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
Erin Belieu is one of the poets of my generation whose work I turn to most.
Ever since her first collection, Infanta, came out in 1995, Belieu consistently impresses me with her witty, philosophical, and deceptively conversational poems that are actually the result of rigorous revision.
“I’m very much a sculptor with my poems,” Belieu said in an interview. “It’s getting it on the page where the ditch digging begins.” That may be one aspect of her work that attracts me – although it flows on the page as naturally as a phone conversation, I know it’s the result of much effort.
Another aspect is her clarity of language – she has an “aversion to artifice” and “can’t abide pretension,” as two critics have said of her work. Her humor and pathos and contrariness keep bringing me back to the poems, where I also find moments of real vulnerability.
“You’d hope we’re something/ more than a sack of impulse, of soul defined/ by random gristle,” she writes in “The Body is a Big Sagacity.” Nietzsche’s phrase, from the “Despisers of the Body” section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, reads “The body is a big sagacity, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd.”
Yet, while Nietzsche espouses a vision where there is no difference between the physical and psychological ability of the body, where a human being’s purpose is to surpass itself, Belieu’s “little man, with itty hands” requires a giant, superhuman truck to surpass the abilities or limitations of his own body.
In a poet of lesser gifts, Belieu’s wry observations may seem mean-spirited; and then she counts herself among the challenged, claiming her own body “once was whole, symmetrical, was/ actually beautiful for three consecutive years,” to reveal where her sympathies lie.
Belieu once said she was “under no illusion that the world can’t sleep without the next Erin Belieu poem.” There are many among us who beg to disagree. Here is Erin Belieu’s poem, “The Body is a Big Sagacity”:
The Body Is a Big Sagacity
is another thing Nietzsche said
that hits me as pretty specious,
while sitting in my car in the Costco
parking lot, listening to the Ballet
mécanique of metal buggies shrieking,
as each super, singular, and self-contained
wisdom of this Monday morning rumbles
its jumbo packs of toilet paper and Diet Coke
up the sidewalk. So count me a Despiser
of the Body, though I didn’t generate this
woe any more than the little man parked
next to me, now attempting the descent from
his giant truck, behemoth whose Hemi roars
like a melting reactor and stands
as the ego’s corrective to the base methods
by which the body lets the spirit down.
Buzz-clipped, tidy as an otter, he’s high and
tight in his riding heels. Pearl snaps on
the little man’s shirt throw tiny lasers
when he passes. But who isn’t more war
than peace? And how ridiculous to suffer
this: to be a little man, with itty hands
and bitty feet, to know yourself lethal, but
Krazy Glued for life to the most laughable
engine. Recycled, rewired, product of
genes and whatever our mamas thought
to smoke: the spirit gets no vote, Fred.
My body once was whole, symmetrical, was
actually beautiful for three consecutive years,
expensive as a rented palace, and yet I blew
that measly era watching my clock hands move,
as if I were the trigger rigged to homemade
dynamite. But if you would look inside me,
into all the lonely seeming folks here loading
their heavy bags, you’d hope we’re something
more than a sack of impulse, of soul defined
by random gristle. Which is why the little man
pauses on the sidewalk, why he stops to look at
me looking at him: this pocket-size person,
whose gaze unkinks a low, hairy voltage from
my coccyx. And thus speaks Zarathustra,
You Great Star,
what would Your happiness be
had You not those for whom
Ask the little man, neither ghost nor plant,
his bootheels ringing down the concrete.
from Slant Six (Copper Canyon Press)
Copyright © 2015 by Erin Belieu
All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.
February 1, 2016
Legend has it that 13-year-old Marcel Proust answered fifteen questions in the birthday book of Antoinette Felix-Faure. Seven years later, at another social event, he completed another questionnaire. Ah, parlor games!
Over the years, Vanity Fair and other magazines have featured a version or another of this questionnaire, now called the “Proust Questionnaire.”
I decided it would be fun to answer a version that closely approximates the original version Proust completed.
Name: Scott Edward Anderson
Date the questions were answered: 30 January 2016
Village / Town / City you live in: Brooklyn, NY
Occupation: Consultant and Poet
(The questions include Marcel Proust’s answers)
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Proust: To be separated from Mama
Scott Edward Anderson (SEA): To be without love.
Where would you like to live?
Proust: In the country of the Ideal, or, rather, of my ideal
SEA: I’m happy where I am right now in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. It feels like home to me.
What is your idea of earthly happiness?
Proust: To live in contact with those I love, with the beauties of nature, with a quantity of books and music, and to have, within easy distance, a French theater
SEA: Cooking and eating a good meal with my wife after a nice long hike in the woods, enjoying a great glass of wine or a Hendricks martini, and retiring to the living room to read some poetry or listen to favorite music by the fire.
To what faults do you feel most indulgent?
Proust: To a life deprived of the works of genius
SEA: I am intolerant of ignorance and authority and, most especially, ignorant authority.
Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?
Proust: Those of romance and poetry, those who are the expression of an ideal rather than an imitation of the real
SEA My favorite heroes are always creative travelers in strange lands who survive by their wits and wiles.
Who are your favorite male characters in history?
Proust: A mixture of Socrates, Pericles, Mahomet, Pliny the Younger and Augustin Thierry
SEA: Teddy Roosevelt
Who are your favorite heroines in real life?
Proust: A woman of genius leading an ordinary life
SEA: Billie Holiday and Elizabeth Bishop
Who are your favorite heroines of fiction?
Proust: Those who are more than women without ceasing to be womanly; everything that is tender, poetic, pure and in every way beautiful
SEA: Same as heroes: Creative travelers in strange lands who survive by their wits and wiles.
Your favorite painter(s)?
SEA: Monet and Vermeer
Your favorite musician?
SEA: The Beatles
The quality you most admire in a man?
Proust: Intelligence, moral sense
SEA: Integrity and creativity
The quality you most admire in a woman?
Proust: Gentleness, naturalness, intelligence
SEA: Integrity and creativity
Your favorite virtue?
Proust: All virtues that are not limited to a sect: the universal virtues
Your favorite occupation?
Proust: Reading, dreaming, and writing verse
SEA: Add walking in the woods to what Proust said.
Who would you have liked to be?
Proust: Since the question does not arise, I prefer not to answer it. All the same, I should very much have liked to be Pliny the Younger.
SEA: A better friend to some, a better man at times, a better husband to my wife, and a better father to my children.
January 10, 2016
“I never read my reviews,” the novelist Pat Conroy once said. “Not even the good ones. Barbra Streisand once told me, if just one person in the audience doesn’t applaud, it bothers her. I’m the same way. I’d be devastated to read that someone didn’t like my work.”
Back in 2001, a young woman named Veronika Linhartova Morley, then a student at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, contacted me by email. She wanted to write about my poetry for a class assignment on contemporary American poets.
She told me she’d read a poem of mine called “Carpentry” in the Boston Review and had found a number of other poems on line. I was flattered. Only, I never wrote a poem with that title and I’ve not yet published in the Boston Review. I looked up the poem, which was written by a Scott Anderson (see the link above) and thought, I could have written it, but I didn’t.
I hated to disappoint Ms. Morley, but broke the news to her by reply email. She was embarrassed; however, it turned out that all the other poems she’d found were indeed mine, and she still wanted to write about my work. We had a nice correspondence and she wrote a delightful little essay about my poetry and the influence of Elizabeth Bishop and Donald Hall on my work.
Her essay begins with a lengthy quote from a lecture I gave at the University of Alaska some years before:
“The contemporary poet of my choice, Scott Edward Anderson, once wrote in his essay ‘Making Poems Better: The Process of Revision’: ‘…writing poems is a lot like cooking. We bring everything we know about cooking and about what foods go well together to preparing a meal, just as we bring all we’ve learned or read or practiced to writing a poem. Sometimes, it’s just luck that we get the right combination of ingredients, but much of the time a fine meal is made from good ingredients being put together by a well-practiced chef.'”
She went on to make some good observations about my work and points about what I learned from both Bishop and Hall. She also identified a spiritual note in my work and my conflicting feelings about “the way we treat our world.”
In all, it’s a pretty accurate picture of my work, its process and two of my biggest influences. And the last line of her essay would make any poet proud. She writes that through her assignment and correspondence with me, she “not only learned about the process of writing poetry, but also learned to appreciate poetry even more.”
I don’t know how the essay was graded. I still have a copy. Veronika came to this country from Czechoslovakia in the late 1990s, as she told me, to get the kind of education unavailable in her own country. Some time ago, she gave me permission to reprint the essay, which you can read in full here.
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
I’ve known David Simpson for a dozen years, probably more. We were introduced by another writer in Philadelphia and became fast friends, sharing poems with each other, giving readings together on stages and coffee houses.
Dave was funny, direct, and touching in ways that few other poets were in those days. I mean without being solipsistic or confessional or glib or “clever.”
His work reminded me more of Gerald Stern, David Ignatow, or Frank O’Hara than that of any of his contemporaries. I admired a certain casual freedom he offered in his work.
When Dave, who along with his twin brother, poet Dan Simpson, is blind, contracted ALS recently, it seemed unfair. Here was this most gentle soul, funny and sometimes acerbic, always caring for others, stricken by a crippling and debilitating disease.
Dave and I both agonized over our collections of poetry – for years — and the length of time it took us to compile and find a publisher. Both outsiders in the “poetry biz” world, we had time to refine our collections, sharing poems and encouraging each other – even competing with and inspiring each other.
With the publication of his book, The Way Love Comes to Me, just a few months after my Fallow Field, I was ready to celebrate with Dave. It had been a few years since we’d seen each other, as life changes, moves, and other circumstances would have it. So when Dave read at NYU this past winter, I leapt at the chance to go see him, congratulate him, and hear him read again.
