Nor One Word Forgotten

w-h-auden
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 – 1973)

 

The Lucky

by W. H. Auden

Suppose he’d listened to the erudite committee,

He would have only found where not to look;
Suppose his terrier when he whistled had obeyed,
It would not have unearthed the buried city;
Suppose he had dismissed the careless maid.

The cryptogram would not have fluttered from the book.
was not I,” he cried as, healthy and astounded,

He stepped across a predecessor’s skull;
nonsense jingle simply came into my head
And left the intellectual Sphinx dumbfounded;
I won the Queen because my hair was red;
The terrible adventure is a little dull.”
Hence Failure’s torment: ‘Was I doomed in any case,
Or would I not have failed had I believed in Grace?”


Yesterday was the coldest day in 25 years in Minneapolis, morning temperature was -27 degrees F.  It was a day to stay home and play hooky from responsibilities, make oatmeal for breakfast and soup for lunch.  Everyone who lives in warm places who hate the cold, are missing out. There’s nothing like an unexpected snow day to savor sleeping in and having the whole day to yourself to enjoy a bit of indulgent reading and cooking.

We have come to the end of January and the end of the Auden retrospective. If you have ideas on future January residencies, please share them. I will let Auden’s own words take us to the end.


 

Bowing, for instance, with such old-world grace
To a proper flag in a proper place.
Muttering like ancients as they stump upstairs
Of Mine and His or Ours and Theirs.
Just as if time were what they used to will
When it was gifted with possession still.
Just as if they were wrong
In no more wishing to belong.
No wonder then so many die of grief.
So many are so lonely as they die;
No one has yet believed or liked a lie.
Another time has other lives to live.

To You Simply For what as easy.
For what though small.
For what is well
Because between.

To you simply
From me I mean
Who goes with who
The bedclothes say
As I and you
Go kissed away,
The data given.

The senses even
Fate is not late.
Nor the speech rewritten,
Nor one word forgotten.

W. H. Auden

And The Ripeness All

the sea and the mirror‘Well, who in his own backyard
Has not opened his heart to the smiling
Secret he cannot quote?

Which goes to show that the Bard
Was sober when he wrote
That this world of fact we love
Is unsubstantial stuff:

All the rest is silence
On the other side of the wall;
And the silence ripeness,

And the ripeness all.

 

 

If I Could Tell You

by W. H. Auden

Time will say nothing but I told you so.
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so. . . .

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so. . . .

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?

If I could tell you I would let you know.


Academics whose job it is to analyze and grade departed poets into some kind of rational literary bench-marking system, have generally agreed that Auden’s work after he left Europe in 1939 is not as gripping or inspiring as his earlier work. Their criticism is that he became a bit too devout, a bit too focused on literature and he lost his poetic edge as he aged. I am not much interested in what critics have to say.  I think the problem with aging writers is less with the writer sometimes and more with the reader. Readers set too a high standard that can not possibly be attained. If a writer is brilliant once, then we expect brilliance again and again and again. Do we hold ourselves to those standards?  Hardly.

Critics rarely like much of anything poets write beyond the age of 50, as if a good poet are only those, like Keats, who find a way to die for their art early enough that the critics don’t have to bother with reading the last musings of their aging favorites. Auden’s poetry after 1940 has less tension than his prior work, but he left the stress of the constancy of European wars behind him.  If Auden lost a bit of his edge, who can blame him. There is still brilliance in his later work, but its not as compressed, the reader has to seek it out. Auden maybe saying to the reader; “If I could tell you I would let you know.” 

One of the advantages of having a short attention span with poetry, is I don’t tend to read long form poems, or if I do, I only skim them, dwelling on shorter portions I find interesting.  Regardless of the writer, I break down long form poetry into small pieces or ignore it all together. So if the critics are correct, and his long form poems aren’t up to the standards of his earlier works, I shall never know.  I will keep coming back to those words of Auden that make me marvel. Like the postscript to The Sea And The Mirror, Auden’s commentary on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest,  where Ariel says to Caliban;

“Never hope to say farewell,
For our lethargy is such
Heaven’s kindness cannot touch
Nor earth’s frankly brutal drum;
This was long ago decided,
    ,      , .Both of us know why,
              .Can, alas, foretell,
When our falsehoods are divided,
   ,     .What we shall become,
One evaporating sigh
 .                 .    …I”


 

Excerpt from The Sea and The Mirror

by W. H. Auden

On clear days I can see
Green acres far below,
And the red roof where I
Was Little Trinculo.

