Monday, May 23, 2011

But to-day the struggle.

I have about 2/3 of my next "what I think about" post written, but the rest won't seem to materialize. In lieu of my own thoughts, I give you W.H. Auden's "Spain." This poem is interesting to me because Auden disavowed it years later, saying that it was "dishonest" and didn't really reflect what he thought. He wrote it after visiting Spain during its Civil War.

So, without further ado:

W.H. Auden, Spain

Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion
Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;
Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards,
The divination of water; yesterday the invention
Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of
Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.

Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants,
the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley,
the chapel built in the forest;
Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;

The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;
Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns
And the miraculous cure at the fountain;
Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.

Yesterday the belief in the absolute value of Greek,
The fall of the curtain upon the death of a hero;
Yesterday the prayer to the sunset
And the adoration of madmen. but to-day the struggle.

As the poet whispers, startled among the pines,
Or where the loose waterfall sings compact, or upright
On the crag by the leaning tower:
"O my vision. O send me the luck of the sailor."

And the investigator peers through his instruments
At the inhuman provinces, the virile bacillus
Or enormous Jupiter finished:
"But the lives of my friends. I inquire. I inquire."

And the poor in their fireless lodgings, dropping the sheets
Of the evening paper: "Our day is our loss. O show us
History the operator, the
Organiser. Time the refreshing river."

And the nations combine each cry, invoking the life
That shapes the individual belly and orders
The private nocturnal terror:
"Did you not found the city state of the sponge,

"Raise the vast military empires of the shark
And the tiger, establish the robin's plucky canton?
Intervene. O descend as a dove or
A furious papa or a mild engineer, but descend."

And the life, if it answers at all, replied from the heart
And the eyes and the lungs, from the shops and squares of the city
"O no, I am not the mover;
Not to-day; not to you. To you, I'm the

"Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped;
I am whatever you do. I am your vow to be
Good, your humorous story.
I am your business voice. I am your marriage.

"What's your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain."

Many have heard it on remote peninsulas,
On sleepy plains, in the aberrant fishermen's islands
Or the corrupt heart of the city.
Have heard and migrated like gulls or the seeds of a flower.

They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes. All presented their lives.

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive. For the fears which made us respond
To the medicine ad, and the brochure of winter cruises
Have become invading battalions;
And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin

Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb.
Madrid is the heart. Our moments of tenderness blossom
As the ambulance and the sandbag;
Our hours of friendship into a people's army.

To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.

To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
the photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty's masterful shadow;
To-morrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,

The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;
To-morrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,
The eager election of chairmen
By the sudden forest of hands. But to-day the struggle.

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The consious 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.


  1. I don't often comment on your poetry posts (because what can I say to Eliot or Auden?), but I appreciate them all the same.

  2. I don't know what to say to Eliot or Auden, either; so, usually, I let another poet talk back.

    This time, however, I'm still thinking about this poem, which somehow I'd never read before, and nothing immediately relevant springs to mind.

    But as for poetry in general, I've been reading George Mackay Brown lately, and I'm reminded of his "Four Kinds of Poet." And then of course I start trying to figure out which poets are which kinds; Eliot, for instance, is certainly a "4" while GMB himself is almost always a "3." Mark Doty, who I was quoting all over Slacktivist for a while, is a "1." I haven't read enough Auden lately to be sure, but I'd call him mostly a "2." And so on.

    Anyway, "Four Kinds of Poet"

    Here, now. A new time, a new place. Write something. This is expected by publisher, readers. Try to render both actuality and soul of the place, look, and write. Quick. Time passes. The place is changing as I look and write. I wither. The place ingathers in a mesh of words. Words, keep me, keep all, now: a poem.

    This place is boring, like most places. There's nothing I feel inclined to say about it. When (out of boredom) I try to find equivalent words, the place changes: a fog shifts, lifts. There are the stones, piers, windows, chimneys, children of light and water that once he saw in a good dream--long forgotten: a poem.

    What happened here? Congregate, ghosts, among the weathered and cracked stones. Take my mouth, speak. Dance. There was nothing but ritual on earth once. I imagine ceremonies. I will make masks: among those shadows buying and selling: a poem.

    Creation of a word, this place. What word? The word is streaming across time, holding this place and all planets and all grains of dust in a pattern, a strict equation. I am always trying to imitate the sound and shape and power of the unknowable word. Dry whisperings: a poem.

    (Verification word: banscend. A law against transcendent poetry?)