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.

Rise The Mountains Of Instead

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

 

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

by W. H. Auden

 

VI – The First Temptation

From The Quest
by W. H. Auden

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

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

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

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


Auden’s Funeral

Excerpt Part I

by Stephen Spender

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

World Is Suddener Than We Fancy It

macniece
Louise MacNiece

Snow

by Louis MacNiece

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

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

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


 

Lullaby

by W. H. Auden

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

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

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

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

 

 

Love Made Him Weep His Pints

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Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden

Night Mail

by W. H. Auden

Excerpt IV

Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s:

Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and hope for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?


We can debate whether social media has enhanced or demolished the art of correspondence, but the elegance of a hand written letter still stands above all other forms of written communication in my mind.  It is an artform perfected before the hustle and bustle of texting, email, Facebook and Instagram.  How many of us are guilty of going an entire year, without posting a single letter to a friend, Christmas cards notwithstanding?  I am a consumer of social media because I have to be, not because I enjoy it or feel that it connects me closer to anyone.

My biggest beef with social media is the un-originality of 99% of it.  Most people re-tweet or re-meme or re-post something that was in their feed, with nothing added to the content. I am guilty of it too and then I often go back and think, why did I post that?  What does it have to do with me?   Nothing.

A hand written letter contains an element of focus that electronic forms of communication will never achieve.   A letter in your mail box is a tangible extension of the letter writer, a conscious act of sharing your life and words with one singular person.  The last line in Auden’s Night Mail, sums it up, “who can bear to feel himself forgotten.”   A letter assures ourselves for as long as the paper remains intact, that we know that another held us in their thoughts as they penned the words.

Here is a short reading of the entire poem, Night Mail, which was commissioned for the documentary This Is The Night Mail, which can also be found on youtube.

 


 

Who’s Who

by W. H. Auden

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea:
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

Being Rich In Will Add To Thy Will

NYE
Ring Out The Old, Ring In The Ne

 

Do you make New Year’s resolutions?   Are they motivations for change?  Are they wishes unlikely to be kept? Does it matter whether we keep them or not if they signal an awareness for the possibility of change? Ben Franklin said of New Year’s; “Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every New Year find you a better man (or woman).” Ben, that sounds like you are taking all the fun out of NYE celebrations.  Let’s make that our goal on January 2 and dabble in vice for a couple more days.

I always have one or two New Year’s resolutions. They are usually modest nudges towards change of something that I know that I can achieve, something I am already trending towards but want to strengthen my commitment. I don’t set resolutions with expectations of something unrealistic.  I purposefully dream small on New Year’s eve, the New Year still a shimmer of possibility, the past year something more substantial of accomplishments to be savored and celebrated.

William Shakespeare’s sense of humor is in full display in the sonnet below. Is the capitalized “Will” referring only to himself, or the greater mass of our collective wills? The word “will” is included twelve times in fourteen lines, making it the most willful sonnet I have ever come across, but as he says; “The sea, all water, yet receives rain still.”  One simply can’t have too much will or William.  Enjoy.


 

Sonnet 135

by William Shakespeare

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus;
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou being rich in Will add to thy Will
One will of mine, to make thy large Will more.
   Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
   Think all but one, and me in that one Will

If It’s Darkness We’re Having, Let it Be Extravagant

tree
Christmas tree carcass waiting for the garbage man.

Taking Down The Tree

by Jane Kenyon

“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.


What a difference there is between putting up the tree and taking it down.  In my experience, we usher in the grand festival of the Christmas season with the annual family ceremony of selecting, transporting and then decorating the Christmas tree, eggnog in hand, Christmas carols playing on Spotify.  Then several weeks later, generally only one person finds themselves with the solitary task of taking the ornaments off, boxing them up and kicking the tree to the curb like an ugly sweater some relative gave you on Christmas Day.

A much more pleasurable final resting place for your Christmas tree, if you are fortunate enough to live in a place where you can have a fire in your back yard, is to put your tree out in the burn pit and let it get good and dry to become a natural inferno for next year’s first bonfire in the spring. That’s a sure-fire one match fire.  It’s also a reminder why our great grandparents before electricity took their lives in their own hands in lighting candles on the Christmas tree.  No wonder prohibition was passed in the 1920s!

My Mother always waited until 12th night to take down her Christmas tree. The twelve days of Christmas begins on Christmas day and ends on January 5. I like the term Christmastide to describe this period, as it creates an image of being swept away by the spirit of good tidings.

This year I am awash in pears, having been gifted several boxes of fruit. Trying to eat them all up before twelfth night is my challenge as pears go from perfect to putrid in about 3 days. I am making pear tatin, pear-blue cheese salad, pear sauce and would you care for a pear if I left it outside your door as I am playing ding dong ditch with my neighbors with pears in about 3 days. Please, next year, send me oranges.  At least I can turn them into screwdrivers on New Years day.


Sonnet

by Jane Tyson Clement (1917 – 2000)

Seeking the fact that lies behind the flower
the soul will break its own mortality;
searching the time that lies beyond the hour
the soul will yield its blind serenity;
that is but briefly to be ill at ease
and then forever to be tranquil-eyed,
stirring the wrath of temporal deities
who hurl pale lightning when they are defied.
The least fine sheaf of millet will repay
the soul’s slow contemplation, and the still
ages of starlight between day and day;
the climb is steep to mount a sudden hill;
but if man, fearless, follows stars, he’ll find –
lo, he is more than stars, and more than mind.


“Taking Down the Tree” by Jane Kenyon from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2005.  Graywolf Press, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

May This Season Make You Blessed

 

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My Inner Boy, 1967

 

Merry Christmas

By T. A. Fry

May this season make you blessed,
Every day with tenderness;
Renew our dampened spirits in its sway.
Rejoice in twinkling candlelight,
Young and old all spry this night,
Cheerful with renewal New Year’s Day.
Hark our dear one’s joy
Rally our inner girl and boy,
Inside our hearts’ a tiny silver sleigh.
Santa’s not gifts beneath a tree,
The true gifts are family,
May each flourish in both industry and play.  
And so I’ve devised a simple plan
Spelled it out in anagram,

Merry Christmas one and all this holiday.


 

Is it naive to want to want the world to be a better place this time of year? Then let’s be naive together in wishing each other the sentiments:  “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.” The words nativity and naivety are french and come from the same Latin root that means just born. Every year, we need to birth anew our understanding of peace. Peace that is an outpouring of compassion, the capacity to empathize with even those we disagree. Peace arises from the certainty that there can never be peace for me, until there is justice for everyone else. Justice is not a means to retribution.  Justice has to be a road to peace, for Justice = Just Us.

May this world find real solutions to the most intractable of conflicts in 2019 and forge a brighter future for us all.

Peace on Earth,

 .          .  Goodwill to All.