By Susan McDonald: reblogged from the Guardian Newspaper 25.12.17.
Sorry for the initial blank. I trusted in technology. I imagined all I needed to do was push the WordPress button the Guardian website, but it just blogged the title.
Many thanks to Maria for spotting the silence!!
I first read his poetry in my late teens. He can be difficult but the images he conjures are concrete and recognisable
WH Auden said “poetry must be entered into by a personal encounter, or it must be left alone”. His poems have been personal for me for 30 years; they’re a touchstone I use now and then to take the measure of my world. There’s just something about him: the stars he sees align with mine. I can trace my own journeys – political, psychological, philosophical, spiritual – along the routes he has mapped.
I first opened Auden’s Selected Poems in my late teens. I’d taken it off my mother’s bookshelf – I knew his name and his fame; I thought I should be reading him. I started with the shorter, less obscure poems. Sometimes my eye even darted between poems, reading a stanza here, a stanza there. I felt I had to ease in slowly – graze around the edges of the feast.
Auden can be difficult, “Audenesque”: that complicated, sometimes terse, syntax. He liked to boast that he had written a poem in every metre but I was oblivious to that achievement; and I had to consult the dictionary frequently (my daily lexicon has never included dapatical, osse and olamic).
But the images he conjured were concrete and instantly recognisable. “Only the hands are living,” he wrote of gamblers in a casino. Of nursing home residents: “All are limitory, but each has her own/nuance of damage.” “Geese podge home.” The moon is a “Presence to glop at”.
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As Clive James said, Auden could make anything sound truer than true.
But the form was in the employ of the meaning – and that too has rung true for 30 years.
I was in the middle of an arts degree, trying hard to avoid thinking about getting my first job, when I read The Average, with its allusion to “those smart professions that encourage shallow breathing”. What timing!
I read Moon Landing (“It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for so huge a phallic triumph”) not long after the space shuttle Challenger disaster. I remember that Rorschach-test explosion in the sky; knew what Auden meant by the “squalid mess called History”.
Then, Musée des Beaux Arts described perfectly the way I had started to feel about moral responsibility; about suffering’s “human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”.
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In Auden’s world it is part of the human condition to have “promises to keep”: there’s a moral imperative to political, as well as personal, choices.
Why spend money on space travel, for instance, when people are dying of hunger?
I sought out the more directly political Auden as the 21st century dawned. I remember watching the twin towers come down on 9/11. My kids were little – I had one in my arms and the other was playing around my feet, and I had to turn off the TV.
It was too much to contemplate. It was my children’s world now and it was spinning in the wrong direction. I was angry; feared what the US would do next. I wasn’t in one of those “dives on Fifty-Second Street” of Auden’s September 1, 1939, but I stood:
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade
(Auden was writing about the 30s but his words fit.)
And Refugee Blues mirrored what I considered Australia’s “low dishonest decade” (and more) of asylum seeker policy:
Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.
War, refugee policy and climate change inaction have charged my political frustrations for most of my adult life and Auden was able to distill the target of that frustration – the wilful blindness of the powerful – with a single line: “The little natures that will make us cry”; and his description of a tyrant needs no explanation in the Trump/Kim Jong-un era:
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
But I was always looking for more from Auden. I wanted him to make sense of it all. He was unflinchingly honest about death, about the tyranny of time, the folly of the modern world – but could he offer any hope? His answer was always love:
I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
Auden was a contradictory man about his Christianity and revisionist about some of his poetry. But that only reflected reticence, a dialectical manner of thought and a great reverence for the world as it is.
In Tonight at Seven-Thirty, Auden says “the funniest mortals and the kindest are those who are most aware of the baffle of being”. I agree – that’s why I’ve read his poems for the past 30 years.