January 7, 2017
“September 1, 1939” is one of the most famous poems by W. H. Auden. He wrote the poem after learning the news of Hitler’s invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, published it a month later in The New Republic magazine, and reprinted it in his collection, Another Time, the following year.
Despite – or perhaps because of — rushing it into print, Auden appeared to dislike the poem almost as soon as it was published. As little as five years later, reprinting the poem in The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1945), he cut the stanza with its most famous line, “We must love one another or die.”
“Between you and me, I loathe that poem,” he wrote to the critic Laurence Lerner, and resolved to keep it out of future collections of his work during his lifetime. He relented in 1955, allowing Oscar Williams to include it in his New Pocket Anthology of American Verse, but only with the proviso that the last line be edited to “We must love one another and die.”
Why did he hate this line – and the poem — so much? He claimed in a preface to the 1965 edition of his Collected Poems, “Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring.”
In a Penguin anthology the previous year, the poem and four others were included along with a caveat: “Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.”
What was it about the poem and, in particular, this line that Auden didn’t like? Was he embarrassed by its earnestness and sentiment, as some have suggested? Did he feel it was sappy and self-indulgent, as others would have it? Or was it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written,” as he put it?
And yet, the last line endures and the poem remains one of Auden’s most famous, surviving even today as one of the most eloquent pleas for empathy and peace in the face of totalitarianism. The poem even resurfaced as a touchstone for people in the wake of 9/11, as I have written elsewhere.
Here is my poem, “Villanelle on a Line Hated by Auden”:
“We must love one another or die,”
The poet instructs, though doesn’t believe it.
“We must love one another and die.”
Revised to inclusive and on another try,
Then repudiated the poem, banning it.
He who must love another or die.
“Ours is not to reason why,”
Another poet said with the soul of wit.
Ours is to love one another. We die.
Changing a word makes meaning fly
To the far reaches of our minds and sit.
Must we, really, love one another or die?
Can we exist without knowing why–
Knowledge straining at the bit–
Until we can only love each other and die?
When we live without love, we die.
At least, those of us who desire it.
We must love one another or die.
We must love one another and die.
–Scott Edward Anderson
Every month it seems there is another flashpoint of tensions between police and black communities in cities around the United States.
From Ferguson to Baltimore, our country seems ready to tear at the seams from a volatile combination of racial prejudice, police militarism, and the systemic poverty and disenfranchisement black people feel in America today.
It is impossible to ignore this critical issue of our day – we ignore it at our peril – even in a forum such as this.
In that light, I asked poet Sheree Mack if I could feature one of her poems for this final week of National Poetry Month. I was thinking we’d choose one from her remarkable new book, Laventille, which I’ve just started reading.
But Sheree asked if I’d rather have a new poem, one where she is trying “to get my head around the issue of race in America now with #BlackLivesMatter and how things haven’t changed much since lynching was another arm of the ‘law’.”
When she sent me, “Called Witness,” I jumped at the chance to share it, with its unflinching mixture of found texts (from a source cited below) and its paraphrase of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in line 8.
Sheree Mack was born in 1971 in Bradford, England, to a Trinidadian father and a “Geordie” mother of Ghanaian and Bajan ancestry. She worked as a teacher for several years before studying for a PhD on black British women poets.
Sheree now dedicates her life to “fostering creativity in everyone’s life” working with communities of women and young writers, and currently lives in Tynemouth. She is the author of two collections, Family Album (Flambard Press, 2011) and Laventille (Smokestack Books, 2015).
I met Sheree Mack through the group “52,” which I participated in last year. Members of “52” wrote poems each week to prompts supplied by the group’s founder, Jo Bell, and commented upon each other’s work in a closed group on Facebook. (See my blog post on the subject here.)
