“Why do you write?” (Shelley) “Because I haven’t the ability to prevent it.” (Lord Byron)
Byron – The Movie
by George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron)
Though the day of my destiny’s over
And the star of my fate hath declined,
Thy soft heart refused to discover
The faults which so many could find.
Though thy soul with my grief was acquainted.
It shrunk not to share it with me,
And the love which my spirit hath painted.
It never hath found but in thee.
Yet I blame not the world, nor despise it,
Nor the war of many with one;
If my soul was not fitted to prize it,
“Twas folly not sooner to shun:
And if dearly that error hath cost me,
And more than I once could foresee,
I have found that, whatever it lost me,
It could not deprive me of thee.
From the wreck of the past, which hath perish’d.
Thus much I at least may recall,
It hath taught me that what I most cherish’d.
Deserved to be dearest of all:
In the desert a fountain is springing,
In the wide waste there still is a tree,
And a bird in the solitude singing,
Which speaks to my spirit of thee.
To Augusta is a six stanza poem, I have included only the first and fifth and sixth stanzas. I find Byron interesting. There are parts of his personality that are repellent; he was a cad, narcissistic, he took advantage of women in his relationships, but he was true to his nature, recklessly so, for taking your half-sister as your lover is not for the faint of heart, it simply isn’t done in any time period.
One of the powerful themes within the Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin is who are you allowed to love? This question stems from the relationship between a brother and sister, Cersei and Jamie Lannister, and the lies, the deception, the chaos that this incestuous legacy of children that it creates. Incest, even in fiction, is an uncomfortable and difficult subject, I can’t imagine what it was like for Byron and Augusta in real life.
Percy Shelley was a good friend of Byron, Shelley matching him in strength of character, writing ability and unconventionality in lifestyle. Shelley was largely unpublished in his lifetime, his writing viewed as too radical in reflecting a bias towards atheism and for his liberal views in supporting social justice. He was hugely influential after his death among generations of poets, writers and political thinkers who saw in Shelley a beautiful courage.
The sonnet, To Wordsworth, is a touching memorial, but I wonder if is written in honor to more than just one poet? The lines “wept to know That things depart which never may return” had to be influenced by the deaths that surrounded Shelley in his short life, particularly the deaths of several of his children. Shelley seemed to have been stalked by tragedy, himself drowning shortly before his 30th birthday while sailing in the boat Don Juan, after a meeting to set up a new journal called The Liberal. His body was cremated on the beach in Italy where his body washed ashore, as was customary at the time, his friends Trelawny and Byron attending. Shelley’s remains are buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. His grave bears a few lines of “Ariel’s Song” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”
by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)
Poet of Nature, thou hast wept to know
That things depart which never may return:
Childhood and youth, friendship and love’s first glow,
Have fled like sweet dreams, leaving thee to mourn.
These common woes I feel. One loss is mine
Which thou too feel’st, yet I alone deplore.
Thou wert as a lone star, whose light did shine
On some frail bark in winter’s midnight roar:
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and battling multitude:
In honored poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,
–Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.
“The great art of life is sensation – to feel that we exist, even though in pain.”
Lord Byron (1788 – 1824)
By Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
So now I have confessed that he is thine,
And I my self am mortgaged to thy will,
Myself I’ll forfeit, so that other mine
Thou wilt restore to be my comfort still:
But thou wilt not, nor he will not be free,
For thou art covetous, and he is kind;
He learned but surety-like to write for me,
Under that bond that him as fast doth bind.
The statute of thy beauty thou wilt take,
Thou usurer, that put’st forth all to use,
And sue a friend came debtor for my sake;
So him I lose through my unkind abuse.
Him have I lost; thou hast both him and me:
He pays the whole, and yet am I not free.