There lies that solid world
These hands can never reach;
My history, my love,
Is but a choice of speech,

A terror shakes my tree,
A flock of words fly out,
Whereas a laughter shakes
The busy and devout.

Wild images, come down
Out of your freezing sky.
That I, like shorter men.
May get my joke and die.

One note is jarring, Prospero,
My humour is my own;
Tense Trinculo will never know
The paradox Antonio

Laughs at, in woods, alone.

A Private Reason For This

 

auden

“You know there are no secrets in America. It’s quite different in England, where people think of a secret as a shared relation between two people.”

W. H. Auden

 

At Last The Secret Is Out

by W. H. Auden

At last the secret is out,
as it always must come in the end,
the delicious story is ripe to tell
to tell to the intimate friend;
over the tea-cups and into the square
the tongues has its desire;
still waters run deep, my dear,
there’s never smoke without fire.

Behind the corpse in the reservoir,
behind the ghost on the links,
behind the lady who dances
and the man who madly drinks,
under the look of fatigue
the attack of migraine and the sigh
there is always another story,
there is more than meets the eye.

For the clear voice suddenly singing,
high up in the convent wall,
the scent of the elder bushes,
the sporting prints in the hall,
the croquet matches in summer,
the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
there is always a wicked secret,
a private reason for this.


A life measured in words is a noble thing.   It has the ability to stretch far beyond bronze sculptures, oil paintings, ancient pottery, fresco or tile, well into the future, nearly intact. It is a time capsule of a person’s most intimate secrets that can reach across eons. The poets inner life always exposed and raw. What I find spellbinding about Auden is his ability to surprise me, mid line, time after time.  Auden’s work feels like he never wrote to appease anyone but himself. He never appears to be grand standing. There is a humbleness to Auden that keeps it refreshing and genuine. T. S. Eliot always strikes me a bit like he was writing to pick up girls and get laid. It has a falseness about it sometimes, that lacks sincerity, whereas Auden reads like poetry was the only intimate act between two people he ever considered.

I wonder if the digital world will overwhelm posterity with mediocrity someday? Will Auden’s work be buried beneath the next thousand years of marginal poets creating sedimentary formations in the digital world that will obscure his greatness? Or will his work become compressed to be a layer of energy, like oil deep beneath the ground, just waiting to be tapped?  I hope there will be men and women like me, every generation, who will discover Auden and keep his words alive.

An interesting thing to consider is whether English will be a spoken language in 2,000 years?  Or will it become like Latin, an ancient readable, translatable text, that no living human being can converse or speak naturally.  And if English becomes a dead language, how will Auden be translated?  Will his ideas survive further into the future than the words themselves? And what will human kind think of this man in their new vocabulary that inspires them to evolve him through translation into their modernity?


 

The Hidden Law

by W. H Auden

The Hidden Law does not deny
Our laws of probability,
But takes the atom and the star
And human beings as they are,
And answers nothing when we lie.

It is the only reason why
No government can codify,
And verbal definitions mar
The Hidden Law.

Its utter patience will not try
To stop us if we want to die;
If we escape it in a car,
If we forget It in a bar,
These are the ways we’re punished by
The Hidden Law

Among The Filthy, Filthy Too

wh_auden
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 – 1973)

“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”

W. H. Auden

 

The Novelist

By W. H. Auden

Encased in talent like a uniform.
The rank of every poet is well known;
They can amaze us like a thunderstorm,
Or die so young, or live for years alone.

They can dash forward like hussars : but he
Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn
How to be plain and awkward, how to be
One after whom none think it worth to turn.

