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September 1, 1939

June 22, 2009

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.

–W.H. Auden, September 1, 1939

Why this poem matters after the jump.

[EDIT: Shit!  Andrew Sullivan beats me to it!]

W.H. Auden hated this poem.  His frustration was centered around one line:

We must love one another or die.

The problem?  It’s a lie.  Auden knew better than most that love offers no protection from death.  Later collections of his work have the entire offending stanza cut out; only in 1955 did Auden consent to put it back in, with the line changed to:

We must love one another and die.

Emphasis mine.  Apparently unsatisfied with the more honest yet considerably more dour revision, Auden allowed the poem to be reprinted only once more in his lifetime, alongside a handful of other poems to which he attached the postscript “Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.”

The poem has remained popular, however, even amongst those who don’t consider themselves fans of Auden.  Since 2001, much of the renewed interest in the work can be traced to its circulation, largely over e-mail, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  The poem’s few superficial similarities – the New York City setting, the month of the events – are enough to snare in those who might otherwise reject poetry that doesn’t even rhyme.  And to be sure, there’s a lot in the poem for the post-9/11 reader to sympathize with – the overwhelming uncertainty, the lack of individual agency in matters of life and death, even the end note of solidarity in the face of tragedy. 

But the poem just didn’t fit the nationalistic, increasingly-jingoistic tempo of the weeks that followed.  You can’t rally a nation for war with lines decrying “The windiest militant trash / Important Persons shout”, and sardonic remarks about “blind skyscrapers” being the hollow victories of the “The strength of Collective Man” did little for a people who had lost their two most iconic skyscrapers and were already making plans to rebuild.

And then came Iran.

As an American watching the revolution in Iran unfold, I feel a strong sense of camraderie with Auden’s persona (there’s something to be said for letting a poem exist in its own historical moment; but then again, poetry that is barred from making emotional connections across generational/national/etc. lines is impotent).  I am no closer, in terms of geography or kinship, to Iran than Auden was to Poland.  But coming of age as I did in the twilight years of the 21st century, I know something of existential dread on a national level, and the narcotic effect our culture can have, insulated as it (usually) is from destabilizing crises.  And as I hourly catch up on Andrew Sullivan’s updates, I’m forced to ponder my own helplessness each time.  This is history.  This is revolution.  This is as close as our generation will likely get to a black/white, good guys vs. bad guys showdown for freedom.

And the closest I get to helping is changing my Twitter icon.

In one particularly frustrated exhortation, Auden declared his poem to be “self-flattering”.  This, I feel, is too convenient an excuse.  The act of writing is, almost by necesseity, an act of self-flattery (Hey, Society.  I got some ideas of such import I have to make them tangible objects. And you are going to take time out of your life, time you could spend reproducing or securing more of the food supply, to take in my ideas through this tangible medium and let them evoke an emotional response in you.  Why?  Because I’m a badass).  And Auden was smart enough to know that.

But I understand Auden’s frustration, even if I don’t agree with his stated reasons for it.  And I think he was right to center his criticism on the “love and/or die” line.  Can love protect a sleepy Polish hamlet from a Luftwaffe firestorm?  And if it can’t, then what’s the point?  Moreover, what can poetry offer?  There’s no verse I know of that will take the bullets out the Basij’s guns.  At moments like those, the wisest words from the most accomplished poet seem no more useful than an epitaph on a mass grave.

There’s no easy answers here.  Auden, a man much smarter than I, never found a satisfactory one either.  In one of literature’s uncomfortably-tidy little ironies, perhaps the best response I’ve found to Auden’s dilemma is Auden’s troublesome stanza itself: 

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.

When poetry seems useless, poetry becomes its own justification.

candlelight

 

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.

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