Wednesday, April 26, 2006

It is good to teach poetry

I had forgotten just how insightful and relevant this poem still is:

September 1, 1939, by W.H. Auden

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

What has changed since 9/11? Our blind skyscrapers used their full height to proclaim the strength of Economic Man. The fort assumed the furniture of home, until we were forced to see where we are: "Lost in a haunted wood,/Children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good." We didn't like that, so we struck out at Afghanistan, and then Iraq, and soon Iran. Our "accurate scholarship" was called on to unearth the "whole offence," but we carefully kept our part in the story away from our own eyes. We still clearly and so painfully crave what we cannot have: not universal love, but to be loved alone. There's the whole sum of the consumer culture we have created, which we pursue with all the energy we can muster, which we must pursue, or we will simply die.

Or so we tell ourselves; and never consider the lives of people who live by a different culture, a different standard, or that our economic model is only 4 centuries old, and is neither the pinnacle nor the purpose of human existence. We still prefer the lie of Authority. And we still have only a voice, to undo that folded lie.

And we can still only hope to show an affirming flame.

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