04
Mar
09

It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers

Today, a poem! This is part of a series on “poetry of reading”, a feature I intend to use as a regular update here on this blog. Your poetry suggestions are, of course, most welcome!

It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers

While I was building neat
castles in the sandbox,
the hasty pits were
filling with bulldozed corpses

and as I walked to the school
washed and combed, my feet
stepping on the cracks in the cement
detonated red bombs.

Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse

and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke.

I am the cause, I am a stockpile of chemical
toys, my body
is a deadly gadget,
I reach out in love, my hands are guns,
my good intentions are completely lethal.

Even my
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
how
can I stop myself

It is dangerous to read newspapers.

Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees

another village explodes.

(by Margaret Atwood, 1939-)

Published in 1968, “It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers” portrays a reader haunted by the atrocities reported in the news. Literate, the reader not only cannot escape the news, but likely experiences a responsibility to read them, to inform herself, and even attempts to reach her own readers so that she may make the world a better place. Yet all her attempts are futile. She cannot shake of the sense of responsibility and guilt, and although we may find it difficult to relate to her uncompromising verdict, “I am the cause”, we can certainly understand that the mere act of reading the news — of just sitting there, “quietly as a fuse”, witnessing the horrors of the world from our living rooms — has a touch of the absurd, the more so in this day an age when news has become an entertainment commodity and each war comes with its own jingle.

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14 Responses to “It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers”


  1. March 6, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Wow. Gotta love Peg. There is a certain culpability in observing the suffering of others from afar, especially when our lifestyles and governments have something to do with it. What do we do with such knowledge?

  2. March 8, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    Exactly. This idea, that reading by giving us knowledge becomes a burden, is what got me hooked to the poem. Like the old spiderman adage, “With great power comes great responsibility”, the ability to reading comes with a responsibility to inform yourself, to educate yourself, and then, presumably, an obligation to act upon that knowledge. But this is easier said than done, for not only is the question “what action?” a hard one to tackle, but reading, by rendering the horrors of the world into symbols, protects us from their immediate impact and thus puts distance between what’s happening out there and what’s happening on the page. And the same, presumably, goes for “infotainment” of any kind.

  3. February 10, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    “…I reach out in love, my hands are guns,…” Such a powerful line.

    “…I am the cause…” Makes me wonder what it would take for me to be the cure.

    We should be aware of the harshness of reality, without being consumed by it. I rarely read newspapers, but I don’t ignore the news, bloody as it is. I prefer to read online, I prefer to have a voice.

    Certainly “With great power comes great responsibility.” With a voice comes power. With only a few who work for the newspapers having a voice there is little responsibility, and I am not surprised when newspapers provide few solutions.

    How many readers of newspaper stories have had a solution to the story that was never heard? How many solutions, if heard, could have prevented problems that bloody the papers on newsstands today? In a world where digital news enables 10 times as many people to feel the great responsibility for problems imposed by news, perhaps there will there be 10 times as many solutions.

    Kudos to everyone who has already raised to the responsibility of their own voice.

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