Friday, June 22, 2012

Ironic Points of Light ~ Individual poetic lines take on a life of their own


Poems over time become beveled by a person's inner need and nature, much as the mountains and hills are worn down by wind and sand - leaving behind the hardest most durable parts on the landscape.  My memory of W. H. Auden's poem, September 1, 1939, has been carved down over time to a firm few lines that stand up my thoughts during troubled times ~ so often recently (see both my memory's version and the original below).


 One of the unique wonders of good poems is the way they find places in our metaphysical landscapes and are available - sometimes literally leaping out to offer assistance - when we need just the right words to convey an impression.  There is something of the sacred in it - anchoring our insights to the bedrock of human nature.

Taube or Dove, WWI war plane
Throughout the recent financial crisis, I've noticed both this poem by Auden and Yeats' The Second Coming, being frequently remembered, mentioned, blogged.  Many folks I notice in conversation can't recall more than the first few lines of The Second Coming - but these few lines capture something critical in our comprehension of the individual's relationship with the leader - be that government, God or nature - and the fear when things spin out of control.  


Edvard Munch's The Scream



Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold




This in response to the economy, to global warming, to a distance grown too big for even the most cleaver falcons among us to hear the falconer.  Both poems were written on the thresholds of war - Auden opens on the moment WWII becomes a reality, emerging from a decade that strained people and environments to a breaking point by dwindling resources, and Yeats stands at the backdoor of WWI, surveying the damaged communities and societies left in the wake of the 'War to end all Wars'. 

When I first read them both in college, I was both closer in time and further away in ability to really 'hear' them.  I couldn't begin to imagine how the world had spun so completely out of control twice in one century.  It's a little easier to understand now, unfortunately.  


(My Memory of) September 1, 1939 by W.H.Auden



Norman Cornish Bar Scene
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.


I know what all schoolchildren learn, 
Those to whom evil is done
War Declared 1939
Do evil in return.
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
Lest we should see where we are,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work...

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.






Read the full, original poem below

September 1st, 1939  (Original) by W.H. Auden



New York Times 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 offense
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.





Notes on the Images:  The beautiful Taube (or 'Dove'), designed by Igo Etrich, was Imperial Germany's first mass-produced aircraft and was used as a war plane in the beginning years of WWI.

Edvard Munch's The Scream (or Skrik in Norwegian) is one of the iconic paintings of the 20th Century.  Recently selling for $120 million, was stolen and recovered in 2004, and has been reproduced countless times.


The journal entry at the top is from a lovely blog by Rufina called 300DayJourney that includes images from her Grandmother's wartime diary (also the image at left).

The bar scene is a evocative charcoal and crayon art work by Norman Cornish, an English artist who was a coal miner for thirty years before beginning to sell his work. Visit his website here and learn more about his remarkable life and significant talent.   

1 comment:

Delphiniums Blue said...

This is a fascinating meditation on the durability of poetry in one's mind over the years and the brain's wondrous editing process (in particular, your wondrous brain). I must say I prefer your condensation of Auden's original (heresy!) even if it does remove, interestingly, the most striking line: "We must love one another or die." Your version of the poem has much less angsty flailing while still landing powerfully. You've added excellent illustrations to this blog entry, also, and your credits at the end are considerate and interesting.