Read “The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth,” a short story by Charles Portis

“The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth”


Charles Portis

The Editors are spiking most of my copy now, unread. One has described it as “hopeless crap.” My master’s degree means nothing to this pack of half-wits at the Blade. My job is hanging by a thread. But Frankie, an assistant city editor, is not such a bad boss and it was she who, out of the blue, gave me this choice assignment. I was startled. A last chance to make good?

Frankie said, “Get some bright quotes for a change, okay? Or make some up. Not so much of your dreary exposition. Not so many clauses. Get to the point at once. And keep it short for a change, okay? Now, buzz on out to the new Pecking Center on Warehouse Road, near the Loopdale Cutoff. Scoot. Take the brown Gremlin. But check the water in the radiator!”

An introductory word or two on the subject at hand will not be out of place before we come to the exciting work now going forward inside the new Hazel Perkins Jenkins Pecking Center at 75002 Warehouse Road, near the Loopdale Cutoff.
Readers of the Blade will recall an old theory/prophecy that went as follows: a hundred monkeys pecking away at random on a hundred typewriters will eventually reproduce the complete works of William Shakespeare. The terms may be a little dated, what with the typewriters, and that modest round number, meant to suggest something like “many,” or even “infinite.” And one monkey, of course, would suffice, given enough time and an immortal monkey. In any case, the chance duplication would require the monkeys—let us say a brigade of monkeys—to peck out 38 excellent plays and some 160 poems of one metrical beat or another.

Is the musty old prophecy at last being fulfilled? We now have millions of monkeys pecking away more or less at random, day and night, on millions of personal computer keyboards. We have “word processors,” the Internet, e-mail, and “the information explosion.” Futurists at our leading universities tell us the day is at hand when, out of this maelstrom of words, a glorious literature must emerge, and indeed flourish.

So far, however, as of today, Tuesday, September 14, late afternoon, the tally still seems to be fixed at:

Shakespeare: 198, Monkeys: 0

They plead for more time, for just one more extension. And then another. We are all familiar with their public-service announcements on television in which they make these irritating appeals.

Perhaps the goal has been set too high. Let us then leave the Bard for a moment and look at some even more disturbing numbers, from UNESCO’s ten-year world survey (1994-2004) of not very good plays written in blank verse, and not very good sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, elegies, and odes. The result:

Not very good blank verse
plays, sonnets, etc.: 219,656

That figure was widely reported and has not been seriously disputed. Less well known—hardly known at all—is this tidbit, which was buried deep in the appendix of the thick UNESCO volume:

Not very good odes, blank verse
plays, etc., composed by monkeys: 0


Read the rest of “The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth” by Charles Portis at Oxford American.

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