Sheree’s poetry rose to the surface in my mind for its clarity, craft, and complexity of vision. Mack’s poems “lament, rage and mourn,” as the publisher says about her latest book. “But they also offer a song of healing, a celebration of survival, a glimmer of the flames that burn in the hearts of a people still living in slavery’s dark shadow. “
Her perceptive comments on a number of poems (mine and others) flagged her as one of those people you want to spend time with, even if the only opportunity is through the auspices of a virtual poetry workshop.
It was only later that I realized she was also the subject of my friend Alastair Cook’s stunning collodion portrait of a striking woman with captivating eyes, that I’d seen as part of his McArthur’s Store exhibition. There is something haunting about this portrait, as is the case of much of Alastair’s work in the medium.
The image is timeless or time-bound or both simultaneously. It could just as easily be a photograph of someone from Trinidad and Tobago at the time of the 1970 student uprisings in Laventille (the subject of her book) or an image from an even earlier era.
In short, the photo is a bit like Sheree Mack’s poetry: a bit timeless, a bit time-bound, but always unflinching and intriguing.
Here is Sheree Mack’s poem, “Called Witness”:
The exhibition opened in a small New York gallery.
The crowds came, self-righteous and proud.
Assembled and displayed were sixty photographs,
collected from family albums, attic trunks, flea markets.
Small, black-and-white postcards,
not more than a few inches long and wide,
depicting African-American men in Jim Crow
South; black bodies swinging from poplar trees.
Long lines stood for hours on the wintry
sidewalk, waiting for their view.
Once inside, bodies overwhelmed the intimate space.
Images laid flat on display tables or assembled
in tight groupings tacked to light-coloured walls.
Tattered, faded and worn, neither retouched nor restored.
Nor framed, matted, or captioned. Instead offered
as artefacts, not fine art objects. None for sale.
Visitor huddled close, hunched over tables,
faces pushed up against the walls, they felt
the warmth and proximity of others, jostling
and angling their bodies for a better look.
Through generations, onlookers enticed to the scene
by the spectacle of mutilated, dangling bodies.
c) 2015 Sheree Mack
Used by permission of the author.
Text cited: Lynching Photographs by Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith,
University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 2007
As some of you know, my new role in my day job at EY involves helping globalize prepaid smart metering programs for municipal utilities in emerging markets.
It’s a project that started in South Africa, and I think it’s pretty cool to be exporting an innovation from the African continent rather than imposing it from outside.
Traveling to South Africa, I’ve begun to explore the literature and art of the country over the last 20 years since the end of apartheid.
Thinking about poets whose work I could share, I thought about the work of Isobel Dixon. I know Isobel chiefly through social media — I believe it was Jo Bell or the Scottish Poetry Library who first introduced me to her work.
Dixon lives in London, but was born in Umtata, South Africa, and grew up in the semi-desert region known as the Karoo. She studied in the South African winelands country of Stellenbosch (where I was with my wife Samantha in January) and in Edinburgh.
In 2000, Dixon won the Sanlam Literary Award for her then unpublished collection of poetry Weather Eye, which was subsequently published by Carapace Poets (2001). She is also the author two collections, The Tempest Prognosticator and A Fold in the Map, both published by Salt in the UK. You can read more of her work at isobeldixon.com
I love the rhythms and musicality of Isobel Dixon’s poem, “She Comes Swimming,” and the mix of history and mythology that unfolds as we read. Of the poem Dixon wrote in an email to me,
“This is a poem very close to my heart, about my beloved country, South Africa. I wrote it in my first years abroad, feeling very keenly what it means to live far from the motherland, to yearn for it – and yet to fear that time away will change you, or change others’ perceptions of you, so that you might be perceived as an outsider, in spite of all you feel and are.”
Dixon “won a scholarship to do postgraduate study in my father’s native Scotland, the realisation of a dream, but at a time when I’d rather have stayed in South Africa – the momentous year of the first democratic elections.”
Another aspect of the poem that I particularly admire is what Dixon explains as “This sense of rueful distance, of vivid longing, and an awareness of the complex histories and hybrid mythologies of my faraway homeland, all fed into a poem about my imagined journey southwards, swimming back in time and language too.”