I wasn’t disappointed. Even though I could see he was suffering and the disease was clearly getting the upper hand in the battle, Dave remained the same hopeful, witty, entertaining, thoughtful person I’ve always known.
Yet, as his brother Dan wrote in a recent blog post, “ALS, like other terminal illnesses, forces you to redefine what you mean when you use words like ‘good’ and ‘hope.’ Dave says he can see losses every week. He no longer hopes to perform his one-man show. His idea of a good day has more to do with breathing well, with the help of his by-pap machine, and reading something stimulating than with treks into the city and hosting dinners for friends and family.”
At readings, his poem “Spring Fever,” was always a crowd-pleaser. It’s Dave’s “big hit.” He had to read it or his fans would clamor for it. He probably grew sick of reading it, not wanting to be a one-hit wonder.
When he read it at NYU in December, I immediately wanted to share it with my readers during National Poetry Month this year. Why? Because it has all those qualities I love in Dave and his poetry: humor, pathos, and a beautiful way of rendering tenderness in human interactions.
Here is David Simpson’s poem, “Spring Fever”:
A basketball bounces by the pharmacy as I go in.
Thin music from speakers overhead
mixes with the almost-B-flat hum of neon lights. A cashier,
seeing I am blind, locks her register,
grabs a basket, and leads me by the hand down narrow aisles
as we discuss best buys
on Colgate toothpaste with fluoride,
unscented stick deodorants, and three-roll packs
of two-ply toilet paper. In my ears,
my blood begins to prod: Condoms…condoms
and I say to her: “I need
batteries–four double A’s”
“and then, let’s check out the condom display.”
She stands on tiptoes to take down
the box of twelve Latex nonoxynol 9’s,
dips low to read me others that advertise
ribs and dimples, or flavors of mint
and mandarin. “Don’t get the mandarin,” she advises,
her hair brushing my hand as she stands up.
The brand name Excita makes us laugh a little
and I get to talking about Ramses and all his offspring
and what kind of confidence would a name like that
instill in someone looking for birth control?
To nearby customers, it might seem as if
we’re lovers, or very married. I wonder if she…
if we… I choose a pack of Lifestyles; she
puts them in the basket, and for just
a moment before we move
toward the checkout line, they are ours.
c) David Simpson
Used by permission of the author.
PS You can order Dave’s book — and I encourage you to do so — on Amazon.
My high school English teacher, Jack Langerak, introduced me to Kenneth Patchen’s writings and “picture poems,” which combined an abstract-cartoonish painting style with short poems of deep passion, environmental or political protest, and empathy.
Over the years I collected a number of Patchen’s books and artworks, including some rare limited edition cards, pamphlets, and reproductions of his paintings.
Then almost 30 years ago, while living in Cleveland, Ohio, I made a short film using Patchen’s poem, ‘I Went to the City.'” As a soundtrack, I used a 1959 LP of Patchen reading his poem accompanied by Allyn Ferguson and the Chamber Jazz Sextet.
The film had one screening at a small independent film event in Cleveland in 1986 and another at a party in my apartment there. Shortly after, I moved to Europe and the film, along with a handful of other films and a dozen paintings or so, went into a box for the next several decades.
I forgot about the film until a couple of years ago when Scottish photographer and filmmaker Alastair Cook produced a two “filmpoems” using my poems “Naming” and “Fallow Field.” I told Alastair about the film and he encouraged me to dig it up and submit it to his Filmpoem Festival this coming May.
Tracking down the rights to the soundtrack put me in touch with a couple of Patchen scholars, Jonathan Clark and Larry Smith, as well as the children of Allyn Ferguson, who in addition to his poetry-jazz work with Patchen, wrote the theme songs for “Barnie Miller,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” and “The Rookies,” among other television shows of my youth.
Perhaps most importantly, however, I’ve reengaged with Patchen’s poetry, which although it has fallen out of favor among readers today, seems even more relevant and important for our day.
Here is Kenneth Patchen’s poem. “I Went to the City”:
I WENT TO THE CITY
And there I did weep
Men a-crowin’ like asses,
And livin’ like sheep.
Oh, can’t hold the han’ of my love!
Can’t hold her little white han’!
Yes, I went to the city,
And there I did bitterly cry,
Men out of touch with the earth,
And with never a glance at the sky.
Oh, can’t hold the han’of my love!
Can’t hold her pure little han’!
I sent the film – in its original Super 8 form – to Alastair who will digitize it, so I hope to have a link to it on line in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, here is a link to the recording of Kenneth Patchen with Allyn Ferguson and the Chamber Jazz Sextet performing the poem (actually a string of short poems together under the same title): http://www.allmusic.com/song/i-went-to-the-city-mt0026333419
For more on Kenneth Patchen and his poetry: http://www.connectotel.com/patchen/