Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Eye Each Flu-Infected City, or: Born 111 Years Ago Today


W.H. Auden

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.

The Traditional High Egoslavian Holy Day Auden's Birthday Post. I always post that photo, then Musee Des Beaux Arts (it still gets better with each rereading) and then some version of these paragraphs:
Some personal history: besides taking classes from Anthony Hecht, I did basic research grunt work for him on his final two books of criticism in exchange for his company, On the Laws of the Poetic Arts and The Hidden Law, a book specifically about Auden's poetry, which Hecht respected deeply. In the process of the research for and conversations with Hecht over years I must have read the majority of Auden's poems at least once, some countless times, some, like the above and below, literally dozens of dozens of times.
I've told some version of this story countless times: I was hired by Georgetown University mid-August, I sought Hecht out immediately and asked to audit his Fall semester grad poetry class, telling him not only was I only a Georgetown staffer but I hadn't an undergraduate degree and asking please let me audit the class. It focused on five main poets - Frost, Eliot, Auden, Bishop, and Wilbur - but we spent more than half the semester on Auden alone. I've probably spent more time with Auden than with any other poet, and if I only read him now on his birthday, I can pull up countless poems in my head whenever I want.


Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.


The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.


Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.


  1. on lines 5-8 of THE FALL OF ROME

    0) peripherally - by Fisc is meant 'tax authority', not 'foreign intelligence surveillance court' - which, according to one report, turned down .03% of surveillance requests - does this mean the oversight was lax, or that the preparation of warrants was always very thorough?

    1)more relevantly, on the issue of whether one can take literally the imagery in this poem - re pursuing 'through the sewers of provincial towns' - do provincial towns have such large sewers, such as one sees in films? i wouldn't have thought so, but maybe so

    2)auden, so far as i know, never ventured into surrealism, as james tate often did - e.g.

    James Tate
    The Wild Cheese

    A head of cheese raised by wolves
    or mushrooms
    recently rolled into
    the village, it
    could neither talk nor
    walk upright.

    Small snarling boys ran
    circles around it;
    and just as they began
    throwing stones, the Mayor
    appeared and dispersed them.

    He took the poor ignorant
    head of cheese home,
    and his wife scrubbed it
    all afternoon before
    cutting it with a knife
    and serving it after dinner.

    The guests were delighted
    and exclaimed far into the night,
    "That certainly was a wild cheese!"

    3)and, as i have said before - i stick with my story - tate's poem reminds me of the following passage from idries shah's the dermis probe, which reeks of truthiness and may be a report of an actual event:

    In front of the pair several small boys were playing. They were throwing. from hand to hand, a squirrel which they had caught, and whose feet they had bound together. As they ran here and there, they roared with laughter, excitement and pleasure on every face.

    After a few moments an older youth, seeing what they were doing, ran up to them from the roadside. He took the animal and removed the cord from its paws, and let it go. The players of the squirrel-game were furiously angry now, and shouted all sorts of abuse at the older boy.

    a group of small boys appears in both accounts

    the central character is a wild cheese in one, a squirrel in the other

    the mayor in the first account initially plays a role similar to that of the older boy in the story of the squirrel

    the squirrel resumes an unfettered life, but the wild cheese meets a different fate

  2. You can see what's coming as well, can't you? Are you as scared as I am, or more sanguine about this slowly unfolding disaster?