Poetry Friday: 1940, part 4

Christopher Isherwood (left) and W.H. Auden (r...

Auden (on right) at about the time he wrote the poem; pictured with him is Christopher Isherwood, a writer with whom he had a close friendship/relationship at the time. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have moved slowly with The Grapes of Wrath because I’m savoring it (as, some of you will remember, I did with The Age of Innocence back in 2009 when I “discovered” Edith Wharton), but the vat of poetry to draw from in 1940 is getting shallow, and I need to get moving.  As a fan of W. H. Auden, whose verse has appeared here on Poetry Friday several times by now, I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later I would take on what is now his most famous poem, thanks to its prominent role in a hit movie a couple of decades ago.  While he finished it and first published it in an anthology in 1938, it first appeared in a collection of Auden’s poetry in 1940—the book was called Another Time.  The poem’s name is a topic of much debate.  Some argue that Auden intended us to see it as a section of a larger poem called “Two Songs for Hedli Anderson” (or possibly “Song IX” in a poem called “Ten Songs”), while others feel the evidence is pretty strong that he meant it to be titled “Funeral Blues”.  In his collected poems published at the end of his life, when Auden was revising his past somewhat aggressively (cutting poems he no longer agreed with on a moral level, etc.), it appears simply under the heading of its first line.  Most of my generation, though, will know it simply as the poem Matthew reads for Gareth near the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral:

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

Auden’s mourning here is a little strange for me, emotionally—honestly, one reason I didn’t deal with this poem back when PF was in 1938 is that I’m not as profoundly touched by it as I know a lot of other people are.  It was much more resonant for me in the context of the film (and the relationship those characters had) than it does here, where it feels just a little disembodied on the page.  Let’s take one of the moments that for me works both beautifully and weirdly—the opening salvo against the mundane, against the notion that there can be life and normality in a world where this man is gone.  This is great conceptually, but personally I find the “juicy bone” very distracting, the sort of detail that would come up in a comic strip or a children’s book, but jarringly out of place here.  Is that Auden’s purpose, or a slip?  It’s hard for me to tell.  Certainly what surrounds it is genius…the stopped clocks, the muffles on the drums, the imperiousness of grief in the command that the mourners come forth.  There’s a distance there—the speaker, who is clearly almost paralyzed by grief, is separated from “the mourners” as though he doesn’t want to admit the fact, as though he will not be taking his place beside them.  I like that element: it feels honest to me.

The second stanza wobbles most for me—I understand how absurdity can surface in a poem about grief (see my take on Federico Garcia Lorca’s ballad, which is full of this), but to me the absurdity is too measured, too restrained.  Lorca lets fly: the grief twists the whole world and everything explodes and distorts like a Dali painting, and the absurdity of the imagery is a reflection of the brokenness of the world.  Auden, here, by contrast, is too tame for me—the image of the circling aeroplanes feels juvenile, adolescent in its melodrama without signifying much.  The crepe bows are almost comical….totally wrong in tone, if you ask me.  The gloved policemen are hardly better.  Is he mocking grief?

I might draw that conclusion, but then he snaps back into almost prime Auden form, since the beloved as compass, as center of gravity, is totally believable.  The simple cadence, the repetition, feels sobbed out, and the terrifying thud of the last line—“I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.”—is overwhelming to me.  In a few relatively simple phrases, suddenly it does feel like being inside someone who is collapsing on themselves, a person for whom grief is the straw that breaks.  I don’t have to know anything about the dead man to know what he meant.  And the fourth stanza works for me, despite its melodrama, because I can feel these images playing out in the darkness at the heart of this shattered human being: deep inside, where sorrow has driven them, the light cannot find them, and stone and wood, earth and water, are meaningless to them now.  The structure of the poem, weirdly, conveys the disastrous damage done to the structure of the speaker’s inner life.

So, here I am, the Auden fan who’s just fired a couple of shots into one of his most well-loved poems.  I wonder if I’m a bit too hard on the poem, or whether other people see what I do.  Given that a number of us have probably encountered the poem (either in the movie, or at a memorial service—since the film was released, this had a surge of popularity as a reading for such things), I’m hoping a few of you will speak up and say how the poem strikes you.  If I’ve missed out on the beauty of this work, and the way in which the whole thing really does work together, nothing would make me happier than having one of you help me see it.

