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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

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.