Since We Are What We Are

 

stephenspender
Stephen Spender

 

Since we are what we are, what shall we be
But what we are? We are, we have
Six feet and seventy years, to see
The light, and then release it for the grave.
We are not worlds, no, nor infinity,
We have no claims on stone, except to prove
In the invention of the city
Our hearts, our intellect, our love.

Stephen Spender – From Exercises/Explorations

 

I – The Door

Excerpt from The Quest by W. H. Auden

Out of it steps our future, through this door
Enigmas, executioners and rules,
Her Majesty in a bad temper or
A red-nosed Fool who makes a fool of fools.

Great persons eye it in the twilight for
A past it might so carelessly let in,
A widow with a missionary grin,
The foaming inundation at a roar.

We pile our all against it when afraid,
And beat upon its panels when we die:
By happening to be open once, it made

Enormous Alice see a wonderland
That waited for her in the sunshine and,
Simply by being tiny, made her cry.


 

“Out of it steps our future, through this door.” What future opens today and what past closes?  What joy awaits and what tragedy still haunts? The stuff of life and poetry. An old friend of mine who is in an assisted living facility worked in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in the 1960’s. I was visiting her last weekend and read her a little Auden. She listened, smiled and said; “I saw Auden lecture at the University of Minnesota.  He sold out Williams Arena. He was brilliant.” 

There are several remarkable things about that statement. First off, I am more than a little jealous she saw Auden lecture, and second, can we imagine a poet alive who could fill a basketball stadium on an American campus to hear a lecture about poetry? Maybe Maya Angelou or Mary Oliver could have in recent years, but i can’t think of a single male poet alive who could do it today. I googled Auden and Williams arena to see if I could find a reference to the event on-line and I came up short. I did find in Poetry Magazine from 1956 a blurb about T. S. Elliot delivering a lecture at the University of Minnesota and it had to be moved to Williams Arena because 13,400 people attended. Auden and Elliot selling out the University of Minnesota basketball stadium – that’s rock star poetry!

Several of the Oxford group had connections to the University of Minnesota. Christopher Isherwood published a book on writing through the University of Minnesota Press and the same has re-issued several of his books, including Lions and Shadows, a memoir about his days at Oxford.

Go Gophers, my alma mater! You know the people in a state have a sense of humor when they make their mascot for the University a skittish rodent with stripes.

 


Is It Far To Go?

By Cecil Day Lewis

Is it far to go?
A step — no further.
Is it hard to go?
Ask the melting snow,
The eddying feather.

What can I take there?
Not a hank, not a hair.
What shall I leave behind?
Ask the hastening wind,
The fainting star.

Shall I be gone long?
For ever and a day.
To whom there belong?
Ask the stone to say,
Ask my song.

Who will say farewell?
The beating bell.
Will anyone miss me?
That I dare not tell —
Quick, Rose, and kiss me.

Be Shod With Pain

cecil day lewis

Cecil Day Lewis.

 

“Then Speech was mannerly, an Art,
Like learning not to belch or fart:
I cannot settle which is worse,
The Anti-Novel or Free Verse.”

Doggerel by a Senior Citizen

by W. H. Auden

 

Come, Live With Me and Be My Love

by Cecil Day Lewis

Come, live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
Of peace and plenty, bed and board,
That chance employment may afford.

I’ll handle dainties on the docks
And thou shalt read of summer frocks:
At evening by the sour canals
We’ll hope to hear some madrigals.

Care on thy maiden brow shall put
A wreath of wrinkles, and thy foot
Be shod with pain: not silken dress
But toil shall tire thy loveliness.

Hunger shall make thy modest zone
And cheat fond death of all but bone –
If these delight thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.


There is a unique pleasure in reading a poem whose rhyme and meter is perfectly tuned to our English tongues. Auden’s wonderful indictment of free verse above is humorous because he wrote some of the most beautiful free verse poetry of his generation.  But free verse devoid of the beauty of language is not poetry in my book.  I have no time for most of the free verse that dominates the poetic universe today, it has the feel of nattering of immature writers who would have been better off leaving it off the page and on the canvas of their inner mind or in their unpublished work book. 

In my view, most free verse poets have become lazy.   They fail at least one of three rules by which I hold all poetry accountable.

1).   Never write boring poetry. 

2).  Paint a picture, create an emotion or foster an idea.   Create a reaction in your reader, don’t write poems that sit like dead fish on the page.

3).   Create beauty, using words like notes in a song.   Write an ear-worm, with at least one line in the poem, that will stay with the reader for more than 2 minutes. 