I am conflicted by the idea that art can only come from a well-spring of great experience, be it love or tragedy in spades. I think sometimes art can come equally from the mundacity of life as well. However, I recognize that artists have their own favorites when it comes to their creations. I feel more strongly about some of my poems than others, and specific poems stand out in my mind because they become in my memory like a snapshot of a key event. It would be an interesting thing to discuss with artists, what shaped the creation of your favorite piece of art and to see whether there is a common thread of experience?
There is no denying that a certain amount of ego and impulsiveness is required to be an artist. The creative process, if it is to be shared with others, requires at some point that an artist must get naked in public metaphorically speaking. The quesiton each artist must answer is how much skin to bare and when does the process of creating art jump the barrier from tasteful nude to pornography because of the severity of what is depicted?
It is an interesting question, the idea that art can be pornographic in a graphic sense of how much our interior is revealed. The list of artists who were (are) tortured souls is nearly as long as the list of artists, but I am not convinced that unhappiness, depression, addiction and suicide are a requirement for creativity or the creation of great art. I think creativity can come equally from love, joy, sanity and modesty. But for some, the lighter side of the human experience is not nearly as productive personally. As a rule I know the art I am most attracted imparts an emotion or an idea regardless of whether it is positive or negative.
I think there is a certain lurid fascination with the artist who becomes a Phoenix, bursting into flame mid-flight. Those artists who share their doomed voyage either in spite of their art or who choose to use their art as a legacy of their descent. My preference however, is for artists, who singe their wings but do not implode or explode and manage to land safely enough to preserver.
Circling back one last time, for now, to Wilco, I found this short interview with Jeff Tweedy talking about the idea of a tortured artist and his own struggles. In the end, I think it all depends, like Shakespeare says above, on whether you can separate art from the artist and the idea; “Him have I lost, thou hast both him and me.”
Slyvia Plath usually makes the short list in any discussion of tortured artists. I have found it interesting how my respect for Sylvia Plath’s writing has grown as I have spent more time writing poetry. But I also have a healthy aversion to her work, reading her in small doses and infrequently.
I don’t agree with Sylvia’s last couplet in her sonnet below. I am often attracted to poems where my level of disagreement is strong, when the poem sets off an internal debate. I think of time as a continuous piece of paper before us and a millions words trailing behind.
How do you intrepet Sylvia Plath’s sonnet below?
Sonnet: To Time
By Sylvia Plath
Today we move in jade and cease with garnet
Amid the ticking jeweled clocks that mark
Our years. Death comes in a casual steel car, yet
We vaunt our days in neon and scorn the dark.
But outside the diabolic steel of this
Most plastic-windowed city, I can hear
The lone wind raving in the gutter, his
Voice crying exclusion in my ear.
So cry for the pagan girl left picking olives
Beside a sunblue sea, and mourn the flagon
Raised to toast a thousand kings, for all gives
Sorrow; weep for the legendary dragon.
Time is a great machine of iron bars
That drains eternally the milk of stars.
Th’ AUTUMNAL glories all have passed away:
The forest-leaves no more in hectic red
Give glowing tokens of their brief decay,
But scattered lie or rustle at the tread,
Like whispered warnings from the mouldering dead;
The naked trees stretch out their arms all day,
And each bald hill-top lifts its reverend head
As if for some new covering to pray.
Come, WINTER, then, and spread thy robe of white
Above the desolation of this scene;
And when the sun with gems shall make it bright,
Or, when its snowy folds by midnight’s queen
Are silvered o’er with a serener light,
We’ll cease to sigh for summer’s living green.
My parents were both talented gardeners their entire lives. My father who is in his mid 80’s, still has an enormous garden that is source of nourishment, entertainment and exercise. He is legendary for his tomatoes, apples and sour cherries. Growing up, we helped our parents in the garden, even as little children. Gardening was a necessity, stretching our family food budget and allowing for a few extravagances. Staples of a June garden in Minnesota are spinach, rhubarb, strawberries, sweet peas and green beans. There is nothing better than sweet peas shucked fresh and eaten after a light blanching and nothing worse as far as I am concerned than canned peas.
