There’s a poem by W. H. Auden (1907-73) going the internet rounds these days with suggestions of Auden’s prescience towards the latest American president and contemporary politics. It’s a powerful piece, but the bad news for conspiracy theorists is that Auden was a poet, not a prophet. A good poet, even a great poet, mind you, but not one to predict much of anything outside the local reaches of the human heart.
Yes, yes, I know: it’s unusual, perhaps bordering on blasphemy, to put poetry in the same headline as the notorious philistine, but worlds do collide at times, even if awkwardly. Lipstick sometimes becomes conflated with the metaphorical pig, guilty by association.
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.
Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth… sure sounds like it might have been written with the vast protests that followed Trump’s inauguration: more three times as many people came out to protest in Washington alone than showed up at his inauguration, and that doesn’t include the numbers who marched worldwide. Waves of anger and fear, indeed. But it wasn’t an augury.
September 1, 1939 would have been for Auden’s era and generation a landmark date, like Nov. 22, 1963 was for my time. Maybe January 20, 2017 will be for the current generation. One of those where-were-you-when dates frozen in the neuronic amber of memory. The place, the sounds, the grubby details of that day forever etched in our brains. Auden’s 52nd Street dive. The panzers tearing across Polish farmlands. People running through the crowded streets of Dallas after the shot. The bleak day when Trump raised his hand to be sworn in. Where you you when…?
The date must have been doubly important for Auden, because earlier that year he had left England for America, where he remained the rest of his life. When war was declared, he offered to return home to serve, but was politely rebuffed. At age 32, he wasn’t needed. He stayed in America from then on – making it somewhat difficult to identify him as a strictly English or American poet in anthologies. So the poem is, in a way, a goodbye to a life he left behind.
Auden had increasingly deep political beliefs that sometimes peer through his writing and show their complexity growing with age and wisdom. He spent a year living in Berlin in 1928, and would return to the city several times before WWII broke out. He watched the rise of fascism, anti-semitism. He loved Berlin, but hated what it became under the Nazis.
He briefly served for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Intending to work as an ambulance driver – echoing his father’s service in WWI – his talents and his reputation betrayed him. He was instead put to work broadcasting propaganda. Disillusioned, he left for the front after only a few weeks, but almost immediately turned back to Britain. From that seven-week experience came his poem, Spain, which concludes:
To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,
The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert,
The masculine jokes; to-day the
Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.
The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.
History to the defeated, despite the victory in popular votes. But popular isn’t populism. There was a certain self-defeatism in the Democratic campaign when it rode to the polls on the rickety old establishment instead of the people’s choice – Bernie Sanders. A davening of mea culpas all around.
Auden and his friend/mentor Christopher Isherwood then went to China to report on the Sino-Japanese War and from that trip came their joint book, Journey to a War (1939). Auden had chosen not an ivory tower from which to observe the world, but to get into the mud and experience it.
This isn’t the first time Auden’s poem has made the rounds as a comment on contemporary events. As Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin tells us,
…on Sept. 11, 2001, with Auden long dead, his poem seemed to rise from the rubble in Manhattan — reprinted, quoted, viral etc. That was at the end of a proud, boastful decade, which followed the Soviet Union’s demise, with smug Western declarations of victory and much reaping of economic spoils.
But Auden wasn’t thinking about Bin Laden or Trump when he wrote it, but rather the rise of the Nazi party and Adolph Hitler. His second verse, with references to Luther, makes that clear:
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.
As Salutin continues:
At the time he wrote his poem, Auden was attacked for moral perversity, as if he’d suggested Hitlerism was justified. He hadn’t. He was simply noticing that evil comes from somewhere, it has antecedents. If you want to avoid it, you must look to them, and your own complicity.
We all have a tendency to simplify issues into neat binary packages we can contain in our heads, tied up like little Christmas gifts. The events of 2001 are easily contained in boxes that say “us” and “them” or “good” and “bad” or “Christian” and “Muslim” without the messiness of history or politics to explain how it all came about and what role we might have had in the events.
The same is true of Trump’s rise to power, of Brexit, of the new Russia, of the Syrian civil war, the debacle of the Arab Spring in Libya, of the alt-right’s growing ascendancy in Europe. We put the stories in boxes that fit cosily with our ideological views. Us versus them. So easy, so neat, no need to go further, to go deeper, to ask more questions. After all the world is complicated, confusing and challenging. Little boxes, as Pete Seeger sang, all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same.
