Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Homage to W.H. Auden, 21st February 1981

W. H. Auden: born 21 February 1907; died 29 September 1973

Today a late descent of snow
Has taught a grievous lesson to
The gaudy paper crocuses.
A thrush with nowhere safe to go
Beats vainly at an empty shell
Whilst clouds which have a purple hue
Prepare their freezing viper’s kiss.
Dear Master of the singing line
Your birth-month in a fierce pell-mell
Knows nothing of the Muses Nine.

I who am the essence of
The down-at-heel South London type,
Who never walked the chilly Dales
Nor thought of rusting cams with love,
But rather from a T.V. screen
Imbibed a sort of mongrel hype
(There were, though, holidays in Wales)
Give greetings to your memory –
A sort of learned, boozy Dean –
And offer you humility.

Your poems and your measured prose
To one whose schooling was perverse
Were like a sortie to a vault
Where books were stored in endless rows
And where the stacks of classic lines
Like golden guineas in a purse
Brought me to a sudden halt.
Horace, Dryden, Goethe, Swift,
In every chamber of those mines
Were treasures like a proffered gift.

Horace and his worldly art,
Dryden on the polity,
Goethe saving Faust from hell,
Swift about to break his heart,
All sought to be absurdly true
To visions of maturity;
And you with your preceptor’s bell,
Investigating moral norms,
Passed on the gift received by you –
A marvellous deftness with the forms.

How shall the fiery Ataturk
Keep faith with what is calm and sane?
How shall the ageing Cicero
Find frank excitement in his work?
Whenever I feel pompous or
Have whirled myself outside my brain
I think of your attentive, low
“H’m let’s see now,” as you joint
New verses to Stravinsky’s score –
Exact and always to the point.

Now when Poland once again
Is chafing at her master’s heels,
And European eyes are turned
To what may rumble from the plain,
I think of your once-public voice
Denouncing certain shady deals,
Demanding that the truth discerned
Be made the basis for our acts,
And that for those who have no choice
We muster daily with the facts.

Instruct me in your hardly-won
Insistence on the private space
Now open living is prescribed
As politics or sex for fun.
In testing Clio’s urgent claim
And sorting what was not the case
You came across a stone inscribed,
“An honest man will search his skin
And find a Cosmos and a Name.
The moral life is there. Begin.”

Of all the Muses I would choose
To place you under Clio’s care
For whom you wrote your saddest songs
And mourned Pandora in a blues.
When all the ills have flown around
A human landscape now gone bare
And men have done their pointless wrongs,
Your poems find forgotten hope
And cherish with the springs of sound
Our basic tendency to cope.

As I towards the doubtful close
Of one more century of woe
Seek something like a saving poise
To match the beauty of the rose,
I turn to you who had no care
For those who know because they know
And shout a self-fulfilling noise,
Who rather in the liberal arts
Held consultations from the Chair
And called attention to the parts.

At night I lie awake and try
To fit an honest sort of truth
To lines which do not wave a flag
Nor glibly dabble in a lie.
But truth’s a thing that’s hard to tell,
For which not many have the tooth,
Though you behind a Latin tag
Or in your most commanding way
Advised whomever would do well,
“Write simply by the light of day.”

These February storms are such
That any man might gladly bow
And spend the starving months within
His damp and undistinguished hutch.
Instead you call me to my task:
“Live when it most matters – now;
And do not say it is not sin
When you the formal problem shirk;
Of every poem always ask,
‘What is this and does it work?’”

© February 1981

Thursday, 16 February 2012

February 1981

By 1981 in Poland, the Solidarity-led challenge to the Soviet-maintained Communist system was growing rapidly. And in the U.S.A. President Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981 with a large-scale programme of economic reform.


Invalided in my chair,
Subject to a spouse’s care,
I extol the virtues of
Sympathetic wifely love;
Cast a bleary, saddened eye
At the landscape and the sky
Where a February chill
Tempts a crocus to the kill.

Distant by some freezing hours
Poland prods the angry powers,
Seeks for meaning in the lie
Of an ideology.
Russian drivers give the gun
To their tanks but not for fun,
Trample underneath the boot
Any lively, stirring root.

Westwards in the U.S.A.
Great reforms are under way,
Laws rescinded, taxes cut,
Unresponsive bureaux shut
So that righteousness might yield
Joy behind a nuclear shield:
Loud-mouthed children shouting, “Yuk”
Pick an early flower for luck.

Through the window as I write
Comes a most depressing sight,
Rain before the frost has gone
Starts and then goes on and on.
Trying to arrange my thoughts
Into sentences of sorts
I arrive at twenty-one
Euphemisms for the sun.

This then is material
For a short confessional
Poem by a sickly man
Having ’flu as best he can.
Elsewhere as the day is done
Options narrow one by one,
People for their actions die:
I sit here bad-temperedly.

© February 1981

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Three Searching Sonnets


Through dark desponding earth a shoot erupts,
Seeking the pale elixir of the sun;
Last autumn’s fruit gone shrivelled, foul, corrupts –
And what cannot be tamed has now begun.

Behind the window at a roaring fire,
His mind persuaded by a stupid book,
A man as certain as a practised liar
Stews gently in his self-responsive look.

If now a something like the Second Coming,
Merged with that old unnerving repetition,
Were to disturb him in his tuneless humming,
Would he, all certainties destroyed by splendour,
Embrace that fireball in a risky wonder,
Or turn his page, content with sour suspicion?


Time and Again

Approaching time and time again that place
Where Someone with astounding knowledge kept
His dwelling, the seething burn of my face
Drove me away unshriven. And I slept.

Then, on a promenade caught in the teeth
Of a gale I saw the smile of an Adept.
I ran. Thoughtful, he turned a corner beneath
A cauldron sky. The street was empty. I wept.

Now in a stony place where a faint light
Like an injured bird led me and died, I sit
Upon a rock and hear the wind declaim
A litany of no point and no name.
Instead, my pulse, unruly, bit by bit
Taps out, “This is your madness. Or your Darkest Night.”


“After a Winter...”

After a winter of fanatic grey,
Abrupt winds, stone-hard ground and jaundiced light;
After a season when each stunted day
Thankfully wallowed in the flesh of night,

I cherish with a chilly hand a bud
Struggling as any infant does to sip
The broth of the sun, bask in the warming mud,
Tasting the salt of newness on my lip.

So, restless at my desk, playing with words,
I dumbly search for that elusive trope
Which, Spring-like, might transfix this plod of time,
Transfigure meaning to a flock of birds
Flung to the right in similes of hope,
Dangerously breasting over snares of lime.

© January 1983