Poetry Friday: 1939

Ah, 1939—a year full of poems to choose from, and in that regard a much better year than 1938.  Of course, it is not a good year in many other respects, the invasion of Poland being high on the list of reasons why, and I’ll be selecting a poem or two eventually (I expect) that deal with the violence of the year.  But to kick us off, I have to start with one of the first poems I learned to love: in fact, it captured me enough that I loved it even though I didn’t understand what it was about.  It was early in a battered red paperback anthology simply entitled “Poetry”, the book I’d picked up (at a Value Village, maybe?) when I decided that a guy who was going to be an English major should read poems more often.  I didn’t know who this “Wystan Hugh Auden” was, or why he would be moved to write a poem about the death of somebody named “William Butler Yeats“, except that, from context, I figured Yeats must be a poet too.  The poem itself is in three very different parts, all of them lovely in their way, but for today I’m only going to handle the section that first won me over, and still is critical to the archetype called “poem” that lives in my head.  This is the final section of a poem entitled “In Memory of W. B. Yeats (d. Jan. 1939)” by W. H. Auden:

“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.”

Auden’s verse here is an attempt to do what the poem’s first two sections (available here, if you’re interested) have not yet done, which is to embrace the old-fashioned way in which English poetry used to act—short phrases, often end-stopped, with perfectly consonant rhymes (none of that “slant” rhyming in this section).  A style that can definitely seem trite and sing-songy in the hands of lesser poets, and which Auden himself loses hold of in other works, captures here that magical incantation-like power that modern poetry sometimes forgets it can wield.

The section for me is built in two even parts.  The first three stanzas are an address to the Earth.  What is at first an elegant instruction to the Earth as to a servant or heir—“receive an honoured guest”—becomes a meditation on the Earth as a space inhabited by violence.  The dead body lies emptied of its art, and beyond it stretch the battalions of the nations, all of them ready to rain down destruction upon one another.  This is a place characterized by chaos—the darkness of nightmares, the cacophony of angry dogs—and hate, which has become a rigid wall that locks out the rest of humanity.  Whatever was noble or praiseworthy in the human condition, we have in some way lost access to it, in Auden’s eyes: the Earth seems beyond saving.

William Butler Yeats, Irish poet

William Butler Yeats, whom “Mad Ireland hurt into poetry”, according to Auden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But then the final three stanzas push back against this vision by an appeal to the poet, who, standing outside the Earth and its physical cares and limitations, still has the power to redeem us by means of art.  Rather than sending Yeats off with a “thank goodness you got out when you did”, Auden draws him back to us, and sends him down to the bottom of the dark, into the nightmare-space already invoked—not to compel, but to persuade.  By means of his art, Yeats can still call forth joy within us.  More than that, art can remake the world—Auden alludes to Genesis and the fallen Adam in the idea that humanity’s curses can be “farmed” into fruitful ground.  This isn’t a withdrawal from the world’s problems into some airy-fairy happyland of poetry: he specifically names “human unsuccess” as one of the topics for singing.  In making these extravagant claims, Auden is explicitly rejecting his own words from the poem’s second section, where he semi-famously remarks that “poetry makes nothing happen”—here he envisions poetry as a means of making sense of the dark side of humanity, of giving us a stairway out of the caverns into which we fall.

And culminates the vision in that final stanza that is still, to me, close to perfection—the vision of a redeemed world where the gladness arises directly out of sorrow.  It is not that waters will flow outwards from some lush, green place, or that the free men will unchain the bound.  No, in the very deserts we inhabit there are wells waiting to spring up, and our liberty and joy emerges from that evocative “prison of [our] days”.

Poetry can teach us what this means—how to look for it, and where to find it.  In January 1939, Auden sees a world on the brink of self-annihilation, and mourns a fallen comrade whose strength he had relied on.  But the wonder of writing, of course, is that it can endure, and that Yeats had a part still to play on Earth long after his body returned to dust.  I don’t know if this poem works on you the way it works on me, or if my odes to it seem excessive to you.  It may be that poetry is nowhere near as powerful as I’m claiming it can be, or as I see Auden claiming it to be.  But I personally am convinced that artistry is at the vital heart of what it means to be human, and art (whether poetry or song or sculpture, or what have you) is in fact a critical factor when we consider the question of whether we can learn to live at peace with one another.  This question has always plagued us, and 1939 made it more urgent, of course.  It keeps me thinking, and I’m glad I have Auden as one of my muses when I do.

