In my first year at university, I discovered three poets on the shelves of the abundant Otago University bookshop. I used to pore over those shelves, agonise over them, allocate my pennies warily.
From that time, I have Seamus Heaney's Collected Poems - the thick book with the forest green cover. I fell for his earthiness, his precision, and the fierceness of his 'Mycenae Lookout'. I have three e.e. cummings; I fell for his playfulness, his eroticism, his tenderness. He matched perfectly that thiIn my first year at university, I discovered three poets on the shelves of the abundant Otago University bookshop. I used to pore over those shelves, agonise over them, allocate my pennies warily.
From that time, I have Seamus Heaney's Collected Poems - the thick book with the forest green cover. I fell for his earthiness, his precision, and the fierceness of his 'Mycenae Lookout'. I have three e.e. cummings; I fell for his playfulness, his eroticism, his tenderness. He matched perfectly that thinskinned whirl of desire that constitutes your first year away from home. And I have this buff coloured edition of Auden, now sadly foxed after being lugged from flat to flat over more years than I like to remember.
With Auden, it was the tone that I loved - wise, sardonic, occasionally mournful, sometimes nobly resigned, well-manneredly anguished. The part of me that thrills to Auden is the same part that thrilled to the way T.H. White portrayed Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. If cumming was for that helium-filled feeling of falling in love, Auden was for the times that you had your heart set on someone who you just couldn't have.
Lines from the poems of this book have sunk so far into my mind that they've become part of the way I think, the way words form in my head. There's the ringing repeated lines: 'O all the instruments agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day', 'Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us', 'But he frowned like thunder and he went away', 'Will it alter my life altogether / O, tell me the truth about love'.
Auden will always own love for me:
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.
I believed for years that Love was the conjunction Of two oppositions; That was all untrue; Every young man fears that He is not worth loving: Bless you, darling, I have Found myself in you.
No matter how many times I boredom-watch Four Weddings and a Funeral, 'Funeral Blues' will always move me:
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead Scribbling on 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.
'Musee des Beaux Arts' will always be one of my favourite pieces of art writing:
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.
'Roman Wall Blues' will always make me feel like I'm holding one end of a piece of string, and centuries ago, a Roman solider is holding the other:
Over the heather the wet wind blows, I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky, I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone, My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.
Aulus goes hanging around her place, I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.
Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish; There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.
She gave me a ring but I diced it away; I want my girl and I want my pay.
When I'm a veteran with only one eye I shall do nothing but look at the sky.
And like what - a million English-speakers around around the world? - this will always be one of the pieces of writing I hold closest to me:
As I walked out one evening, Walking down Bristol Street, The crowds upon the pavement Were fields of harvest wheat.
And down by the brimming river I heard a lover sing Under an arch of the railway: 'Love has no ending.
'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,
'I'll love you till the ocean Is folded and hung up to dry And the seven stars go squawking Like geese about the sky.
'The years shall run like rabbits, For in my arms I hold The Flower of the Ages, And the first love of the world.'
But all the clocks in the city Began to whirr and chime: 'O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time.
'In the burrows of the Nightmare Where Justice naked is, Time watches from the shadow And coughs when you would kiss.
'In headaches and in worry Vaguely life leaks away, And Time will have his fancy To-morrow or to-day.
'Into many a green valley Drifts the appalling snow; Time breaks the threaded dances And the diver's brilliant bow.
'O plunge your hands in water, Plunge them in up to the wrist; Stare, stare in the basin And wonder what you've missed.
'The glacier knocks in the cupboard, The desert sighs in the bed, And the crack in the tea-cup opens A lane to the land of the dead.
'Where the beggars raffle the banknotes And the Giant is enchanting to Jack, And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer, And Jill goes down on her back.
'O look, look in the mirror, O look in your distress: Life remains a blessing Although you cannot bless.
'O stand, stand at the window As the tears scald and start; You shall love your crooked neighbour With your crooked heart.'
It was late, late in the evening, The lovers they were gone; The clocks had ceased their chiming, And the deep river ran on.
Well. I just love this collection. Whenever I get close to someone new, I get this urge to read aloud to them my favorite poems from this book. I usually just end up doing it when I am home and alone because I am shy.
I found a first American edition of this (without cover) at Powell's recently, and though it was pricey, I bought it because of the wonderful annotations within the pages. A previous owner of this copy had some very strong opinions on Auden's 1940 collection. Some highlights from tWell. I just love this collection. Whenever I get close to someone new, I get this urge to read aloud to them my favorite poems from this book. I usually just end up doing it when I am home and alone because I am shy.
I found a first American edition of this (without cover) at Powell's recently, and though it was pricey, I bought it because of the wonderful annotations within the pages. A previous owner of this copy had some very strong opinions on Auden's 1940 collection. Some highlights from the commentator:
"feeble in logic" "this seems better than it is" "The metrics and the imagery are both so obviously valid, that it takes some time to recognize the flaccidity of the thinking and logic here" I love this comment, in particular: "Auden is not a thinker. He is not an innovator, but simply the freshest and most vigorous singer of his generation." The annotator though really praises Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" as "one of the finest poems of its kind -- informal elegy" Anyway, my personal thoughts on Auden are that while he is a singer, I'm not a great "thinker" and the musicality and the dreaminess of his cadence captivate me. My personal favorites are XXI: Museé de Beaux-Arts, XIV: The Capital and XXVI: As I Walked Out One Evening. ...more
I've decided to move this book to my read folder, but it has no finished date, its a 'forever dip into' book, books of poetry are like that, and, this being split between heavy and light, offers something for anyone who like words that rhyme.
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 on the sky the message 'He is Dead'. Put crepe 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.”
“SEPTEMBER 1, 1939
I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth, Obsessing our private lives; The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can Unearth the whole offence From Luther until now That has driven a culture mad, Find what occurred at Linz, What huge imago made A psychopathic god: I and the public know What all schoolchildren learn, Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return.
Exiled Thucydides knew All that a speech can say About Democracy, And what dictators do, The elderly rubbish they talk To an apathetic grave; Analysed all in his book, The enlightenment driven away, The habit-forming pain, Mismanagement and grief: We must suffer them all again.
Into this neutral air Where blind skyscrapers use Their full height to proclaim The strength of Collective Man, Each language pours its vain Competitive excuse: But who can live for long In an euphoric dream; Out of the mirror they stare, Imperialism's face And the international wrong.
Faces along the bar Cling to their average day: The lights must never go out, The music must always play, All the conventions conspire To make this fort assume The furniture of home; Lest we should see where we are, Lost in a haunted wood, Children afraid of the night Who have never been happy or good.
The windiest militant trash Important Persons shout Is not so crude as our wish: What mad Nijinsky wrote About Diaghilev Is true of the normal heart; For the error bred in the bone Of each woman and each man Craves what it cannot have, Not universal love But to be loved alone.
From the conservative dark Into the ethical life The dense commuters come, Repeating their morning vow; 'I will be true to the wife, I'll concentrate more on my work,' And helpless governors wake To resume their compulsory game: Who can release them now, Who can reach the dead, Who can speak for the dumb?
All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
Defenseless under the night Our world in stupor lies; Yet, dotted everywhere, Ironic points of light Flash out wherever the Just Exchange their messages: May I, composed like them Of Eros and of dust, Beleaguered by the same Negation and despair, Show an affirming flame.”