As a young child, I was a picky eater beyond compare. In the family mythology it has been exaggerated over time, but there is some truth to the suggestion that I subsisted on nothing but Captain Crunch, oatmeal and peanut butter sandwiches for a time as a 3 and 4 year old, winning the battle of wills played out at the dining room table between myself and parents on a daily basis. Today I eat almost anything and everything, but I can remember the Thanksgiving day dinner 20 years ago, when my Mother was visiting and she was shocked to see me preparing green beans for the holiday table given my history as a child.
In that childhood garden there were two very long rows of beans each year. As children we he helped our mom pick them each day. No matter how you try and stay ahead of picking beans in season, inevitably some get bigger, thicker and tougher than is ideal from a taste and texture perspective. But my parents were born during the depression. Waste not, want not was ingrained and every other day, during bean season my Mom would process all of them into the freezer by cutting them, blanching them, putting them into a one family meal serving portion in a baggy and then storing them in little white boxes that had folding tops into the freezer. The boxes were cardboard and looked much like a take-out box from a chinese restaurant. By the middle of July the large freezer in the basement would be full to the brim on one side with rows and rows of stacked green and yellow beans. I hated them. It meant a monotonous fare of woody tasting green and yellow beans for dinner throughout the fall and winter. So it came as quite a surprise to my Mother to see me not only preparing green beans but having a second helping during dinner.
This is a recipe that is a bit of my own culinary creation. The beauty of this dish is that its fast to prepare, the last thing you make to put on the holiday table and its festive and delicious.
Second Helping Green Beans
Time – Start to finish, less than 10 minutes.
About a 1/2 pound of green beans, washed and kept long with only bad spots or stems trimmed
1/2 cup of dried cranberries
2 tablespoons of a blue cheese of your choice
slivered almonds to taste (either raw or the flavored kind in the produce section for salads.
Bring salted water in pot to boil. Add green beans to boiling salted water and blanch until hot and bright green color. Don’t over cook, leave the beans crunchy. Drain.
Put a medium-sized sauce pan on medium heat, with a tiny bit of olive oil or butter in it, add the blue cheese. It will start to melt quickly, almost immediately, be careful not to burn it, lifting the pan off the heat if it gets too hot. Add the green beans before it’s all melted and stir. The heat of the beans will also help melt the blue cheese. Coat the green beans in the blue cheese. It will be a thin coating, hardly visible. Quickly add your cranberries and almonds. Stir quickly, mixing them throughout. Turn off heat and put in covered dish and serve. Don’t scrimp on the cranberries and almonds. Be prepared that if you make this once, you will be requested to make it again at the next holiday gathering.
by Mary Oliver
They’re not like peaches or squash. Plumpness isn’t for them. They like being lean, as if for the narrow path. The beans themselves sit quietly inside their green pods. Instinctively one picks with care, never tearing down the fine vine, never not noticing their ripped bodies, or feeling their willingness for the pot, for the fire.
I have thought sometimes that something-I can’t name it- – watches as I walk the rows, accepting the gift of their lives to assist mine.
I know what you think: this is foolishness. They’re only vegetables. Even the blossoms with which they begin are small and pale, hardly significant. Our hands, or minds, our feet hold more intelligence. With this I have no quarrel.
Thou that has given so much to me,
Give one thing more, – a grateful heart.
See how Thy beggar works on Thee
Not thankful when it pleaseth me, –
As if Thy blessing had spare days,
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Luck and fate are not synonymous in my personal dictionary, even if they are in Websters. Luck in my book, is a belief that if I am prepared and open-minded and have a positive attitude, good things are more likely to happen than when I am not. It is the idea that we make our own luck but it is not guaranteed, there is still an element of chance and potential disappointment. Fate then, in a practical sense, is but an extension of time and a justification or excuse for what occurred. It is my fate to gain 5 lbs this Thanksgiving from all the food I will eat, but it was my good luck that I got to do it while eating all my favorite things with my favorite people.