Poetry Friday: 1938

Turning from Gone With the Wind and 1937, I find myself arriving in a new poetic year at last—I will return to Whitman and the other poets of the Civil War again, I know, but for now Poetry Friday’s attention is centered once more on the America whose novel I am reading.  1938 is a year in which many important Anglophone poets are at work, and I will begin with an old favorite of mine, Wystan Hugh Auden, who in 1938 wrote the first poem of his I ever fell in love with: “Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Auden is ultimately ruminating on a beautiful painting by perhaps my favorite visual artist, Pieter Brueghel the Elder*—the painting is called “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus“.  But before he gets there, Auden is letting himself sink into the idea of suffering, and he does so with a simplicity of language that is refreshingly direct for poetry.  He pulls back from the sufferer and the pain which blots out the senses, and sees the immense context that swallows up our most piercing moments.  The tragedy Auden sees operates on a limited scale, not touching more than a handful of lives, while all around the world presses on with its business.  Even the sufferer themselves is not placed in a light that bathes them with pathos, posed as though artfully arranged—no, Auden reminds us that death and pain happen here and there, in places not especially remarkable or noteworthy.  He scales back the importance we place on these elevated moments of martyrdom even with the jocular, prosaic phrases and images that he turns out—dogs going on “with their doggy life” and a horse scratching its behind on a tree.  He’s clearly reacting to something more than just the painting, but I wonder what: a person, or a group of people, he knows who are, for lack of a better term, “drama queens”?  Or is it more of a societal problem he’s responding to—our modern tendency to melodrama in the art we revere, while the unnamed “old Masters” are held up to us as examples of a better way?

Bruegel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, u...

A public domain image of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At last, though, Brueghel* and his painting of Icarus are front and center, and he couldn’t have chosen a better image through which to explore his point.  The Icarus painting almost lacks an Icarus—if you are viewing too small a reproduction, or if your eyes don’t focus sharply, it is easy to miss the tiny legs of the drowning man, surrounded by flailing feathers.  What impresses you about the painting is the scope of the world: the sweep of the field in the foreground, the immense billowing sails of the merchantman about to get under way into a vast beyond (or else newly returned from distant shores, laden with gems and spices), and then the expanse of the sea reaching as far ahead as the eyes can travel, in the distance melding with mountains and clouds so that water, land, and sky fuse into one.  I don’t know if Auden’s interpretation of Icarus is exactly what was intended by the painter, but it certainly is plausible, given the painting’s scale and where it draws the eye.  There is a heartlessness to Auden’s words, but I don’t find them callous—he isn’t making the farmer and the sailors into monstrous beings.  He is simply acknowledging the world that exists, both in the painting and outside of it, where failures are rarely “important” when they do not touch us closely, where the light that falls on our sorrows does so because “it had to”, because the sun (and rain) fall on the just and unjust alike.

I wonder how differently Auden would have written this poem only a few years later, when the Second World War had taught the nations how universal a tragedy could be—when we all learned a new word, “genocide”, not because it was new to the human experience but because we had been forced to see the concept in a way we could not turn away from, no matter how much the plough and sail called to us.  I wonder how strange it might have seemed to him to turn to this poem after the London Blitz, after Dresden, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when suffering had occurred on scales too great to be encapsulated in this way.  I’m not saying all of this to deny Auden’s point or the power of the poem.  As Niels Bohr semi-famously remarked, “the opposite of a great truth is also true”—Auden is right about suffering, and wrong.  There are days when the indifference Auden describes is too painful for me to envision, because suffering is not this isolated, and the world does turn its head to look, as it should.  And there are days when I need the reminder Auden gives, when I need the context in which to understand the sufferings of the world, when I need that landscape to help give a sense of order to my vision of the world.  I like the poem, in the end, because it articulates a way of seeing the world that is not at all complicated, while simultaneously opening me up to some very complicated thoughts about the world.  And I like it because it reminds me that I should look at some more pieces by Brueghel, who never fails to reach me.  This is a good way of beginning 1938—the last of the years before the world is engulfed in war—if for no other reason than that it makes me ponder how everything was about to change (and how nothing really has).