And Trump, like so many demagogues and dictators before him, played to our need for simple answers. Even when they aren’t true, even when they are lies, they simplify things so we can put them into our little boxes. We even saw that game played locally – and successfully – by The Block in the last municipal election.
Auden also wrote Epitaph on a Tyrant, in 1939, a short piece which, in my mind, captures more efficiently the image of Trump and all dictators:
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.
And similarly in his 1940 poem, Our Bias, he might be writing about the outbreak of alt-facts and truthiness today:
For they, it seems, care only for success:
While we choose words according to their sound
And judge a problem by its awkwardness;
Salutin also refers to Auden’s 1940 poem, In Memory of W. B. Yeats, from which he (Salutin) draws the lines:
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
Which again refers back to WWII, but still has resonance today. But you can look through your books of poetry and find many similar sentiments expressed ever since the first poems were etched into clay tablets between the ancient rivers, although in context they weren’t necessarily written about a relevant political issue or movement. They are often taken out of context and turned into jingoism. But sometimes they ring true, too, because human nature is what it is and despite technology has evolved little since then.
For example, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote about the blindness of perception that clouds our eyes from the truth:
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
Words that could easily be read as speaking about the Trump followers who closed their eyes to his abuses, his sexism, his business failures, corruption, megalomania… as could Vachel Lindsay’s short piece from 1915, The Leadened Eye:
Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.
Not that they starve; but starve so dreamlessly,
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap,
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve,
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.
Which, I think, speaks to the unquestioning following of the tyrant, the mindless acceptance of ideology and the alt-right. Perhaps the most moving line is “Not that they starve; but starve so dreamlessly,” because it is in our dreams we are truly free. Simply sowing, serving and even dying are meaningless without our freedom to dream. To dream is to see the possibilities, and if you can see them, you can question the status quo. Demagogues don’t want dreamers: you can’t control dreamers. They want the obedient, unquestioning “limp and leaden-eyed” oxen.
But I digress. In Journey to a War, Auden wrote lines that could be read today as revealing the light of the rise of the alt-right, its punishing patriotism and its faux flag-and-anthem gravitas:
Who even to themselves deny a human freedom
And dwell in the estranging tyrant’s vision of the earth
In a calm stupor under their blood spotted flag.
T. S. Eliot warned the world would end “not with a bang but a whimper.” For those who see the recent rise of the alt-right as apocalyptic, this may be prescient, thinking of the way so many people simply accepted Trump without argument. But then I turn to Robert Frost’s poem, Fire and Ice:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Not that I suggest the world will end with Trump; it will simply get meaner and uglier. Some things will, however end: many rights, and freedoms will be suppressed or revoked. Underserved nostalgia for even the bad presidents of the past will sweep the nation. Soon the rallying cry of “Make America Great Again” will refer to any time post-Nixon, pre-Trump. I digress again.
The prolific Auden was famous – or infamous to some – for revising his poems. For editions of collected works, he often edited his work, both adding and deleting to already published pieces. In those collections – the first published in 1945 – he carefully selected the poems he felt best represented his art and his beliefs. Sept. 1, 1939 was included until his final, authorized collection, published in 1966. Then, for no apparent reason aside from the already large size of the book (my copy of the Collected Poems is 926 pages), it was dropped. But time and circumstances have not allowed it to be forgotten and it has been resurrected to speak to new generations, yet again.
Salutin makes of the poem a political statement that encapsulates the abysmal morass of the last American presidential election. I’m not sure I agree, although I agree more or less with his analysis that both Obama and Clinton failed to win the hearts and minds of people when they had the chance (he in office, she as contender for the throne). One of the untidy packages that can’t be neatly wrapped in the failure of the liberals to out-bleat the man who rained a storm of falsehoods so dramatic that hey swept him into an office that in a moral, ethical society its door he would be barred from even knocking upon.
While I dismiss Auden as a prognosticator of the future, and am cautious about seeing anyone’s published work from the past applied without analysis to modern circumstances, I do like seeing his poems – in fact any poet’s work – being revisited in a wider circle. It can only lead to greater awareness.
Poetry has been a powerful force in the social conscience, albeit somewhat battered by the rise of social media and the alt-fact world, but it may become more relevant again if we read it more, if we think about it more, if we share it with one another. But only if that sharing leads us to delve deeper into it, not simply share it like some tawdry picture of kittens or puppies on Facebook.