Why explore the concepts of luck and fate on Thanksgiving? Because I think it is an easy jumping off point to a more complex analysis of how do I give thanks in my life. Here’s how I wrap my head around the concept of being thankful versus being grateful. Thankfulness is an action intended to communicate with others my gratitude, while gratefulness is a state of mind, it is a choice, a personal theology, that can be built upon regardless of what happen’s in my life. I determine where my mind dwells and whether I focus on those things which trouble me or on those things for which I am grateful. I choose what side of the bed to get up on each morning.
I have had the good fortune to know several people during my lifetime as friends that seem to live in a permanent state of gratefulness. I am sure they have bad days but I have never observed them having one. Their expression of gratefulness is not superficial or artificial, it is not syrupy, nor are they verbose in their gratitude, rather it resides as a consistent deep well from which there outlook is shaped such that when they offer an opinion or observation it seems to always be shaped from within a context of gratitude.
When I meet someone with this quality, I am instantly drawn. I am curious to get to know them better. I want to find out what good luck must have happened to them that they are so grateful. For the two people I am thinking about specifically, I was shocked, as I became better friends with them, to hear their personal history of challenges, tragedy, death, sickness and loss that are well beyond my own experiences. Their lives were not shaped by good fortune or luck anymore so than mine. If anything they have faced greater adversity, yet they have made a choice to find gratitude during the course of their lives, not cynicism. In both cases, they are devoutly religious. I don’t feel that belief in a Christian God is a requirement for gratitude but I have come to consider the question whether belief in ourselves is a prerequisite?
People who have a sincerity of gratitude in their perspective are like magnets. A person who exudes gratitude in a quiet, confident way has a wisdom that others seek out and want to be around, they are truly old souls. Gratitude is something everyone is inherently born with the aptitude and ability to feel, but it is a learned trait as a consistent behavior, it is a skill, in the same way that trust can be a learned trait and a skill. Infants inherently trust their caregivers. Lack of trust is a learned behavior based on human experience as we grow up. The exact opposite is also true. Stephen M. R. Covey’s book the Speed of Trust, lays out a set of principles and ideas on how to increase trust. If I can build trust with another person by consciously attempting a consistent set of actions that increases the ability of another person to understand who I am and how to interact with me successfully, then why can’t I build gratitude in the same way? The answer is I can.
Giving thanks is not the same as being grateful in my mind, they are not completely interchangeable. However, one builds upon the other. On this Thanksgiving I will give thanks to all my loved ones for the gratitude I feel in sharing my good life. And I will remind myself to seek out gratitude as the foundation of my world view in the hope that is contagious in my thoughts and empowering.
George Herbert was born into a wealthy Welsh family and had the good fortune to attend Trinity College in Cambridge. His writing and speaking ability attracted the attention of King James I and he served in various roles as Anglican Priest and community leader. He suffered from consumption and died young at the age of 39. His poetry was entirely religious and a complete anthology was published in the year of his death under the wonderful title The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations. In Christian piety, an ejaculation, sometimes known as ejaculatory prayer or aspiration, is a very short prayer (poem) often attached as a form of pious devotion.
Herbert writes in first person from a perspective of true belief in the Anglican church’s vision of Christianity. His poetry helped shape the artistry that flourished during this period in literature that resonates to this day.
I took the liberty to share a shortened version of his poem Gratefulness above. It is one of the few poems I have memorized and I generally use it as a prayer of Thanksgiving each year. It is the first and last stanzas of his poem. Check out his complete poem on-line if you have more interest. Herbert, in addition to being a poet and Priest, apparently was a talented lute player and lyricist. Here’s a selection of Lute Music from that period to be a back drop for reading his sonnet below. I am particularly attracted to the lines in his sonnet:
Why are not Sonnets made of thee? and layes
Upon thine Altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy Dove
Out-strip their Cupid easily in flight?
An interesting idea – what are sonnets and all poetry made of, if they are not made of something beyond ourselves?