The Netherlands (Flanders)

Here’s a genuine Brueghel entitled “The Tower of Babel”, just because I like it. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

*I place this asterisk twice in my text simply to point out what can be read if you follow the links to Wikipedia’s coverage of the painting and artist—art historians now suspect, thanks to the help of technology, that the Icarus is in fact a copy (a very good copy, they suspect) of an original by Brueghel now lost, and so it’s not 100% correct to call the painting Brueghel’s.  But Auden thought it was Brueghel’s (and so did everyone else) when he wrote the poem, I thought it was Brueghel’s (and so did everyone else) when I first read the poem, and to this day we don’t completely know the truth about it.  Anyway, I love the painting, and my totally non-expert eyes see it as very consistent with the work we know was Brueghel’s, so if it is a copy by one of his students, they were really good at their work, and I’m grateful the work survived by that means.

Poetry Friday: 1936, part 4

As I have been saying, 1936 is an excellent year for great poetry and great poets.  I’ll turn here to a great poet who is not yet on his game—Wystan Hugh Auden, whose Look, Stranger (a title he hated—he changed it to On This Island in the American edition) is published in 1936.  Much of the work is, in my opinion, Auden struggling to find his voice—some tentative love poetry, none of which yet manages the beauty of his “Funeral Blues” (perhaps most memorably recited in Four Weddings and a Funeral) which will be perfected in 1938, and some imitative stuff on time that seems obviously influenced by Eliot’s better work.  Auden’s keen eye for the humdrum and the here-and-now, which I think hits its stride in the late 1930s (and which I’m sure you’ll therefore see here on a Friday later this year), hasn’t yet fully developed, to my taste.  But I think there’s a spot or two in Look, Stranger where Auden latches on to something worth mulling over, and it’s to one such poem, then untitled but later titled “Who’s Who”, that I’d like to turn your attention:

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.

In this sonnet, Auden takes advantage of the form by executing the “turn” at the ninth line beautifully—the octet establishes the “important” figure, only to have the sestet undercut that importance by acknowledging the person who is simultaneously unremarkable and vitally central to both the poem and the “important” man.  This isn’t the kind of poetry that really elevates me out of my chair, whooping at the beauty of it or kicking myself for never having conceived of such a brilliantly obvious idea.  It’s like the compulsory program in figure-skating—the goal is not to surprise the judges, but rather to show them how flawlessly a double axel can be executed by someone in whose DNA the axel has been helixing since birth.  Auden, still a young poet (in his mid-20s, or thereabouts), shapes an almost ideal sonnet, and totally independent of any of its content, I think it’s really beautiful for that reason.  It’s like looking at a painting and realizing how exactly the painter has captured the color of the sky at dusk—the rest of the painting may be emotionally powerful or fairly cliche, but the perfection of that one color might be enough to take you through the day.

To turn, though, to the content of the poem, I’m struck by what Auden does and doesn’t say.  We are given two characters—the first, a man of importance, and the second, a person (whose gender is not specified—important to note since Auden was gay, and increasingly openly so in the 1930s) of no particular importance.  The sonnet’s structure and our fairy tale notions may lead us to a very simple conclusion about the poem: “Ah,” we say, “Auden’s pointing out that the people we think are important usually aren’t.  It’s the simple folk who count.”  But is the poem all that clear on the point?  The public figure has achieved real things—he has survived a violent childhood, struggled to make his impact on the world, done things of note (generally feats involving some kind of courage or adventure), and remained human and reachable despite it all.  The private figure is a person of no real talent: he or she can manage basic household tasks, whistles, and is apparently content in the most simple of circumstances.  When this private individual receives “long marvellous letters” from the famous man, on occasion an answer will be penned, but the letters are little thought of.  None survive the dustbin.  Who are we really being asked to sympathize with?

