How I fell in love with WH Auden. (Sorry for the blank!)

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”.

How I fell in love with country music | Martin Farrer
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”.

Unseen WH Auden diary sheds light on famous poem and personal life
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.



Reading the holidays

We have been off visiting and the birds have abandoned the garden after just a few days without seed, grain or bread crumbs.

So, there is nothing to look at, but plenty of books to read in this blissfully quiet time of year. So what am I reading? Well as usual, I am reading lots of things at once, which is confusing only when the characters meet in my dreams in an after lunch snooze.

Firstly, I am reading “A Visit to Don Octavio” by Sybille Bedford which is a wonderful piece of period travel writing in which two American  women explore Mexico and discover its lush delights and also that, as Don Octavio says, “You will be very uncomfortable and not at all happy”, if they stray from his elegant hacienda.

I am also reading “William the Outlaw”by Richmal Compton and “William the Bandit” as the pitch perfect vignettes of 1930s Britain, with their caustic line drawings which could not have been bettered  by PG Woodhouse and are definitely wasted on children.

To keep me sane on the plane, I escaped in wonderful Muriel Sparks’ “The  Mandelbaum Gate” and the turmoil and intrigue  of the Israel and Palestine border was as heady in 1960s as it is in 2017. I still don’t know what happened to BarbaraVaughan and must read on.

I have just picked up Oliver Rackham’s “The History of the  English Countryside” and am already captivated by his photos of the long lost elm trees of England and for interludes I am savouring the perfect poems of Sasha Dugdale in her collection “Joy”.  “ How my friend went to look for her roots” is more toothsome than a  hazelnut cluster!




Second Sunday in Advent and Pixie singing.

5FE41AE6-C8F1-4A53-B449-0A34B1E91BF6It was wonderful that many readers enjoyed Louis MacNeice  “Sunlight on the Garden” and it made me bold enough to share his even greater poem “Snow”. I hope you like it .


The room was suddenly rich and the great bay window was

Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Suddlessly collateral and incompatible:

World is suddenly 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 word

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.


Louis MacNeice


The Sunlight on the Garden.



This is my favourite poem.

I have vowed never to teach it, just to read it when it snows.


The Sunlight on the Garden.

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying.

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

From Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, published by Faber and Faber





In the autumn there seemed ages to tidy up the garden, no rush in the mild sunshine to get all those jobs done; but I had somehow forgotten about the dark and the rain and the wind. Between all of that and a full time job, there have been only a few half hours of dry daylight to spare and my lovely garden is soggy, muddy and dank.

It reminded me of the old Thomas Hood poem about this low month.

Only a few more days to go of November and then I can put up the Christmas decorations , make the house silly and sparkly, celebrate the end of another good year and start planning for the next year in the garden!!


No sun–no moon!
No morn–no noon!
No dawn–no dusk–no proper time of day–
No sky–no earthly view–
No distance looking blue–
No road–no street–no “t’other side this way”–
No end to any Row–
No indications where the Crescents go–
No top to any steeple–
No recognitions of familiar people–
No courtesies for showing ’em–
No knowing ’em!
No traveling at all–no locomotion–
No inkling of the way–no notion–
“No go” by land or ocean–
No mail–no post–
No news from any foreign coast–
No Park, no Ring, no afternoon gentility–
No company–no nobility–
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member–
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds–

Thomas Hood


“…later flowers for the bees, Until they think warm days will never cease.”

Keats “ Ode to  Autumn” must have been inspired by a day like today. Sunshine has spun out so many  flowers, that it seems impossible cold weather will ever destroy them and frost crisp them: but it will.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease…




The fungi replies (to Cathy’s real country garden)


The fungi replies (to Cathy’s real country garden)


I don’t know if they are artists’ pallets,
or horses’ hooves
it used to matter, but it doesn’t now.
They grew slowly, in dark arcs
and could support a book.
Their lips are white and moist
But speak another language.


Of course my clammy palms & veiny
glow are creepy mon cherie.
But, for a moment stay,
a little closer s’il vous plaît
To anyone who’ll listen
I whisper my refrain.

Hallelujah I sing of rot

and in the cell-by-cell undoing, life lives again
the forest blooms, the garden beds renew.
Here’s my truth, my mystery:
nothing is that hasn’t been
nothing is new
or ever lost.



In “poetry
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October 9, 2017
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2 thoughts on “The fungi replies (to Cathy’s real country garden)”


Worthy of Andrew Marvel! ⏳


For Peter Frankis.

I don’t know if they are artists’ pallets,

or horses’ hooves

it used to matter, but it doesn’t now.

They grew slowly, in dark arcs

and could support a book .

Their lips are white and moist

But speak another language.


For the next spring.

The virtue of being an untidy gardener is that most of my flowers get to set seed. The down side is a shabby September garden!

So this year I decided to share seeds with friends at work. I filled seven bowls with seeds collected from the garden and the drive. All of them are seeds I know will germinate and make good plants and it was a great pleasure to feel their various textures between my fingers and have friends turn them over and ask questions about the colours and perfumes of the plants they will make.


Harriet Monroe, ed. (1860–1936). Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. 1912–22.

The Seed-shop
By Muriel Stuart

HERE in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone and shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry—
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.

Dead that shall quicken at the voice of spring,
Sleepers to wake beneath June’s tempest kiss;
Though birds pass over, unremembering,
And no bee find here roses that were his.

In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams;
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That shall drink deeply at a century’s streams;
These lilies shall make summer on my dust.

Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells, a million roses leap;
Here I can stir a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.


I collected masses of wild marjoram, a heaped bowl of tiny yarrow, a pinch of pale wall flower seeds, a spiked ball of wild agrimony, a sliver of shining columbine seeds, a roll of tough everlasting pea seeds and a sliding flurry of flat honesty seeds.

I hope they have all gone to good homes and will flourish in new gardens.






Apple picking.

“….. and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: ….”.

“After Apple Picking”  by Robert Frost.

Frost’s famous poem deals with the impossibility of doing everything, of caring for everything that needs our care. It is the quintessential poem of the sensitive in an insensitivity world.

I think after my exceptionally modest apple harvest, from my very small tree, after a famously bad frost would have inspired something very different. Maybe something about the triumph of hope over reality and the pleasure of saving a couple of apples before the slugs get them!