April 10, 2010

W.H. Auden

From: "In Memory of W.B. Yeats"

...Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

When I was first introduced to Auden, almost two years ago, I did not immediately fall in love with his work. I did not realize the vast societal norms -- set by other poets like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot -- he was working against and attempting to break open. I also vastly underestimated the impact he would have on my own self later on down the road.

The three-part poem above is Auden's tribute to W.B. Yeats, the Irish poet who fell into eternal sleep on January 28, 1939. Yeats masterfully combined Irish folklore with popular knowledge throughout his poetry. This, in part, is why he is still the Irish poetry giant. No one has since united the Irish people in the same way that Yeats was capable of doing. His poetry is powerful, sentimental and melancholy. And, whether you know it or not, his poetry has become the basis for many recent popular novels and movies.

Auden felt it was important to honor this poetry giant, much like Beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote a tribute to Walt Whitman. However, Auden did not only honor Yeats, he honored the idea of the poet itself. He layed out the prescription for what he believed the poet's role should be in society.

It's a weighty thing -- hope. But this is the charge that Auden levels against all poets. If you began reading Whitman's free form poetry and continued through the post-modern age, you'd see the vast shift in temperament and the overwhelming sense that the world is falling apart around the 1910s -- right around the start of WWI. But, Auden doesn't emphasize the fragments, he looks for wholeness, for hope.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

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