For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just

Be just, among the Filthy filthy too.
And in his own weak person, if he can.
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.


 

I shall miss this winter interlude with Auden.  But as the high is forecast to be -7 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday, -22 degrees Celsius, I won’t be dissapointed to greet February next weekend. Truth be told, I like a little bitter cold. It’s a bonding opportunity with your fellow Minnesotans. Cold gives us a common advisary which we can in harmony direct our angst and see our fellow neighbors as equals in our journey. Even the one’s spouting memes that rankle our own particular political centers.

Auden was briefly American, a poet prisoner exchange of sorts, with England accepting T. S. Eliot in return. No shots fired, nor spies deployed, as each found asylum in the country they felt more to their temperament in middle age.  Auden’s Americanism didn’t last however. He was European through and through and eventually he returned.

Auden’s body of work over his lifetime is mind boggling. I have been meaning to write an entry on all his translation work, but I don’t even know where to begin. Auden not only wrote over 400 poems, many of them long poems, an equal number of essays, several manuscripts for plays but also was constantly producing book reviews, articles and translations of poems from Russian, Chinese, German, Gaelic and Danish, most of which were languages he did not even speak. I wonder if the man ever stopped thinking about writing and did something trivial like play cards?

Auden lived a life shrouded in cigarette smoke, with pen and paper or typewriter close at hand. Auden achieved his massive body of work by relying on amphetamines for extended fits of focused energy. Then at night, to bring him down to a state he could sleep, he would resort to drinking and sleeping pills. He is the not the first writer or last which has found chemical addiction as a necessary and useful tool in pursuit of one’s art. I don’t think Auden left much unsaid that he wanted to say. I wouldn’t put forth that Auden died prematurely as the result of hard living.  He is quoted as saying; “All sins tend to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is damnation.”  I would beg to differ Mr. Auden. I would claim the terminal point of sin is abdication and acceptance, relinquishing the shame of one’s vices, the very thing that makes us most human. Damnation, I would put forth, is unnecessary abstinence from that which we crave, an abstinence that serves no useful purpose other than to avoid judgement from others who will never share your life’s experiences. If we cannot accept ourselves, then why spend a lifetime in search of salvation in the pleasure of our lives?


 

Look Stranger

by W. H. Auden

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.

Here at a small field’s ending pause
Where the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges
Oppose the pluck
And knock of the tide,
And the shingle scrambles after the suck-
-ing surf,
And a gull lodges
A moment on its sheer side.

Far off like floating seeds the ships
Diverge on urgent voluntary errands,
And this full view
Indeed may enter
And move in memory as now these clouds do,
That pass the harbour mirror
And all the summer through the water saunter.

 

 

A Rapture Of Distress

auden new york
W. H. Auden

 

In Memory of W. B. Yeats

by W. H. Auden

III

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.


 

Poetry, even love poetry is a rapture of distress. Auden never rejected anxiety as something to be cured or admonished. He embraced it, letting it become the thing that made his writing accessable and understandable. Some writers words are so perfect that it’s hard for us to see our own lives contained within the lines. Auden was a perfectionist in the selection of his words and the construction of his poems, but he didn’t talk over our heads in some academic lexicon, foreign to our English ears. No, Auden paints in a pallete of plain language that enriches our experience of reading him.

Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming, is one of the most appropriated poems of the last 100 years. There have been countless artists who incorporated into their work or title some element of Yeats’ brilliance, hoping by creating that connection, their work will have greater significance and depth of meaning.  In some cases, like Joan Didion, it worked.  In most, it seems trite and a failed attempt at being cerebral. Best to let the grand master stand on his own.

I keep coming back to Yeats and in particular to this poem. The opening creates movement that carries me to the end, the swirl of insanity just as relevent today. Yeats wrote this amidst the spectre of WWI and the forces of war carrying evil to every corner of the earth. Yeats shines a spot light on the rough beast that continues to slouch in the deserts of our worst existence, where passionate intensity has replaced compassionate calm. The grotesque theater played out on our Nation’s monuments last week and the blood thirsty rush to judgement to condemn “the other” side without any wisdom of stepping back from the madness that is social media and realizing that wihout the invention of a cell phone, none of it would be news.

