Snow, Snow, More Snow!

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Winter

by Walter de la Mare

And the robin flew
Into the air, the air,
The white mist through;
And small and rare
The night-frost fell
Into the calm and misty dell.

And the dusk gathered low,
And the silver moon and stars
On the frozen snow
Drew taper bars,
Kindled winking fires
In the hooded briers.

And the sprawling Bear
Growled deep in the sky;
And Orion’s hair
Streamed sparkling by:
But the North sighed low,
“Snow, snow, more snow!”


The Year’s Awakening

by Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928)

How do you know that the pilgrim track
Along the belting zodiac
Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds
Is traced by now to the Fishes’ bounds
And into the  Ram, when weeks of cloud
Have wrapt the sky in a clamy shroud,
And never as yet a tinct of spring
Has shown in the Earth’s apparelling;
     .     .O vespering bird, how do you know,
 .           How do you know?

How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction’s strength,
And day put on some moments’ length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;
   .    O crocus root, how do you know,
        .    . .How do you know?

No Velvet and No Velvety Velour

Gwendolyn Brooks.jpg
Gwendolyn Brooks

What Shall I Give My Children

by Gwendolyn Brooks

What shall I give my children? who are poor,
Who are adjudged the leastwise of the land,
Who are my sweetest lepers, who demand
No velvet and no velvety velour;
But who have begged me for a brisk contour,
Crying that they are quasi, contraband
Because unfinished, graven by a hand
Less than angelic, admirable or sure.

My hand is stuffed with mode, design, device.
But I lack access to my proper stone
And plenitude of plan shall not suffice
Nor grief nor love shall be enough alone
To ratify my little halves who bear
Across an autumn freezing everywhere .


It’s Ground Hog Day.   A perfectly silly tradition with no less than pomp and circumstance surrounding the formal process of observing Punxsutawney Phil either see or not see his shadow.  I think the Pennsylvania Dutch who came up with this quaint tradition were suffering from vitamin D deficiency at this point in the winter and couldn’t think straight, because I have always thought they got it mixed up.  If the ground-hog sees his shadow and retreats to his burrow, (is it because he is afraid of his shadow?), then its six more weeks of winter, but if it’s cloudy and he ventures out then spring will arrive early. Doesn’t it make more sense if the sun is out that spring is coming early? In Minnesota, only six more weeks of winter, means spring has arrived way early. So I guess according to this tradition we’re a winner winner, chicken dinner no matter which way things go down with Mr P. Phil Ground Hog today.

It is a pleasure to revisit Gwendolyn Brooks at the start of Black History month. I love the playfulness in the word selection of Brooks’ poetry, even in the most serious of subject matters. It creates an odd tension, a contradiction that conveys a complexity. In the sonnet this playfulness says to me that being poor is not one thing, and not all bad, but that her “little halves”  are whole people who still know the feel of velvet. As a friend of mine reminds me it’s not a crime to be poor. Although we treat it as such sometimes with ways we penalize those without adequate means.

I was tempted to share Brooks’ poem “The Boy Died In My Alley” as it fits the Ground Hog Day theme of repetition, from the Bill Murray film by the same name. Brooks’ captures in that poem the senselessness of gun violence in our communities that is no different today than when she wrote the poem. Gun violence is a scourge in our country in all our communities, not just communities of color. But I decided against it. We’re all a little short of vitamin D after being cooped up for several weeks of cold weather, we may not be thinking straight, so let’s think about love instead. Better to be confused by love than anything else. Valentines Day is right around the corner and it’s not too late to make a date and ask that someone out who already has your heart or maybe has just caught your eye.


To Be In Love

by Gwendolyn Brooks

To be in love
Is to touch with a lighter hand.
In yourself you stretch, you are well.
You look at things
Through his eyes.
A cardinal is red.
A sky is blue.
Suddenly you know he knows too.
He is not there but
You know you are tasting together
The winter, or a light spring weather.
His hand to take your hand is overmuch.
Too much to bear.
You cannot look in his eyes
Because your pulse must not say
What must not be said.
When he
Shuts a door-
Is not there_
Your arms are water.
And you are free
With a ghastly freedom.
You are the beautiful half
Of a golden hurt.
You remember and covet his mouth
To touch, to whisper on.
Oh when to declare
Is certain Death!
Oh when to apprize
Is to mesmerize,
To see fall down, the Column of Gold,
Into the commonest ash.

 

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

 

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“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

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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?