I wonder.  I wonder in part because Auden by the mid-1930s is becoming a figure of some note—a political poet whose left-wing idealism is drawing a lot of young people to his art.  By the mid-1930s, he’s starting to become disenchanted with all of this.  Is he in this poem?  If so, I think he must be the famous man in the octet, lamenting the distance that separates him from the private fellow who won’t answer many of his letters, who doesn’t understand how much he means to Auden.  But I’m not sure of this interpretation at all—the sonnet is so formal, so carefully structured that I’d be a little surprised if it was a welling-up of some private pain of Auden’s.  Art can mask pain, of course, but I’d like to think I could feel it just a bit more than I do, if it really is there.

But what are we left with, as a response to the poem?  I may be jumping too far, by expecting that I’m asked to take a side—to see one or the other of these figures as in the right and therefore admirable (or at least pitiable).  I wonder, though, if Auden really intends us to sympathize with the private person in the sestet.  The language there, to me, suggests a person so withdrawn from the world that their lot is not really enviable.  And I can’t help but feel that there is something significant in the twin details of only responding to some letters, and keeping none—not just that the love is not reciprocated, but that somehow there’s something emotionally stunted about the quieter half of this star-crossed pair.  To respond to the poem’s eventual title, Who is Who, really, in this poem?  Does even Auden know the answer?  He takes a somewhat obvious jab at the “astonished critics”, but can this really just be a poem about the fact that “some people might not believe it, but famous people don’t always find true love”?  I kind of doubt it.  Anyway, I may be reading this entirely wrong, and I’m hopeful some of you will chip in with your own thoughts or reactions to the piece.

Poetry Friday: 1934, part 2

Since I’m closing in on a review of 1934’s Pulitzer winner, this is my second and probably last shot at the poetry of that year.  So of course I’m picking one of my favorites: Wystan Hugh Auden, the transplanted Englishman, whose 1934 revision of his 1930 publication, Poems, was quite a success.  I’ll be honest: I think his early work is really uneven—not quite adventurous enough to be a sort of word symphony (like Dylan Thomas or Gertrude Stein), but not narrative enough to really connect images powerfully in a more prosaic and logical fashion (like Robert Frost or Langston Hughes).  The best Auden, in my opinion, is his work in the late 1930s, and then again (here and there) later in life as he returned now and then to a more prosaic style.  But I think it’s always good to tangle with the work of a talented poet, even when it’s not necessarily my cup of tea: for today, I’m diving into the long first stanza of a poem he labels simply as “III” (the Roman numeral 3):

Since you are going to begin to-day
Let us consider what it is you do.
You are the one whose part it is to lean,
For whom it is not good to be alone.
Laugh warmly turning shyly in the hall
Or climb with bare knees the volcanic hill,
Acquire that flick of wrist and after strain
Relax in your darling’s arms like a stone
Remembering everything you can confess,
Making the most of firelight, of hours of fuss;
But joy is mine not yours—to have come so far,
Whose cleverest invention was lately fur;
Lizards my best once who took years to breed,
Could not control the temperature of blood.
To reach that shape for your face to assume,
Pleasure to many and despair to some,
I shifted ranges, lived epochs handicapped
By climate, wars, or what the young men kept,
Modified theories on the types of dross,
Altered desire and history of dress.

Perhaps the most interesting and challenging question for me is, who is the speaker in this poem? Seemingly not Auden, given the ranges shifted and epochs lived (unless we are to read them more symbolically than I am?). Is this the Earth personified—Gaia, presumably, or some equivalent? Is this God?  To whom does joy belong, if not to us (whoever we are that the poem addresses)?

Auden likes playing us in this poem—even the very opening is enigmatic.  What are “we” beginning today?  This poem, taken literally, I suppose.  Or a new stage in life.  The speaker can hardly be addressing a newborn, can they?  On some level it seems the poem is addressed to all humanity—we are the ones for whom, according to Genesis, it is not good to be alone (strictly speaking, this was said only of Adam, but I think we can at least extrapolate to all human males….to all humans, male and female?).  The comparison of us, the naked apes who cleverly fashioned garments of fur to survive the cold, with those foolish impractical dinosaurs who ruled the earth (but not their own body temperature) is curious and intriguing to me.  Just what is Auden driving at?

I’d suggest this is a sort of attempt to capture what it means to be human in a non-narrative series of images.  Our loneliness and our canny innovations certainly start a picture that makes sense.  Add to that our emotions (shyness, happiness, guilt), our obsession with light and fire, our willingness to kill and be killed in war.

