovely in blossom, and by its very appearance looks full of perfume.

Thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing this. Happy winter solstice!

Wurmbrand said...

To cite C. S. Lewis again -- somewhere he says something like this:

There are
1.things we ought to do
2.things we have to do
3.things we like to do

-- but we often waste time on other things, for example, because other people do them.

I have found that little summary to be clarifying.

One may ask oneself, then, whether any of those three reasons for doing something apply to things we do, such as consuming "news," that disperse our attention, dull our receptivity to beauty, increase our dislike of people whom we perhaps have never met, and so on. As a matter of mental and spiritual hygiene, and not only for ourselves but for the sake of people we love, we may need to reconsider our spending time with news feeds, etc.

Dale Nelson

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: Thank you very much for those follow-up thoughts. I agree with you that Lewis's categorization (which I wasn't aware of until now) is a fine approach to, as you say, "clarifying" our priorities. Your application of those categories to how we ought to treat news is right on target, as is your description of the noisome characteristics of news. And your final conclusion as to why we should keep news out of our lives is wonderful: it is indeed "a matter of mental and spiritual hygiene." Well said.

As an aside, it is helpful to keep in mind (as I'm sure you do) the unspoken subtext: the purveyors of news are in a business, and it is in their interest to make news an addiction. This is an old story, of course ("yellow journalism," et cetera). What perhaps differs in our time is (1) the constant barrage of news from so many sources and (2) the fact that most, if not all, of the news peddlers have abandoned any pretense of objectivity (not that the delivery of news has ever been a selfless public service, mind you). End of rant.

Thank you again for your thoughts.

Wurmbrand said...

I've studied journalism a little and several friends are or have been newspapermen. There is, I think, validity in the journalist's calling when rightly understood.

For example, thinking in terms of the small town in which I live: suppose there is an auto accident. Well, of course people will talk. Who was driving? Was the driver drunk? Where'd the accident occur? Was it at that spot where I've been saying, for years, that we need a stop sign? And so on, with people's assumptions, speculations, etc. being influenced by their opinions. Well, responsible news outlets will report what actually happened, as accurately as possible given the constraints of time, human fallibility, and so on. Maybe in this case it transpires that the cause of the accident wasn't human error or inadequate signage but mechanical failure.

So ideally, "news" relates to matters actually of some concern to readers (e.g. it happened in their community, or affects one of the broader communities to which one belongs), and the goal is not exhaustive truth, but at least a fair statement of the broad outlines of what happened, and the reduction of un-truth (the driver wasn't Mr. Smith, drunk again, after all).

The sad fact, though, seems to be that the kind of local journalism I'm assuming here, is dying out. If people read newspapers at all, the paper probably relies largely on news and features that don't help one much, if at all, to live in one's community, which, while it is not the only purpose of journalism, surely should be a major one.

Newspapers too, I used to teach my composition students, have often been a "first draft of history." This works in a couple of ways. (1) For the famous incidents, the first news accounts, when we go back and read them, can give a sense of immediacy. Think of a big event from before the film and video era, let's say the stock market crash. I suppose reading the first accounts would give us a sense of the reality and immediacy of this event. (2) Newspapers have often recorded things that simply aren't recorded elsewhere. Here again I'm thinking largely of local coverage. A while back, a retired professor I knew spent quite a bit of time with microfilms of old newspapers, as well, I think, as family papers, and from them wrote a book about the first sheriff in our county. Thus something of our past became available that otherwise wouldn't have been possible, I suppose. Perhaps newspapers have played an important part in the development of Western "historical consciousness" (cf. John Lukacs' book of that title). I realize that I may be begging the question of whether that development has been a good thing! That's beyond the scope of this comment.


But how little of what we find in newspapers and electronic news sources etc. is justifiable by the above considerations.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: Thank you for those additional follow-up thoughts. You provide a fine summary of the role that news can play in our lives. I certainly agree with your assessment of the potential benefits of news on the local level. My comments were couched in overly-broad language: what I had in mind was "news" relating to national and international events (which I'm sure you perceived). But, even with respect to local events, it is possible to live in a place where a political cast is placed on nearly everything that occurs. I speak from experience. But that's fine: you learn to ignore and/or edit what is offered as "news." Life goes on.

Finally, I agree with your final thought: "But how little of what we find in newspapers and electronic news sources etc. is justifiable by the above considerations." How true.

Thank you very much for sharing these further observations.