Sunday, April 29, 2012

Poem: W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden
(Photo © Jill Krementz)
I mentioned him in yesterday's (or a recent) post, so here a poem by the one and only W. H. Auden (1907-1973), one of the lodestones of 20th century Anglo-American poetry, whose life and work really need no introduction.  The fifth line in this poem's second stanza is one of the most quoted by poets, though the fuller thought often is not. Ireland remains (even today) torn, and the Irish Republic finds itself saddled with one of the worst economic collapses in all of Europe (blame those bankers and their government enablers), so in that regard, as with the weather, Yeats' poetry might not have made anything happen, but on the other hand, it's clear that Yeats and countless other writers prepared the way, politically, culturally, socially, discursively, for the Free Irish State and the Republic that followed, and provided a framework through which an Ireland, no matter how governed, could imagine itself as constituting a(n even illusory) whole.

That was in part the aim of Modernism, shoring fragments up against ruin, to echo T. S. Eliot, trying to create a whole from the shards modernity, in its multifarious ways, had left behind.  Auden continues: "For poetry....survives/In the valley of its making where executives/Would never want to tamper, flows on 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." In effect, it does make things happen, by its every survival, which, he astutely noticed, passes right by the "executives" out of the mostly solitary conditions (this was in the days before MFA programs) of poets' affective and material labor ("busy griefs"), onto pages, into eyes and ears, through and out of every "mouth" that utters or imagines uttering a poem. So it was with Yeats's poetry, so it is with Auden's, so it will be with every poem that survives. There is so much more to say about this poem, a tribute, a memoriam, an elegy, an invocation, but I will leave it to Auden himself, one of the best rhetoricians of his or any age.



He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree 
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


     You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
     The parish of rich women, physical decay,
     Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
     Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
     For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
     In the valley of its making where executives
     Would never want to tamper, flows on 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.


          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.

From Another Time by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1940 W. H. Auden, renewed by The Estate of W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

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