But I ask again—who is this who is calling to us?  In part our guide, speaking to us calmly like a teacher on the first day of French class (“since you are going to begin to-day” let’s get some things straight), in part our servant (living for ages constrained by the “handicaps” we impose on him or her)?  Who is it standing apart from us, holding the joy we seek and do not find?

I’ve toyed with both Gaia and God, and find both answers unsatisfying in the poem’s context—they just don’t work often enough, unless we really alter our conceptions of what either character does and is capable of.  The best answer I can compose is that this is a dialogue between two sides of human nature, though I can neither categorize nor define what those two sides are.  The later stanzas of the poem (the ones I didn’t transcribe—I thought this chunk was enough to chew on) open up more avenues, but not in such a way as to helpfully outline the identity of the speaker.  Auden is being intentionally cagy with us, stepping into the shadows each time just as our head turns, drawing us into the poem by refusing to let truth peep out any of the windows unveiled.

This is why I think he’s a talent—even in this poem, which doesn’t speak to me as clearly as “Stop all the clocks” or his poem in memory of W. B. Yeats.  The longer I spend with this poem, the more I can see the architecture—it’s like stepping into a dark room and waiting for your eyes to adjust.  At first there is nothing….just a blob here and there, and then you slowly start to arrange the room in your mind.  Creatures and structures appear to be present, only to fade or reorganize themselves as you see more and more clearly, and can distinguish shapes and shadows.  You never get a glimpse of the room as it is in the light, and may not even see enough to navigate it without constantly bumping your knee.  But there’s this sense of growth, of feeling yourself stretch as the room opens up a little to your eyes, and it’s a really great feeling.

If any of you are patient with Auden this weekend, and sit in this stanza long enough to see anything, I hope you’ll share your thoughts.  There are a lot of little images that really appeal to me, but I’m still working on how they fit together.  Regardless, I wish you an excellent weekend, and hope to have a review before too many more days pass.

Poetry Friday: Atlantis

Many of my former students know my obsession with the heroes of Greek myth—and some few of you will remember also a favorite poem of mine that connects to one of those heroes, Odysseus.  It’s a poem by the Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, entitled “Ithaca”.  I made much of Ithaca as an idea once in some public remarks, inspired at least a little bit by Cavafy, who talks about the journey to Ithaca…what we find along the way, and how we come in the end to realize that Ithaca’s gift to the people who journey there is the journey itself.  It’s a lovely poem, and one I may post someday, but tonight I’m more interested in a parody/homage/re-envisioning of Cavafy’s poem—a poem by Wystan Hugh Auden, one of my very favorite poets, entitled “Atlantis”.  I’ll say more about why I picked it (and why I strung together those three non-equivalent nouns with slashes) once you’ve read it:

Being set on the idea
Of getting to Atlantis,
You have discovered of course
Only the Ship of Fools is
Making the voyage this year,
As gales of abnormal force
Are predicted, and that you
Must therefore be ready to
Behave absurdly enough
To pass for one of The Boys,
At least appearing to love
Hard liquor, horseplay and noise.

Should storms, as may well happen,
Drive you to anchor a week
In some old harbour-city
Of Ionia, then speak
With her witty scholars, men
Who have proved there cannot be
Such a place as Atlantis:
Learn their logic, but notice
How its subtlety betrays
Their enormous simple grief;
Thus they shall teach you the ways
To doubt that you may believe.

If, later, you run aground
Among the headlands of Thrace,
Where with torches all night long
A naked barbaric race
Leaps frenziedly to the sound
Of conch and dissonant gong;
On that stony savage shore
Strip off your clothes and dance, for
Unless you are capable
Of forgetting completely
About Atlantis, you will
Never finish your journey.

Again, should you come to gay
Carthage or Corinth, take part
In their endless gaiety;
And if in some bar a tart,
As she strokes your hair, should say
‘This is Atlantis, dearie,’
Listen with attentiveness
To her life-story: unless
You become acquainted now
With each refuge that tries to
Counterfeit Atlantis, how
Will you recognise the true?

Assuming you beach at last
Near Atlantis, and begin
The terrible trek inland
Through squalid woods and frozen
Tundras where all are soon lost;
If, forsaken then, you stand,
Dismissal everywhere,
Stone and snow, silence and air,
O remember the great dead
And honour the fate you are,
Travelling and tormented,
Dialectic and bizarre.