“And love’s best glasses reach, no fields but are his own.”


That Night When Joy Began

by W. H. Auden

That night when joy began
Our narrowest veins to flush,
We waited for the flash
Of morning’s levelled gun.

But morning let us pass,
And day by day relief
Outgrows his nervous laugh,
Grown credulous of peace,

As mile by mile is seen
No trespasser’s reproach,
And love’s best glasses reach
No fields but are his own.

Ghost of a Ghost

solomonshebalc7

Auden’s Funeral

by Stephen Spender
Excerpt

III

(Ghost of a ghost, of you when young, you waken
In me my ghost when young, us both at Oxford.
You, the tow-haired undergraduate
With jaunty liftings of the head.
Angular forward stride, cross-questioning glance,
A Buster Keaton-faced pale gravitas.
Saying aloud your poems whose letters bit
Ink-deep into my fingers when I set
Them up upon my five-pound printing press:

‘An evening like a coloured photograph

A music stultified across the water

The heel upon the finishing blade of grass.’)


Stephen Spender published the first volume of Auden’s poetry in 1928.  Spender had his own printing press and put together a small selection of poems from his Oxford counterpart and published a slim volume to the tune of 45 copies of Auden’s student work.  The act of sharing one’s work is daunting.  The first published poem. The first edition of the first collection is an act of contrition and courage. Readers should be forgiving.  The italized lines above from the poem below.  A foretelling of the brilliance of Auden that was to come.


Consider If You Will How Lovers Stand

by W. H. Auden

Consider if you will how lovers stand
In brief adherence, straining to preserve
Too long the suction of good-bye; others,
Less clinically-minded, will admire
An evening like a coloured photograph,
A music stultified across the water:
The desert opens here, and if, though we
Have ligatured the ends of a farewell,
Sporadic heartburn show in evidence
of love uneconomically slain,
It is for the last time, the last look back,
The heel upon the finishing blade of grass.
To dazzling cities of the plain where lust
Threatened a sinister rod, and we shall turn
To our study of stones, to split Eva’s apple,
Absorbed, content if we can say “because”:
Unanswerable as any other pendant,
Like Solomon and Sheba, wrong for years.

Rise The Mountains Of Instead

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Auden is buried in Kirchstatten, Austria – near his summer home. 


 

“Clear, unscalable, ahead
Rise the Mountains of Instead,
From whose cold, cascading streams
None may drink except in dreams.”

by W. H. Auden

 

VI – The First Temptation

From The Quest
by W. H. Auden

Ashamed to be the darling of his grief,
He joined a gang of rowdy stories where
His gift for magic quickly made him chief
Of all these boyish powers of the air;

Who turned his hungers into Roman food,
The town’s asymmetry into a park;
All hours took taxis; any solitude
Became his flattered duchess in the dark.

But, if he wished for anything less grand,
The nights came padding after him like wild
Beasts that meant harm, and all the doors cried Thief;

And when Truth had met him and put out her hand,
He clung in panic to his tall belief
And shrank away like an ill-treated child


Auden’s Funeral

Excerpt Part I

by Stephen Spender

One among friends who stood above your grave
I cast a clod of earth from those heaped there
Down on the great brass-handled coffin lid.
It rattled on the oak like a door knocker
And at that sound I saw your face beneath
Wedged in an oblong shadow under ground.
Flesh creased, eyes shut, jaw jutting
And on the mouth a grin: triumph of one
Who has escaped from life-long colleagues roaring
For him to join their throng. He’s still half with us
Conniving slyly, yet he knows he’s gone
Into that cellar where they’ll never find him,
Happy to be alone, his last work done,
Word freed from world, into a different wood.

World Is Suddener Than We Fancy It

macniece
Louise MacNiece

Snow

by Louis MacNiece

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.


 

Lullaby

by W. H. Auden

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie, Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

 

 

We Must Love One Another or Die

isherwood and auden.jpg
Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden shortly before leaving for China, 1938

 

Here War Is Simple

From Journey To A War
by W. H. Auden

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking. Dachau.


