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
April 29, 2016
For the fifth and final week of National Poetry Month this year, I’m featuring one of my own poem, “Villanesca.”
This poem was published last summer in Cimarron Review, thanks to poet Alfred Corn, who chose the poem in his role as a contributing editor.
Alfred also provided some critical guidance to help me finish this poem, which I’d been working on for several years. The poem sprang from a conversation overheard between my friend and colleague, Jan Almquist, and his daughter on the train to DC a decade ago.
We were traveling down to pitch the design of The Nature Conservancy’s Annual Report when Jan got a call from his then teenage daughter about leaving her score for Enrique Granados’s “Spanish Dances,” at home and asking him to bring it to her. That was all I needed to prompt the poem, although it obviously went in a different direction.
Sometime later, after boarding a plane, I found a program of Granados on the audio channel featuring the fabulous interpretations of De Larrocha. Obviously, I had to get that into the poem somehow and it helped build another layer.
As mentioned in last week’s post, I shared this poem with poet A.V. Christie a few months before her death. I was very touched by her response to the poem. She wrote, “I love the tone of this poem & the subtle/textured types of communication it’s built up out of…I experience it…it’s so active & in motion…”
Here is my poem, “Villanesca,”
Before the cabin door shuts, I check messages.
You forgot your score for “Spanish Dances” on the piano,
left open at the “Villanesca,” a piece with pastoral repetitions
you found hard to reproduce. Your rough interpretation
reminds me of your voice and its effect (or its affect).
Headphones on, I listen to Alicia de Larrocha
performing Granados. The program host has a soothing lisp,
enunciating every syl – la – ble, like a reporter on NPR.
Quoting from a review, she says De Larrocha’s playing speaks
to “a glorious inevitability achieved through immense discipline.”
“Can you bring the score to my rehearsal?” you ask
via voice mail, forgetting my flight this afternoon.
Unlike De Larrocha you always forget the score,
ignore signals, struggle to find the right notes, refuse
to face the music of our own inglorious inevitability.
I press delete, choosing not to repeat past mistakes;
at least, for the duration of my flight.
–Scott Edward Anderson
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.
Last month, Samantha and I went to Israel. It was my first time in the country and my first visit to the Holy Land.
I was struck by the conundrum that is Israel. On the one hand, there is the history of the land and the history on the land.
Three of the world’s major religions were built from the earth there and sprouted and diverged as any people do, resulting in conflict and misunderstanding.
On the other hand, there is evidence of these religious factions co-existing much like that bumper sticker popular a few years ago featuring the message “Co-Exist” and a pantheon of religious symbols, as if to ask, can’t we all just “get along”?
In Old Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, for instance, ancient mosques and churches and synagogues sit cheek by jowl along the sea approach. And the market in Jerusalem is filled with Muslim and Jewish merchants distinguished perhaps only by their working hours and some specific merchandise.
Concurrent with this trip, Samantha asked me to write a poem to serve as the peace prayer at her daughter, Erica’s Bat Mitzvah, which happens to be this weekend. I was honored that not only Samantha, but my stepdaughter, too, wanted me to participate in her special day.
I’d been thinking about the subject on my first days in Israel, much of which was spent on my own as Samantha was in a conference.
But it wasn’t until our last day, in Jerusalem, when a tour guide we’d hired read a poem of Yehuda Amichai’s called “An Arab Shepherd is Searching for His Goat on Mt. Zion,” as we stood on a hill under the Moses Montefiore windmill overlooking Mt. Zion, that a poem started to come to me.
(Amichai is significant, too, because I gave Erica’s brother Max a book of Amichai’s poetry for his Bar Mitzvah a few years ago.)
Here is my poem “Peace On Mt. Zion,” which I dedicate to Erica and will read at her ceremony:
PEACE ON MT. ZION
(for Erica, on her Bat Mitzvah)
Peace is such an abstract word,
made concrete by the story
of an Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
told by a guide overlooking
Sultan’s Pool, outside the old city
of Jerusalem, from Amichai’s poem
about searching for a goat
and a child on Mt. Zion.
Their “temporary failure”
strikes me first, a lasting impression
lingering over the ramparts of the old city
–cradle and shelter of all origins.
So much begins searching
for a goat and a child on a mountain—
new religions, sacrifices, whole
cloths to cover the void,
until the child is found and the goat,
hiding together among the bushes.
The father and the shepherd
cry together and laugh,
and for a moment, all is quiet,
except for their voices,
which you can still hear
echoing over centuries of stone.
–Scott Edward Anderson
December 20, 2014
(At least, at the time of this posting, I’m working on the penultimate poem of the year and, with one more week to go, I think it’s safe to say I’ll complete it.)
Why? Why the heck did I take on something like this? Why would anyone take on such a task?
Last year I spent the month of April writing a poem a day. That was 30 poems, most of which were quick reflections on what was happening in my life, the world around me or in my mind.
This was different. 52 poems. One per week. And at someone else’s bidding.
That someone else was poet Jo Bell. A year ago, Jo offered a challenge to some of her friends and followers: join a closed group on Facebook wherein poets would be given weekly prompts and asked to write and post their poem to the group. We were also asked to read, comment on, and critique each others work.