Stagger onward rejoicing;
And even then if, perhaps
Having actually got
To the last col, you collapse
With all Atlantis shining
Below you yet you cannot
Descend, you should still be proud
Just to peep at Atlantis
In a poetic vision:
Give thanks and lie down in peace,
Having seen your salvation.

All the little household gods
Have started crying, but say
Good-bye now, and put to sea.
Farewell, dear friend, farewell: may
Hermes, master of the roads,
And the four dwarf Kabiri.
Protect and serve you always:
And may the Ancient of Days
Provide for all you must do
His invisible guidance,
Lifting up, friend, upon you
The light of His countenance.

I know it’s long, but I’ve always wondered about this poem. When I first read it, I had read Cavafy’s “Ithaca” not long before, and the opening lines of “Atlantis” (and, honestly, multiple moments in later stanzas) are so obviously modeled on “Ithaca” that I immediately took it for a parody—a joke on Cavafy, mocking the idea of the journey to a nearly unreachable island, and the notion of being satisfied if the destination didn’t live up to expectations.

But as I return to “Atlantis”, year after year, I’m increasingly moved by it. I suspect that it’s not a parody at all, or else that Auden, who began in a parody, gradually found his own ground to stand on and his own ideas to explore. Some of you may know “Ithaca” and I’m hoping you can give your own impression. More importantly, most of you probably won’t have ever read Cavafy’s poem. You can hunt it down via Google, of course, but I’m curious—I’d expect that, if this poem is only a parody, it won’t have done much for you. All the “winks” in the poem will just feel like non sequiturs to you (I’d surmise). But, conversely, if there’s something real here in “Atlantis”, I’d expect you’d have an easier time finding it, being undistracted by any similarities the poem bears to some verse you haven’t read. I would love to get reactions to this poem from a few of you passers-by.

In the meantime, I don’t want to poison the well too much with my own opinions (which I hope to expand on in comments conversations with you), but I will say that I think “Ithaca” was a poem about what a person can find in the world, and that what makes “Atlantis” different is that Auden was interested in what a person can find inside themselves. “Atlantis”, then, becomes not the external goal that creates the journey, but the internal voice that calls us onto the road. But maybe I’m wrong, and in any case this is by no means the sum total of my thoughts. Enjoy your weekend, and read some more poetry if you can.

Poetry Friday: 1930

1930 is an exceptionally good year for poetry, especially for two of my all-time favorites.  In 1930, Gerard Manley Hopkins (long since deceased) made his second appearance in the marketplace, as Charles Williams (an Inkling, for those of you who know what that means) released an expanded edition of his poetry that published a few more poems of Hopkins’s that no one had ever seen.  Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Wystan Hugh Auden released his first “real” book (he’d self-published a small edition two years previously) entitled simply Poems.  Auden would go on to write some of the finest poems of the century, and helped create the modernist style (admittedly, few of his imitators have his natural grace and talent).  So, with Hopkins (the incomparable) and Auden (the remarkable) in the mix, I thought it would be good to give you one of Auden’s poems of 1930, in which he attempts Hopkins’s style of “sprung rhythm” and nearly gets it right, in my opinion.  Enjoy this untitled poem from August of 1930:

Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle,
Upon what man it fall
In spring, day-wishing flowers appearing,
Avalanche sliding, white snow from rock-face,
That he should leave his house,
No cloud-soft hand can hold him, restraint by women;
But ever that man goes
Through place-keepers, through forest trees,
A stranger to strangers over undried sea,
Houses for fishes, suffocating water,
Or lonely on fell as chat,
By pot-holed becks
A bird stone-haunting, an unquiet bird.

There head falls forward, fatigued at evening,
And dreams of home,
Waving from window, spread of welcome,
Kissing of wife under single sheet;
But waking sees
Bird-flocks nameless to him, through doorway voices
Of new men making another love.

Save him from hostile capture,
From sudden tiger’s spring at corner;
Protect his house,
His anxious house where days are counted
From thunderbolt protect,
From gradual ruin spreading like a stain;
Converting number from vague to certain,
Bring joy, bring day of his returning,
Lucky with day approaching, with leaning dawn.