Yeats’ nor Auden would be surprised that we haven’t overcome the human tendency towards destruction.  For only nature makes entropy look beautiful, material creations of man, other than art, tend to become uglier in its inevitable wasting away and depreciation. Literature doesn’t depreciate, if anything it becomes more heroic and timeless in our ability to reach across centuries and discover how much in common we have with the greatest minds that have ever lived.


 

The Second Coming

by W. B. Yeats

Tuning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

 

Of Course To Wish

 

auden
W. H. Auden

“And now ‘love’ is the name for our pursuit of wholeness.”

Horae Canonicae

Prime

An Excerpt by W. H. Auden

I draw breath; this is of course to wish
No matter what, to be wise,
To be different, to die and the cost,
No matter how, is Paradise
Lost of course and myself owing a death:
The eager ridge, the steady sea,
The flat roofs of the fishing village
Still asleep in its bunny,
Though as fresh and sunny still are not friends
But things to hand, this ready flesh
No honest equal, but my accomplice now
My assassin to be, and my name
Stands for my historical share of care
For a lying self-made city,
Afraid of our living task, the dying
Which the coming day will ask.


A friend of mine who reads my blog gave me this advice in a text a week ago; “Give up on Auden already.” I of course, ignored it. If you are following a blogger whose subtitle is, A Sonnet Obsession, then you shouldn’t be roiled by a deep dive into a poet, even a complex poet like Auden, for a January residency. What else do we have to do in these short, dark days then to dream and read during the polar night? Auden is as good a distraction as any other. If I am trying your patience, push through it a little longer. Breathe deep and stay with him and I, February is right around the corner. There may be no point to it in the end. But you may just find something of value for yourself in allowing for a depth to your curiosity. This month’s journey with Auden may inspire you to pick up a volume of Auden’s work for your nightstand at a garage sale or used book store this summer and then who knows what you might discover.

I have found in Auden a kindred soul. His face is a face of irresponsible living and unrepentant indulgence. I think I may be glad of it, when I have a face like his some day, the cosmetic camouflage of youth no longer able to fool the passerby. The reality of life and life’s choices there on display, in wrinkles and bulbous nose for all to judge. Too much sun you may be thinking? Too many cigarettes? Too much to drink? Too much red meat and potato chips?  Way too much fun it appears!  The onlooker is left to decide which is the cause of your face running down your cheeks, but clearly, something out of the ordinary has happened to create such a wreak. Men and women who can wear those faces without embarrassment are the one’s with true courage and stamina. The shallow pretenders are the ones who seek out a surgeon’s arts to keep the ruse alive or hope some homeopathic face cream is going to keep you from looking your age. A face like Auden’s declares there was more than a little excitement along the way in the misappropriation of one’s taut, handsome and uniform complexion. A face like Auden’s declares you have taken control of your own mortality and are planning it in advance rather than allowing fate to decide what form of decrepitude is going to deliver death. It is a face that should be admired for the honesty of its purpose. Life after all is like being on the President’s Cabinet: it serves only at the whim of its Commander In Chief – death.

Auden came to a profound belief in Christianity relatively late in life.  It was no death-bed conversion, his faith was a deep and personal reaction to evil in the world around him during the events leading up to, during and following WWII. Remember that being gay was sufficient crime to be sent to a death camp in Nazi Germany and imprisoned in England. I respect Auden’s approach to Christianity even if I do not fully embrace his beliefs.

I relate to the following statement by Auden: “Our faith must be well balanced by our doubt,” a Christian “is never something one is, only something one can pray to become.” I think Auden and I would agree that all religions and in particular Christianity is a way of being in the world, a way of looking at the world through a specific lens, not an intellectual proof to be solved like Thomas Aquinas or a moral checklist that allows passage into an imagined Heaven or a map that can explain all of the world around us and its contradictions. I relate to Auden’s doubt more than I relate to his belief in his writing. Auden’s God is a God of love not a God of damnation. Most of all, I relate to Auden’s acceptance of humanity. His poetry is an affirmation of the complexity of being human, a faithful rendering of our foibles, oddities and faults alongside our incredible beauty.