Dixon also told me that the poem has a central place in her Salt collection, A Fold in the Map, a collection that looks at the traveler’s state of “in-betweenness,” caught between lives and countries.
“The poem flowed onto the page in something of a hypnotic state,” Dixon wrote. “One of those poems you look at the day after and think, ‘Where did that come from, and how?’ Wherever it summoned itself from, I’m glad it did.” We are too.
Here is Isobel Dixon’s poem, SHE COMES SWIMMING
She comes swimming to you, following
da Gama’s wake. The twisting Nile
won’t take her halfway far enough.
No, don’t imagine sirens – mermaid
beauty is too delicate and quick.
Nor does she have that radiance,
Botticelli’s Venus glow. No golden
goddess, she’s a southern
selkie-sister, dusky otter-girl
who breasts the cold Benguela, rides
the rough Atlantic swell, its chilly
tides, for leagues and leagues.
Her pelt is salty, soaked. Worn out,
she floats, a dark Ophelia, thinking
what it feels like just to sink
caressed by seaweed, nibbled by
a school of jewel-plated fish.
But with her chin tipped skyward
she can’t miss the Southern Cross
which now looks newly down on her,
a buttress for the roof of her familiar
hemisphere. She’s nearly there.
With wrinkled fingertips, she strokes
her rosary of ivory, bone and horn
and some black seed or stone
she can’t recall the name of,
only knows its rubbed-down feel.
And then she thanks her stars,
the ones she’s always known,
and flips herself, to find her rhythm
and her course again. On, southwards,
yes, much further south than this.
This time she’ll pay attention
to the names – not just the English,
Portuguese and Dutch, the splicings
and accretions of the years. She’ll search
for first names in that Urworld, find
her heart-land’s mother tongue.
Perhaps there’s no such language,
only touch – but that’s at least a dialect
still spoken there. She knows when she
arrives she’ll have to learn again,
so much forgotten, lost. And when
they put her to the test she fears
she’ll be found wanting, out of step.
But now what she must do is swim,
stay focused on each stroke,
until she feels the landshelf
far beneath her rise, a gentle slope
up to the rock, the Cape,
the Fairest Cape. Her Mother City
and its mountain, waiting, wrapped
in veils of cloud and smoke.
Then she must concentrate, dodge
nets and wrack, a plastic bag afloat –
a flaccid, shrunk albino ray –
until she’s close enough to touch
down on the seabed, stumble
to the beach – the glistening sand
as great a treasure as her Milky Way –
fall on her knees and plant a kiss
and her old string of beads,
her own explorer’s cross
into the cruel, fruitful earth at last.
She’s at your feet. Her heart
is beating fast. Her limbs are weak.
Make her look up. Tell her she’s home.
Don’t send her on her way again.
© 2001, Isobel Dixon
Used by permission of the author.
March 23, 2014
My first encounter with Tamil poetry came in the form of a short poem by Auvaiyar, written two millennium ago:
Bless you, earth:
you are only as good
as the good young men
in each place.
This poem appeared in a book of classical Tamil poetry called Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil, selected and translated by A.K. Ramanujan, which featured poems from around 100 BC to AD 250, and late classical poems from the 5th and 6th centuries.
The poems were divided into two distinct sections, “Akam” (pronounced “aham”) which were love poems, and “Puram,” which were about heroes and battles. Akam means heart or household, and the poems are distinguished by the landscape each poem evokes and, in turn, the particular experience of love each landscape connotes. The Tamil called this “Tinai” in their poetics.
The subtropical climate of Tamil Nadu in southern India ranges from seaside to mountains, agricultural fields to forests, and desert. Each landscape is associated with a certain mood and the poems typically feature a flower, tree or plant of the corresponding biome. For example, as Ramanujan points out in his translator’s note, “Kurinci, a mountain flower; neytal, blue lily; mullai, jasmine; maratam, queen’s flower; palai, a desert tree.”
