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.

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.

Ghost of a Ghost

solomonshebalc7

Auden’s Funeral

by Stephen Spender
Excerpt

III

(Ghost of a ghost, of you when young, you waken
In me my ghost when young, us both at Oxford.
You, the tow-haired undergraduate
With jaunty liftings of the head.
Angular forward stride, cross-questioning glance,
A Buster Keaton-faced pale gravitas.
Saying aloud your poems whose letters bit
Ink-deep into my fingers when I set
Them up upon my five-pound printing press:

‘An evening like a coloured photograph

A music stultified across the water

The heel upon the finishing blade of grass.’)


Stephen Spender published the first volume of Auden’s poetry in 1928.  Spender had his own printing press and put together a small selection of poems from his Oxford counterpart and published a slim volume to the tune of 45 copies of Auden’s student work.  The act of sharing one’s work is daunting.  The first published poem. The first edition of the first collection is an act of contrition and courage. Readers should be forgiving.  The italized lines above from the poem below.  A foretelling of the brilliance of Auden that was to come.


Consider If You Will How Lovers Stand

by W. H. Auden

Consider if you will how lovers stand
In brief adherence, straining to preserve
Too long the suction of good-bye; others,
Less clinically-minded, will admire
An evening like a coloured photograph,
A music stultified across the water:
The desert opens here, and if, though we
Have ligatured the ends of a farewell,
Sporadic heartburn show in evidence
of love uneconomically slain,
It is for the last time, the last look back,
The heel upon the finishing blade of grass.
To dazzling cities of the plain where lust
Threatened a sinister rod, and we shall turn
To our study of stones, to split Eva’s apple,
Absorbed, content if we can say “because”:
Unanswerable as any other pendant,
Like Solomon and Sheba, wrong for years.

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.