By George Herbert
My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole showls of Martyrs once did burn,
Besides their other flames? Doth Poetry
Wear Venus livery? only serve her turn?
Why are not Sonnets made of thee? and layes
Upon thine Altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy Dove
Out-strip their Cupid easily in flight?
Or, since thy wayes are deep, and still the fame,
Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name!
Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might
Each breast does feel, no braver fuel choose
Than that, which one day, Worms, may chance refuse?
Out of all our hard work and low pay, and tired backs, and empty pocketbooks, is goin’ to come a tune. And that song and that tune aint got no end, and it aint got no notes wrote down and they aint no piece of paper big enough to put it down on.
I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a product of mid-western St. Paul suburbia. It was a time when summer included a week at camp, a time where there was less money, less legal liability, and because of it, less adult oversight. This translated into a hell of a lot more fun than I think adolescent children and teenagers are allowed today at such institutions. Our behavior did not always match the naive goody-goody image that might come to mind based on a Kodachrome Disney-esque portrayal of that era. And it was at these events that I experienced many firsts of the adult world under the cover of the wholesome conservative institutions that were supposedly shielding impressionable young men and women from such temptations in the first place.
There was also a sweet, simplistic side to going to camp, the hot canvas tents, sleeping in a green cotton flannel sleeping bag, cooking out doors, swimming, canoeing and the camaraderie of friends sitting around a campfire. I look back with fondness, though I know we rolled our collective adolescent eyes when the song books came out. Yet, singing was an innate part of the camp experience. The idea of song books may sound old fashioned and it is. These were crude stapled copies, that allowed everyone to sing along. Apple and Sony had not yet usurped the idea that music was based on technology. Portable music played outside of the reach of an electric plug-in meant you made it yourself.
The songs were simple: On Top of Old Smoky, The Ants Go Marching In, Home on the Range, B-I-N-G-O, This Land is Your Land and America the Beautiful. The song books often contained our national anthem, yet I don’t remember singing the Star Spangled Banner once around a campfire, but I sang This Land is Your Land a hundred times at least.
Woody Guthrie’s history is well known, however the connection from Woody Guthrie to a sonnet may seem a bit obscure. Billy Bragg and Wilco took Woody Guthrie’s lyrics and released the song Isler On The Go on Mermaid Avenue. It is a haunting tribute by Guthrie, Bragg and Wilco to Hanns Isler, who along with his brother Gerhart, were accused by their sister of being communists. The two had been active in the communist party prior to WWII in Germany and had left Germany when the Nazi’s came to power. They immigrated to the United States where Hanns was able to cobble together a modest living as a composer for Hollywood films. In addition, while in America Hanns wrote a series of songs that had lyrics based on poetry from Brecht, Goethe and others as well.
His brother Gerhart was smeared by his sister as being the head of a communist conspiracy in America and she claimed he was the lead spy in a network of spies. It didn’t matter that none of it was true, it was perfect fodder for tabloid headlines and exactly what the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) wanted to hear. Hanns was called to give testimony and was interrogated himself on any role he himself had played in the Communist Party in Germany and then here in the United States. Hanns said;
My subversiveness is that I love my brother. My crime is that I am trying to defend him.
Give a listen to the simple lyrics and haunting delivery of Jeff Tweedy as Guthrie himself in this song is wondering what he would do if he is called to HUAC to give testimony.
Hanns capitulated and returned to Europe, eventually settling in East Berlin. It was then that Isler composed the German Democratic Republic’s national anthem. He continued his long friendship and artistic partnership with Bertolt Brecht during this time. Brecht is best known as a playwright, but he also wrote the lyrics to many songs with Isler and left a legacy of more than 2,000 poems, including sonnets. Isler fell into a deep depression after Brecht’s death and his productivity as a composer declined. I have included a video of a performance of one of Isler’s and Brecht’s songs below; Songs to Sing in Prison.
A recent English translation by Constantine and Kuhn shows the brilliance of Brecht’s poetry for those of us that can’t read him in his native tongue.