Auden’s Horae Canonicae has a lot going on it as a poem. I don’t know if I have digested even a tiny bit of it yet. Here’s another snippet of fourteen lines for you to interpret on your own and savor in a small mouthful. Forgive his use of only masculine pronouns, I truly believe Auden meant to be inclusive, while trapped in the tradition of an old fashioned approach to literature.

Here’s a link to an on-line version of the entire poem if you wish to read more.

https://vladivostok.com/speaking_in_tongues/auden9eng.htm


Horae Canonicae

Sext

III – Excerpt by W. H. Auden

…..an epiphany of that
which does whatever is done.

Whatever god a person believes in,
in whatever way he believes,

(no two are exactly alike)
as one of the crowd he believes

and only believes in that
in which there is only one way of believing.

Few people accept each other and most
will never do anything properly,

but the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd
is the only thing all men can do.

Only because of that can we say
all men are our brothers,….

We Have The World To Roam

cabaret
Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret

“Fear, after all, is our real enemy. Fear is taking over our world. Fear is being used as a tool of manipulation in our society. Itʼs how politicians peddle policy and how Madison Avenue sells us things that we donʼt need.” (A Single Man)

Christopher Isherwood

 

Morning Song

Sara Teasdale, 1884 – 1933

A diamond of a morning
    Waked me an hour too soon;
Dawn had taken in the stars
    And left the faint white moon.

O white moon, you are lonely,
    It is the same with me,
But we have the world to roam over,
    Only the lonely are free.


 

Bob Fosse’s Broadway show and film Cabaret had its birth place in Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye To Berlin, which is often published with other stories under the name Berlin Stories. As a writer, Isherwood earned far more over his lifetime writing plays and for Hollywood movies than for his novels. What is interesting is the multiple stage and movie adaptations of Goodbye To Berlin were created by other people, who found inspiration in Isherwood’s work. The success of the stage version of Cabaret continues to generate income for his estate. Isherwood loosely modeled Sally Bowles from a real life character Jean Ross, but the stage and movie depictions would evolve to have little connection to the real life Ross. Isherwood was quoted towards the end of his life that he could barely remember Jean Ross, Sally Bowles a true creation of Isherwood’s imagination.

Isherwood wrote Berlin stories at a time when he and Auden were frequent traveling companions. They were both gay and Berlin offered intellectual and physical stimulation that suited their adventurous natures. Isherwood’s writing is viewed by some as the beginning of modern gay story telling in literature and the theater. Isherwood left Berlin and moved to Los Angeles, California, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

Isherwood was not a poet but he was a brilliant romantic.  His greatest creation was his own avant-garde life, which reads like fiction, complete with evading authorities, on the run across Europe before WWII, his lover ultimately being arrested by the Nazi’s, seducing the great love of his life who was 30 years his junior in his late 40’s, immersing himself in India’s culture, his translation of the Bhagavad Gita with Swami Prabhavananda is considered the first fluid translation in English.  Isherwood was a bit misogynistic, an anti-Semite, a hypochondriac, but also a kind and gentle human being. Isherwood lived a big life and left an iconic character in Sally Bowles to keep on singing.

 


 

Poem

by W. H. Auden

He watched with all his organs of concern
How princes walk, what wives and children say;
Reopened old graves in his heart to learn
What laws the dead had died to disobey;

And came reluctantly to his conclusion:
“All the arm-chair philosopher’s are false,
To love another adds to the confusion,
The song of pity is the Devil’s waltz.”

And bowed to fate, and was successful so
That soon he was the king of all the creatures:
Yet, shaking in an autumn nightmare, saw

Approaching down an empty corridor,
A figure with his own distorted features
That wept, and grew enormous, and cried Woe.