Friday, September 01, 2006

Faces along the bar

Back in September of 2001, after the "tragic events...." (tm) I first heard and later read what became my favorite poem. I am not one for poetry. I'm not good at it. I can't recite it. For god's sake, I can't really count out syllables. So poetry and I have an uneasy relationship. But something about this poem, September 1, 1939 has always worked for me. It's something I can understand, the images stick with me and every so often boil to the surface.

For years, I figure the poem was just a general lament about the problems of life a sort of whiskey soaked diatribe about how things suck these days. You know, the sort of thing that transfers well from generation to generation. And it seemed to work pretty well as a post TEoS11 (Tragic Events of September 11) poem. Then today while reading the Writer's Almanac I finally got it. Or rather had it explained. The poem isn't just some general lament, it's a specific response to Hitler's invasion of Poland. Now, clearly not recognizing this doesn't make me stupid...but it sure doesn't suggest a whole lot of skill at analyzing text, or hell even reading the title. But still, it's a fantastic poem and one of the few I know and like.

So here it is: W.H. Auden's September 1, 1939. (Incidently there are two sections that I find particularly breathtaking and I'll italicize those).

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,
Imperialism¹s 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 deaf,
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.

Defenceless 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.

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