Monday, 30 November 2009

Perilous poems

The biography conference I went to a couple of Saturdays ago started with an address which included Auden's sonnet "Who's Who": A shilling life will give you all the facts

This took me back over half a century to the occasion of the inaugural lecture which Auden gave on becoming Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1956. That craggy, lined face which is so familiar from photographs looked even craggier in the flesh. In his smoker's voice he said some memorable things about poetry and its writing.

By singular coincidence the following Thursday the local U3A's Poetry Group was to meet, in our house, to hear about Auden from a semi-retired Eng. Lit. teacher. I contacted the teacher to suggest that the sonnet could be a perfect introduction to giving a potted biography of the poet, something that is always done at these meetings, and should be added to the list of poems on which he was going to expound. I also suggested that I contribute my recollections of his lecture and read one of the poems he cited when talking about what makes a poem. However he chose not to accept the suggestion, as his lecture was already planned, and so, like the protagonist of "The Shield of Achilles", one of the poems on his list, I chose to sulk in my tent.

My blog is of course a perfect place on which I can record my recollections and which the group members can if they wish read an outline of what I would have said at that U3A meeting. I can remember just three points Professor Auden made.

One of the elements, he surprisingly argued, that can make a poem is a list of names. He cited the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad and the roll-call of warriors’ names in Henry V’s Agincourt speech. Another example he gave, which I remember because of my liking for Kipling, is his Mine Sweepers. The poem deals with an incident in the Great War when enemy mines are laid off the Kentish coast. Each of the three verses ends with this, or a slight variant of it:
"Sweepers – Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain."

He also talked of his ongoing lack of confidence in his Muse. Only when he was actually writing a poem, he said, could he actually say that he was a poet and of course while he was writing it he was thinking of other things. When he had finished he would wonder whether he would ever again be able to write another one. He tolerated being called a poet by other people because they wouldn't understand what he was talking about if he were to deny it and besides, it was quicker and simpler to do so.

The final point I recall was his saying that when writing about The Belov├ęd a poet is not actually thinking about her (or, I suppose, in his case him), but about himself. It is his feelings he is considering, not hers: she may be the cause of those feelings, but she is not the real subject of the poem.

I have just Googled [auden "inaugural lecture" oxford] and find that the lecture has been printed under the title of Making, Knowing and Judging, but sites which refer to it seem to be password-protected. It'll be interesting during the vacation to look at the transcript and see whether what I recall is correct, and what much more important insights I have totally forgotten.

That final point was not in my mind when four years later I wrote a sonnet to a young woman who had just broken off our engagement. I was still in Kano, where I had been peddling paraffin for Shell for a year and whither she had come from London to visit me. I do not remember how or why the bizarre idea emerged that for the Easter weekend three of us should go to Fort Lamy in a French colony adjacent to Nigeria; nor (happily) do I remember the events which resulted in my driving back recklessly and alone along four hundred miles of dusty laterite roads, with the accelerator of my VW pressed to the floor; nor what happened when the day after she left for England.

Nor do I remember why on earth I thought that our relationship could – or even should – be revived. I can only suppose, with the benefit of five decades of hindsight, that I was envisaging a future being spent in black Africa where single white women were scarce and unalluring.

So, the sonnet was sent, despite its limping scansion, to accompany a bouquet of Interflora's best red roses.

They were too small, too slight a thing to give,
Those roses: they fade and wither with the day
And die tomorrow, while the thorns survive
The flowers' ephemeral beauty, fresh as May.
Is this not like our lives, a Janus face
That smiles, but turns to frown, the flower, the thorn?
The one, those fleeting moments of glad grace,
The other, hurt of man, alone, forlorn.
But no: the flower lives, the thorn it dies.
The thorn is torn away to make the pyre
From which the Phoenix soon will stir, and rise
On reborn wings, with youth and strength entire.
Despite the twists our lives do run,
The ending's well, where 'tis well begun.

This flamboyant gesture led to my seeing her again when I returned to England on leave in July. I suppose that it was a combination of injured pride on my part and guilt on hers that led to us getting married in St John's Wood in September. Somewhere there is a picture of me and my Best Man standing beside the porch of the church and on the wall behind a placard exhorting passers-by to TAKE A CHANCE. At the time it did not seem like an ill omen.

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