When I was in the 6th grade, I had to start buying books with my own money. Which meant no one had to okay anything anymore. Which also meant I had the freedom to go to any area of the store that I wished. And to get what I wanted. I remember the first day I made my own choices…Because I still have both books. The second one was a book of poetry by W.H. Auden, which is buried deep in the bowels of my office somewhere. Still going strong.
They were random. But not really. I was drawn to Auden repeatedly after that because I could tell he was a cynic. But a cynic who believed in love. Hurting but hopeful. Angry but willing. Insecure but wanting. And I was drawn to that even as a teenager. A kinship. This was a man who described marriage as “a creation of Time and Will” and therefore infinitely more interesting than any intense romance. Which he conversely described as “the involuntary result of fleeting emotion.” That pretty much covers it.
As for Spoon River, this was the free verse account of the lives and deaths of 200 villagers in a fictional town in the early 1900’s, that all intertwined with one another. I mean, come on! For a kid with a hundred stories under his belt, this was the golden egg. I will take a second to out myself as a fan of the Lake Wobegon and Harmony novels for exactly this reason. Characters who walk between books, mingling, life paths crossing in and out, knowledge of one another. Gold.
Last summer semester, a close friend and I decided to dissect Auden’s Age of Anxiety with our class. A piece of genius. It seemed grueling at the start but pleasing inside the discussion. Have you ever played Mastermind? If you play it right, you are storing information of color on one side of your brain, and information of order on the other. You can almost feel the synapses snapping in between sides as you attempt to decode. This was the very same, palpable reaction I got whenever I would read Emerson. And it was happening again. My desire to share the piece as curriculum started here…
We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
Those who know me well know that I would not necessarily label myself as a fan of poetry. There are many reasons I don’t attach to it as often as other writing. I have respect for it and I appreciate it. I often feel it’s so personal, it becomes vague and exclusionary. Niche. I never feel it’s possible to be fully in the author’s head when reading, or even to decipher proper intention. So, I always end up feeling uncomfortable. Out of place. Like I don’t have the right to be looking. While most poetry is driven by soul, not much is driven by character. Which is where I tend to be led instead. Though there are pieces, and authors that have spoken to me through time, depending on my station in emotion or circumstance, I am usually attracted to the more concrete language and resolution of other narratives.
These are a few other bits of his that I enjoy and give a clearer picture of why I connect with Auden specifically.
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start.
In the prison of his days,
Teach the free man how to praise.
Which brings me to my original point. I don’t care too much for aabb meter (okay, at all). It reminds me a little of the drunken toast Elaine gave on Seinfeld, (Here’s to those who wish us well, and those who don’t can go to hell!), or makes me think of Dr. Seuss, which is probably not where my mind is supposed to be. Nonetheless, I love his content, and this poem of Auden’s which I love came to mind recently. My original intention was to share only this. So…
The More Loving One
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.