When the terrible European war which everyone had known for years was coming finally did arrive, W. H. Auden composed a poem, “September 1, 1939,” which begins:
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.
Auden (1907-1973) was perhaps the best of his generation at capturing in metrical language the mood and sweep of a serious public event, his poem on the occasion of Yeats’s death being another example of high accomplishment. But it’s the poem quoted from, above, which has been on my mind of late as the world is caught in the fury of revolution. I think today of Auden because we are in great need of someone like him.
It isn’t that poetry is no longer written, or even written well for that matter — Seamus Heaney, for example, is a very fine living poet. In an age however where a poetry bestseller is nonetheless a market-niche item of scant recompense, and where an economic subsidization regime (the poetry prize, the guest lecture) is therefore necessary to eke out one’s livelihood, the poet is a marginal figure. What a shame that is, and how impoverished we are as a consequence. Or have I here reversed cause and effect?: is it rather not the case that our impoverishment is manifest in our failure to rise to the heights of poetry on serious occasions?
Consider for example the mental furniture one requires to parse the lines from September 1, 1939, “What mad Nijinsky wrote / About Diaghilev / Is true of the normal heart.” It isn’t the case that these lines are necessary to an understanding of the poem, but they serve a function. As a general rule, poetry is dense and allusive and demands an unusually high degree of linguistic and cultural competence. The rewards are heightened perception and a felt intensity of effect not available through demotic speech. It is precisely the extraordinary which is required in extraordinary times such as these. The revolutions now taking place in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya are historic, deserving of effective and permanent tribute. One could reasonably claim these are poetic events, indicating by this matters of complexity and importance.
At bottom the revolutions throughout the Arab world are an effort by human beings to stand to their height and in the fullness of their dignity. What cause may be plausibly said to supersede this? The message to autocrats (those who are, to quote Kipling, “drunk with sight of power”) is that no longer will men and women under dictatorship tolerate the humiliations of being treated like unruly children, if not like disposable property. I do find myself hoping there is someone among us at this time who will render the human emancipation struggle in appropriate compositions, and that we will be up to the challenge of reading these works. In the revolutionary year of 2011, prose seems ill-suited to the requirements of the times. More than ever, we need our poets and poetry to affirm our common humanity.