The poems are distinguished by straight-forward emotions and plain language (at least in translation), with a simplicity rivaling Chinese and Japanese poetry.
Take Kapilar’s poem of longing, “What She Said to her friend” (p. 13):
You ask me to forget him,
How can I?
wearing its dark raincloud
as a bean flower
the east wind opens,
that blue sapphire,
is never out of sight.
We know from the Tinai that each landscape corresponds to a phase or experience of love: union/mountains; separation/desert; patience waiting/forest; anxious waiting/seaside; and infidelity and resentment/lowland farms. In the poem above, the speaker is clearly longing for the union or reunion with her lover on his mountain, which she keeps in her memory.
Tamils have a strong attachment to their language, which is central to their identity. Many refer to it as Tamil̲an̲n̲ai, “the Tamil mother.” It is one of the oldest surviving classical languages in the world, and written Tamil is a beautiful Brahmic script. Thankfully, this anthology is bilingual, which allows the reader to see the poems (if not read them) in their original form.
Poets such as Mahakavi Bharathiyar and Bharathidasan — the latter a kind of Tamil Fernando Pessoa who wrote many of his poems in various pseudonyms — brought Tamil poetry into the modern era. Their work gave Tamil poets freedom from the constraints of traditional Tamil poetics and expanded the subject matter available to Tamil poets.
In Our Translated World: Contemporary Global Tamil Poetry is a recent anthology of contemporary global Tamil poetry, published by the Tamil Literary Garden of Canada and TSAR Publications in Toronto. The work of the Tamil poets in this anthology clearly bears the mark of its modern predecessors, but also the influence of modern and contemporary poetry from Europe and Asia.
Not surprising, given the book is a selection of recent poems from Tamils around the world. Indeed, the anthology, edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam, features around 80 poems from Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Tamil diaspora in England, Canada, and elsewhere.
As Chelva writes in the introduction, “for Tamils, particularly in the last three decades, the experiences have been one of displacement, trauma, nostalgia, and despair.” This is especially true of Sri Lankan Tamils, as many tried to escape ethnic conflicts on that island nation.
For some Sri Lankans, such conflict breeds a conflicting nature. For example, Chandra Bose Sudhakar, who defends his choosing a life of books,
Life began with some books:
that the words in books
produce no rice became
the problem of our lives.
For Sudhakar, “books swallow the howls/ of my tormented heart” and offer the Sri Lankan poet, who was killed by armed men in his house in 2007, a kind of acknowledgment he couldn’t find elsewhere.
Some poems in the collection have echoes, intentional or not, of classical Akam poems, such as this one by Majeed, which sounds to me like a desert or separation poem:
You live on
in the empty spaces
that cannot be filled
with anything else.
Or consider the seaside imagery of another poem by Auzhiyaal, which could be in the voice of an anxious lover trying to find solace in the littoral environment:
At the end of each day
our minute secrets
a pregnant silver fish
a sea weed
a pink sea rock.
The freedom afforded by contemporary poetics may bely an ignorance of Tamil classical themes and symbolism, as some of the poets freely mix landscapes, emotions, and place, such as in this poem by Rashmy,
Parting is always bitter;
everywhere, eventually brackish;
nerves starved with lust,
the soul’s love
draining, filled to the brim.
From our paddy fields
we will harvest
the day after yesterday.
Others call out the connection, such as Anar does in her poem “Marutham,” with its rich depiction of the farm fields and rice paddies indicative of the agricultural landscape and a hint of possible infidelity in the lines,
The fragrant smell of
ripe paddy in the fields,
offers a giddy sense of joy.
As much as the poets in this collection have deep memories of their Tamil past and poetry, the poems in this collection are, as the editor writes in his introduction, “a form of transformation, a gesture about the future. Whether the poems are ostensibly realistic or self-consciously fantastic, the poems move beyond ethnographic detail to offer an imaginative sense of the Tamil experience.”