Sonnet No. 19
by Bertolt Brecht
One thing I do not want: you flee from me.
Complain, I’ll want to hear you anyway.
For were you deaf I should need what you say
And were you dumb I should need what you see
And blind: I’d want to see you nonetheless.
Given to watch for me, companion
The way is long and we’re not halfway done
Consider where we are still: in darkness.
“Leave me, I’m wounded” is not good enough.
And nor is “Somewhere,” only “Here” will do.
Take longer with the task: but you can’t be let off.
You know, whoever’s needed is not free.
But come whatever may, I do need you.
I saying I could just as well say we. *
*Bertolt Brecht, Love Poems, translated by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015), 86.
“An isolationist America is no bloody use to anyone.”
There is magic that occurs sometimes during live concerts, an interplay between the musicians and the audience, an amplification of energy, where each feeds off the other to create something unique, a time stamp of emotion, melody and percussion, that raises the hairs on the back of your neck with pure joy. I love the sonic improvisation by skilled musicians of favorite songs that transform them into rock and roll jazz, an experience that will never be recreated note for note.
I had that feeling again last night at a Wilco concert at the Palace Theater in St. Paul. The final performance of a masterful band before taking a break to allow each great individual talent to pursue solo projects. Last night it was impossible to tell who was having more fun, the audience or the band, a night where Wilco strayed from the previous night’s set list and dived head long into an expansive array of music, created over several decades.
I try to keep a trail of bread crumbs between my blog posts. Obscure though it may be, I attempt to playfully connect dots between poets and artists to create a flow in my writing and thought process. The concert reminded me of another creative project where the torch of creativity was passed from one artist to another after one of their deaths, just like Auden in translating Hammerskold’s Markings. Early on in the evening, I said to my sister between songs, “I hope they play something from Mermaid Avenue.”
Billy Bragg and Wilco released two CDs, Mermaid Avenue Volumes I and II, in 1998 and 2000 respectfully. They are both compelling recordings of a unique musical partnership between musicians that took on the challenge of marrying unrecorded lyrics by Woody Guthrie to their original compositions. Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie, contacted Billy Bragg in 1992 during a tribute concert on what would have been Woody’s 80th birthday. Nora asked Bragg if he would be interested in examining nearly 3000 songs that Nora had found in her father’s home that he had penned lyrics but for which no song composition existed. Either Woody hadn’t written the music yet or he didn’t need to write it down, as it was in his head. Many of the songs are quite different from the socialist political repertoire that Woody Guthrie is famous. Nora Guthrie saw in Bragg a younger British version of her father, a brash and talented defender of working men and women through music. Bragg accepted the challenge but it wasn’t until he sought out Wilco after hearing their 1996 album Being There that the project built momentum. Bragg recognized in Wilco kindred musicians who had the musical chops to venture into a wide range of styles from folk, rock and blues that would be needed to bring Woody Guthrie’s legacy of alive.
It is impossible for me to listen to California Stars or Voodo Hoodo, both of which Wilco played during the concert with a complete flourish of joy and imagine that Woody could have performed them any other way. The songs are too complete. The spirit of Guthrie lives with Bragg and Wilco and guides their hands and voices.
Poetry was as powerful an outlet to give voice to social issues in the 1800’s and early 1900’s as rock music is today. The list of rock star poets is long, but in my mind Shelley, Yeats, T. S. Elliot and Dylan Thomas all fit that bill. They are poets who influenced at least a generation of men and women across the political and economic spectrum, just like great rock music.
Shelley’s poetry is rebellious in its themes and imagery. Though the terms socialism and communism had yet to be coined, the sentiments of some of Shelley’s poetry fit squarely within those doctrines. Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias speaks eloquently on the corruption of power concentrated in hands too few. It is about the insanity of Kings who build monuments to mock the very people who built them, an empty legacy, a desert where power corrupts absolutely.
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?
He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
For a bogus guide, seduced by the old tricks.
