W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden

“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.

I wrote “Villanelle on a Line Hated by Auden” on 3 September 2014 as part of Jo Bell’s “52” experiment, and it was recently published in The Road Not Taken: The Journal of Formal Poetry.

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

 

I signed off of Twitter Saturday night with this note:

“Goodnight from my condensery…”

A friend saw it and wrote to ask what I meant by “condensery,” which seemed to have to do with making milk, not poems.

I was working, revising some poems, and meant “condensery” as a reference to the poet Lorine Niedecker.

It is an interesting choice of words, because condense means “to make denser or more compact; especially : to subject to condensation,” according to Merriam-Webster, which perhaps connotes compactness rather than concision.  Concision, cutting away or making more concise, is probably closer to my method of revision.  (I try not to make my poems more dense as I revise; and I rarely, if ever, can get as compact as Miss Niedecker did in her poems.)

Niedecker called her desk a “condensery,” in part to connote her process and in part to make it clear that, for her, her desk was a physical place of genuine, creative labor.  Making poems is real work.

Here is Lorine Niedecker’s poem “Poet’s Work,” from which the phrase comes, in its entirety:

Grandfather
advised me:
Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
and condense

No layoffs
from this
condensery

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You can read more about Lorine Niedecker and her poetry at Poets.org

Her collected poems are available here: Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works.

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Fallow Field by Joshua Sheldon

Fallow Field by Joshua Sheldon

One of my oldest friends and long-time readers, the photographer Joshua Sheldon, was with me when I wrote a poem called “Fallow Field.”

In fact, we were both inspired by the same image we saw, one summer driving south out of the Adirondack Mountains. A field, a car, a barn.

I wrote the poem in a quick burst of notes crawling around in the field as Joshua searched for the best angle to capture the scene on film. (See the result at left.)

Joshua’s photograph hangs on my wall and has adorned at least one book (not yet mine).  My poem was published in Blueline, a journal published at SUNY Potsdam.

Some time over the years, after its publication, I revised the poem, excising what I thought were superfluous lines that made too fine a point in trying to draw a parallel between the subject’s experience — a woman who ended her marriage abruptly — and the landscape we found.  The lines removed are underlined below:

Fallow Field

The old car is there,

where she left it,

out by the old shed,

breeding rust–obscured

from the roadway by the rye grass

that grows up all around.

Long triangular tentacles

blowing and bending

in the hot breeze, as

sunlight filters in

through gathering clouds.

By now the grass has worked

up into the engine block.

The car--an old

Chevrolet or Buick?–

no matter, it’s what

is planted now,

in this fallow field,

awaiting bulldozers.

They call this grass

“poverty grain,” and there’s

no small comfort in the fact

that it’s as tolerant

of poor soils

as she was of the poor soils

of her marriage.

On the day she left,

she packed her whole life

into an old grip:  clothing,

framed photographs

of the children, her parents,

the salt cellar she’d bought

on her honeymoon in Rome.

While packing, she’d given

pause that her whole life

had become so

portable, where once there’d

been permanence.  And now,

she blows and bends

like this rye grass

on a midsummer afternoon,

so far from home,

so far from the old shed

of her former self.

Joshua’s objections are outlined in the following email:

SEA:  Ok, I’ve read and re-read the two versions of Fallow Field and again I want to express my support for the earlier version.  There are three changes I’m aware of, two lines in the body and the ending.  I don’t feel the two lines alter the poem much but the ending!  The ending Scott!  It flowed before, it let you down easy, it tied it all up like the well written present that it was.

I agree with Joshua that the old ending tied it all up neatly — just a little too neatly for my taste.  I think the newer ending, with its abruptness, speaks more to the experience of the woman in the poem, and is more true to life.

Things don’t always end neatly.  In fact, I suggest that most things don’t. Life is full of messy, sudden changes, especially in relationships.

Below is how the revised version of the poem reads today.  What do you think?

Fallow Field

The old car is there,

where she left it,

out by the old shed,

breeding rust–obscured

from the roadway by the rye grass

that grows up all around.

Long triangular tentacles

blowing and bending

in the hot breeze, as

sunlight filters in

through gathering clouds.

By now the grass has worked

up into the engine block.

The car

is planted now,

in this fallow field,

awaiting bulldozers.

They call this grass

“poverty grain,” and there’s

no small comfort in the fact

that it’s as tolerant

of poor soils

as she was of her marriage.

On the day she left,

she packed her whole life

into an old grip:  clothing,

framed photographs

of the children, her parents,

the salt cellar she’d bought

on her honeymoon in Rome.

While packing, she’d given

pause that her whole life

had become so

portable, where once there’d

been permanence.  And now,

she blows and bends–

rye grass on a midsummer afternoon.

##