And for poetry readers, the Tamil experience is a rich and rewarding one in the hands of the poets, translators, and editor of In Our Translated World.
This year marks a couple of important centenaries in poetry, which I will celebrate this week and next. The first is the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who was one of the giants of 20th-century Polish literature.
Miłosz was born in Lithuania, where his parents escaped the political upheaval in their native Poland. Late, as an adult, he fled Poland and the oppressive post-war Communist regime. He could not have picked a place of greater contrast in which to settle: Berkeley, California in the 1960s.
As Seamus Heaney wrote recently, Miłosz “was poised between lyricism and witness.” Indeed, as Miłosz himself wrote in The Witness of Poetry, “A peculiar fusion of the individual and the historical took place, which means that events burdening a whole community are perceived by a poet as touching him in a most personal manner. Then poetry is no longer alienated.”
But Heaney sums up the poet’s lasting power. “What irradiates the poetry and compels the reader is a quality of wisdom,” wrote Heaney. “Everything is carried and feels guaranteed by the voice. Even in translation, even when he writes in a didactic vein, there is a feeling of phonetic undertow, that the poem is a trawl, not just talk. And this was true of the work he did right up to his death in Kraków in 2004.”
Probably one of Miłosz’s most famous poems, “Dedication,” was written in 1945 in Warsaw at the end of World War II. That is, as Stephen O’Connor wrote in an excellent essay on sentimentality in Miłosz’s poetry, “after more than six years of Nazi occupation, after the bloody suppression of the Warsaw uprising, the subsequent deportation of the city’s more than one million inhabitants, the destruction of all its remaining buildings, and its liberation by the Soviet army… under such circumstances, the notion that poetry might help ‘save nations and people’ takes on a rather different character than it had for me when I first read ‘Dedication’ back in 1973.”
Here is Czesław Miłosz’s “Dedication,” in his own translation:
You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.
What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.
Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.
They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.
— Czesław Miłosz,Warsaw, 1945
July 18, 2009
I’ve had a love affair with Indonesia for a long time now. Curiously, it started with its poetry long before I ever visited the country. But the people and the place are the real magic for me. Indonesia is a land (and waters) of stunning beauty, a people of peace and wonder, and a remarkable, storied culture.
I long to go back and when something like the bombings in Jakarta this week happens, my heart sinks that Indonesia and its people may suffer.
A few years ago, after the Bali bombings that killed 20 people and injured 129 and reports of other terrorist activities surfaced, I wrote a poem called “Sons of Abraham,” which has not yet been published. It may be too difficult a subject to be published. (Of course, it also may be that it is not yet finished or polished enough for publication!)
I want to share it here in the wake of the Jakarta bombings and in honor and memory of all victims of terrorism everywhere:
SONS OF ABRAHAM
We are all strung together
by thin filaments of air,
fragments of faith and our burning desire
to please God, to engender
a kind of blessing. Time
is the fragrance of one age
evoking another; essence
is our connection on earth.
I harbor neither empathy nor anger
for people who set off bombs in Bali,
only pity. I am sorry for them,
honoring their God in this way:
beheading Christian village leaders,
decapitating young girls
on their way to school or attacking
women because they wear a burqa
or pray to Mecca.
How sad to think God can be appeased
by such actions, that He wants
such a fate for you—
As for God, I forgive His negligence
or lack of supervision, all leaders are flawed.
We are all Sons of Abraham,
that model of faith, and we are all
struck down by hearts of stone,
leaden particles of dust
shattering between us
in the opaque calculation
of suicide bombs—
“Forgive them, Father,
for they know not what they’ve done.”
–Scott Edward Anderson
(Note: There are families in eastern Indonesia who have married two faiths, Christian and Muslim. The first-born son or daughter is baptized; the next is raised in Islam. We are all connected. I love my Muslim brothers and sisters as well as my Christian, my Jewish, my Buddhist, and my Hindu families. There is only one God.)