At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam
And easy power, had they pushed the rail
Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires:
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.
The street music seemed gracious now to one
For weeks up in the desert. Woken by water
Running away in the dark, he often had
Reproached the night for a companion
Dreamed of already. They would shoot, of course,
Parting easily two that were never joined.
I keep a poetry log each year. It’s pretty crude in its form. I take poems I come across which I like, whether in print or online, in a literary magazine or even better, that someone has shared with me, and I transcribe them into a Google Doc titled; Favorite poems of “…..”. At the end of the year I print it out and reread it. It is interesting to see the tracks of where my curiosity has scampered. Last year, in reading the log, I discovered that W. H. Auden and A. E. Housman had re-occurred, more than I had consciously realized. I enjoy it when I uncover threads of continuity and I do a Homer Simpson “Doh” when I see them staring back at me.
I am, admittedly, at risk of criticism by smarter and more learned readers than I, who might read this blog and level charges that my knowledge is at best superficial about the history of a specific poet or their poetry. Please don’t bother to sharpen your long knives, I will accept your deft criticism. There is an advantage to not being blinded by a deep specificity of knowledge. It frees the mind to find connections that may or may not be relevant to scholars without having to justify it with academic proof.
The Secret Agent is an unrhymed sonnet, written by Auden in 1928. Who knows who fucked whom 100 years ago, and it doesn’t matter. Historians and academics who know more than I, state that Auden was gay. His sexuality is unimportant to me, I like his writing. The Secret Agent, I believe, deals metaphorically with who he is and maybe who he loves, depending on how you might interpret a line such as; “Control of the passes, was he saw, the key.” Auden has the where with all to hide it in plain sight, regardless with whom his real life romances occurred.
I thought my Auden infatuation had begun only after my Mom died in July of 2016. But I was wrong. It had been a silent running theme, unrecognized consciously throughout the year. Let me explain.
After my Mom’s death, I was the one to settle her estate and largely deal with her possessions. I found on her book shelf, cleaning out her apartment, a rather plain hard cover green, cellophane tape repaired edition of the book Markings, by Dag Hammarskjold. If you are not familiar with it, it’s a gem. The copy my Mother left to me, I want to believe, was boosted from the library of North Presbyterian Church in North St. Paul. This is the Church where I grew up and will come along in future blog posts with more interesting context. My Mother was a genuinely honest person, so I think she either checked it out and forgot to return it (as the library card in the back suggests) or bought it at a church library sale. For some reason I want her to have come by it by nefarious circumstances. I don’t know why, but I rather fondly look at the book and picture her secreting it out of the Church under cover of night. Secret Agent kind of stuff: wink, wink. I don’t think there was any kind of investigation as to its disappearance or fine levied for it failing to be returned, as there is only one other person who ever checked it out in all its years sitting on the shelves. I like to think the book came to find its proper owner on its own.
Markings is the diary of Dag Hammarskjold. The book comes from his unpublished writings from throughout his life time. He did not publish it, friends undertook the task following his death. Hammarskjold served as the second Secretary General of the United Nations from 1953 until his death in a plane crash in 1961. There is some evidence of a conspiracy, that the plane crash may have been caused deliberately by another plane rather than just a tragic accident. There was no clear motive for killing Hammarskjold other than he was an ardent supporter of peace and human rights. He is the only person to ever be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously. He was killed in the Congo where there was a battle of influence between the Soviet Union backed anarchy and the supposed Democratic influences of the United States and Europe who also had mining interests to be protected. Hammarskjold was an opposing figure and had patiently demanded the Soviet Union’s and other countries unpaid dues to the United Nations, whose budget deficits threatened its very existence and prevented it from fulfilling its peace keeping missions around the world.