I was struck watching Trump on television last night how devalued reasoned facts have become in the United States. It used to be that Western Democracies beat their chests with arrogance and pointed to China, Cuba and Russia as guilty of brain washing their citizens, puffing out our collective chests with pride that the West had some kind of monopoly on free speech and truth. We certainly still have free speech, but we are failing as a society in ways to find common ground in our politics and unfortunately free speech is the tip of the spear disemboweling our democracy. The Trump era has proven that politicians can lie, say things that are completely idiotic, pursue mindless and pointless agendas and if your message polls high enough and your shills in the media like Fox News will repeat the idiocy enough times, you can brain wash enough to people to get elected. The Republicans didn’t become the gutless, brain-dead army of mindless conservatives overnight, who fall for the fear and loathing of Trump’s leadership. It arose because the Democrats have failed miserably in their opportunity for leadership by creating a system that wanted to coddle business and create a bloated federal bureaucracy at the same time. Neither the Democrats or Republicans are fiscally responsible. It is possible to be either liberal or conservative and pay our bills, spend within our means. It’s also possible to lead with vision not fear. Its time a new party, rise up with a real vision of a better, peaceful more sustainable future, or the insidious nature of lies will smolder to unleash further damage to what feels like is a world on the edge of anarchy.

I am hopeful that Trump as the giant boil on our nation’s ass, is going to swell enough to get finally lanced in 2020.   And that as our children’s generation takes center stage in political influence, they will turn the course back to civil discourse, an honest attempt at directing the nation to where we agree and have common ground on 80 percent of the issues.  And provide a more nuanced approach in negotiating with each other on where we disagree on the 20 percent of policy initiatives and stop this ridiculousness of politicians acting like spoiled children when they don’t get their way.

Auden is a reminder of how ugly the world can become if that 20 percent is allowed to fester to the point that evil takes the upper hand and men unworthy of leadership are allowed to become demigods. It is dangerous times we live in, only because the power of war has never been so dangerous.  We best not leave the keys to the military lying around where some fool might take it for a joy ride.


September 1, 1939

by W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

 

We Must Find Our Law

lewis auden stephen spender
W. H. Auden, Cecil Day Lewis and Stephen Spender

Sonnet V

Excerpt from In Time of War
by W. H. Auden

His care-free swagger was a fine invention:
Life was to slow, too regular, too grave.
With horse and sword he drew the girls’ attention,
A conquering hero, bountiful and brave,

To whom teen-agers looked for liberation:
At his command they left behind their mothers,
Their wits were sharpened by the long migration,
His camp-fires taught them all the horde were brothers.

Till what he came to do was done: unwanted,
Grown seedy, paunchy, pouchy, disappointed,
He took to drink to screw his nerves to murder,

Or sat in offices and stole,
Boomed at his children about Law and Order,
And hated life with heart and soul


Auden may be describing himself in this opening line.  He is often described as brimming with a confidence, intelligence and wit. Auden attracted other bright minds. A group of writers from his days at Oxford became known as the Oxford group – Auden, Cecil Day Lewis, (Daniel Day Lewis’ father), Christopher Isherwood; Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender.  All would go on to have successful careers as writers with a common bent toward leftist politics, their politics a force in their writing. Auden voiced in his literature the dangers of Fascism, the inherit evil in totalitarianism and the trap of lethargy in standing up to that evil. He supported a more reasoned equitable socialist ethos in how humanity justly supports one another. Auden’s ability to articulate a greater complexity in our humanness is what makes his writing both sensitive and audacious.  His poem Lullaby is one of the greatest love poems ever written.

Auden more than dabbled in the sonnet form.   He wrote several sonnet sequences, Quest and In Time of War, along with several stand alone sonnets and un-rhymed sonnets.   He obviously found the sonnet form both useful and challenging.

Auden wrote in so many different styles that in my mind it is unfair to classify him only as a formal poet. Auden is the kind of writer that in my opinion makes the difficult look easy. Auden received ample recognition throughout his career and made a reasonable living as a writer, poet and academic.  I wonder what kind of writer Auden would be if he were alive today?  What injustices would he be highlighting?  Where would Auden sit on the subject of Brexit and global migration fleeing inequality and violence?

I think Auden brings an interesting perspective on how art can shape our definition of success. What if we could all see ourselves as artists of one kind or another?  What if we spent more time creating our own images, writing our own stories, rediscovering our own myths?  What if we changed the narrative in our society, that an artist is not a unique person, but rather every person is a special kind of artist?


 

Sonnet XXV

From In Time of War
By W. H. Auden

Nothing is given: we must find our law.
Great buildings jostle in the sun for domination;
Behind them stretch like sorry vegetation
The low recessive houses of the poor.

We have no destiny assigned us:
Nothing is certain but the body; we plan
To better ourselves; the hospitals alone remind us
Of the equality of man.

Children are really loved here, even by police:
They speak of years before the big were lonely,
And will be lost.

And only
The brass bands throbbing in the parks foretell
Some future reign of happiness and peace.

We learn to pity and rebel.