How does this possibly link to a W. H. Auden sonnet? Well, remarkable as it sounds, W. H. Auden, neither speaking nor reading a word of Swedish, undertook translating the entire manuscript of Hammarskjold’s journal into a book after his death. Markings, under Auden’s steady editing, reads more like poetry than a memoir. Auden completed this task with the partnership of Leif Sjoberg. It is a mind-boggling accomplishment by both men. Think about the intellect and compassion required to publish an English translation of another man’s life of compelling affirmations, beliefs, doubts and imperfections, his deepest innermost thoughts, into a book from a language that for Auden was not his mother tongue nor one he had ever studied and in which Sjoberg was left to communicate its subtleties of meaning. I am in awe of Hammarskjold for his writing, Auden for his ability to bring it to the English reader and Sjoberg for his patience and precision. I think Auden was able to get under the skin of Hammarskjold, in part because they shared much in common. They were both incredible intellects, both complex, private and hard workers. They were both unafraid of a complex challenge that might seem impossible to a lesser person. They were both men who appear to have been most comfortable around the company of other men. They both had an expansive curiosity about the larger world and history. They were both writers and great thinkers who challenged themselves to become better human beings in their private and public thoughts.
We live in such a polarized political climate, where belief is sublimated into some kind of binary accounting, that it can feel sometimes that we are relegated to either a one or a zero, on whatever issue is being debated on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. If we are not careful, we can find ourselves through peer pressure or political affiliation to be either for or against things in the narrow Republican and Democratic theocracy of belief and never allowed to reside within a demilitarized zone, within which those of us who would like more information, or a more nuanced approach, are allowed to catch our breath. In Markings, it is refreshing to read the internal journey of an uncertain, but determined and skilled diplomat, who believed that even without knowledge of all the answers, he could espouse a personal theology in which the world is a better place by the process of steadfastly wrestling with the problems facing himself and a global society. Hammarskjold shines a light that there can be a better future, for himself and the world at large, regardless of which side of the political spectrum we find ourselves, if we see others as human beings worthy of our respect.
The stakes were high during Hammarskjold’s tenure in leading the United Nations. It was post WWII, the cold war was at its height, the expansion of a nuclear world was dangerous indeed and the recovery of Europe and Asia was still in process. It was a time when the best and brightest minds aspired to be professional politicians, professional diplomats, professional spies, and professional soldiers because of the respect it engendered. Government service and diplomatic service was an honorable and worthy vocation.
Hammarskjold’s remarkable journal is filled with doubts, misgivings, tortured thoughts and brightness of belief. I can’t do it justice with a few quotes. If I have peaked your interest, go find a dog-eared copy in a used book store or see if your Mom stole a copy from her church in the 1970’s and its sitting on her book shelf.
Let’s bring this blog entry back to sonnets and an unrhymed sonnet at that. W. H. Auden is one of those intellectuals whose genius is hard to fathom. He saw every form of poetry as one he could delve into and evolve within the reverent context of extraordinary minds who had come before. He is one of those people who is at risk of being criticized and disliked simply because his intellect is expansive and beyond our own. He wrote more than one complex poem within the sonnet structure, along with every other kind of poetic structure you can imagine. However, it is lines from some of his simple poems, that come to my thoughts at unexpected times. It is in Auden’s and Hammarskjold’s humanity, honesty, and uncertainty, that I find a compelling wish; a hope that we can bring back compromise to politics to solve the intractable and important issues facing us today. A wish that the world can be a better place if we assigned both Auden and Hammarskjold as mandatory reading for incoming freshman Senators and Congressman. This is not some idealistic stupidity of a moron’s belching on my part. Neither Auden or Hammarskjold will ever be accused of being morons. If they could wrestle with uncertainty, and own up that they were not always right or knew the complexity of a holistic answer and thereby solicited the input of others, even others whose views may have differed from their own, then why can’t we?
After reading all of Marking’s and grooving on Auden for the second half of 2016, I was surprised to see that I had copied several poems of Auden in the log, including the following poem early in January of 2016. The genius of Auden stretching me, testing me, pestering me through the entirety of the year.
Let The More Loving One Be Me
By W. H. Auden
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.