The idea was, as Jo herself put it, part of “a range of crowd-sourced projects to raise the standards of, and promote the pleasures of contemporary poetry…52 uses social media to connect writers and to raise their standard of writing through creative friction.”
Every week, Jo posted “a new exercise to help you write a new poem. You write it your way – to the very best of your ability. You improve, you expand, you develop.”
Along with over 540 other members, I took up that challenge. Each Thursday morning (UK time), we were given a new prompt and some examples of how other poets may have tackled the subject. (You can see all the prompts here: 52.)
The prompts were one word or a phrase or just an idea. Some of the challenges were excruciatingly hard, especially those that asked the poet to get out of his or her own skin, style or comfort zone. Others fit nicely into a familiar pattern, yet encouraged the poets take their own style to a new level.
The first observation I have about this group is what a wonderful collection of people Jo attracted. As the year went on, many of us grew close and supportive of each other’s work and struggles. Some of us have became friends outside the group.
The second is how gratifying to get almost instant feedback on a new poem or idea of a poem. 52 was like a private workshop that helped flag lazy writing, praise winning phrases, and challenge each other to improve our work.
The third observation is how HARD this challenge was to accomplish. Some weeks came easier than others — being on vacation, honeymoon, or holiday certainly helped — other times, when the week was particularly busy at work or something else was going on (my wedding!), it was more difficult.
But I did it. I wrote a poem every week. How many of the poems will actually survive is another issue. At least one, “Weather,” from the sixth week of the year, has been accepted for publication. Others I’ve read at readings to some applause.
One poem, “Blended Family,” written in response to the week eleven prompt, “Songs of Praise,” was read at our wedding by Samantha’s eldest daughter. (You can read it here.)
Writing a poem each week was certainly worth doing, but I don’t think I’ll try it again. I don’t write well this way, with the pressure of a looming deadline (poems had to be posted before the following week’s prompt), I prefer to let the poem come to me and steep, and work on it as I see fit.
And yet, this challenge has had a positive impact on my work. It has freed my work somewhat — many of the challenges were not the subject of my past poetry; some forced me to write about things I never thought to tackle in poetry.
I’m grateful to Jo for the challenge and to those who read my work and shared thoughtful comments on my posts — or called me out when I wasn’t hitting the mark.
There’s a handful of members with whom I’ll stay in touch and perhaps even continue to share poems. Most of them I would not have met were it not for Jo’s group and the platform of Facebook.
As for the poems, I plan to spend the next year going over them with a sharp pencil and a sharper eye, finding the gems, excising the fakes, and possibly building this group of 52 poems into something worthy of the group and this very special experience.
June 13, 2014
Jonathan Hobratsch, writing in the Huffington Post, celebrated National Poetry Month by posing “5 Questions for Poets” by readers of poetry.
I’ve tried to answer each of his questions (this is the 5th and final). You can find my answers to other sets of questions, here, here, here, and here. Here’s a link to Jonathan’s original Part 5 post and the other poets’ answers: 5 Questions for Poets.
And here are my answers:
1. How hard should you work at a poem?
As hard as it takes to get the poem where it wants to go and get the author out of the way.
2. According to The Atlantic, over 50 percent of people think computers will be able to write great works of literature in 50 years. Do you hold with the majority prognostication?
Great works of literature? I doubt it. But then, when artificial intelligence takes over, great will be defined by a different standard.
3. What would poets like for undergrads to know about poetry?
Poems are pleasure, as Donald Hall wrote in “The Unsayable Said: an essay,” “Poems are pleasure first, bodily pleasure, a deliciousness of the senses. Mostly, poems end by saying something (even the unsayable) but they start as the body’s joy, like making love.” I think if students had this in mind — maybe a few teachers too — poetry would be better taught and more widely read.
4. What interests outside of literature work well with writing poetry?
Many and various interests outside literature work well with poetry, sports, romance, hiking, travel, even work. I found my work with The Nature Conservancy exposed me to so many of nature’s wonders and details that it proved a storehouse of inspiration for my poetry. But even now, when I work for a Big Four firm’s cleantech practice, I’m in one of my most productive periods. It’s all about paying attention.
5. If you were poet during a different era, when/where would you want to exist?
In a workshop long ago Gary Snyder accused me of having a 17th or 18th century sensibility as a poet. So, maybe that’s where I’d find a home. But I’m very happy where I am right here and now.
June 4, 2014
I’m going to continue to answer these questions (this is Part 3 for me, but out of sequence with the original; you can find my answers to other sets of questions, here, here, and here). Here’s a link to Jonathan’s original Part 4 post and the other poets’ answers: 5 Questions for Poets.
And here are my answers:
1. April 23 was Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary. If you went back in time and could ask him one question, what would that question be?
How the hell did you do it?
2. What bothers you most in your literature community?
That I don’t get to spend more time in it – whether it’s my virtual community “52” or the one where I live in Brooklyn. There are some wonderful poets – wonderful people! – in those communities and I really wish I had more time to hang out with them. In the larger poetry community: careerism, cronysism, and churlishness.
3. Which poets, alive or dead, are overrated/underrated?
I’m sure I’ll offend with this comment but I find Charles Bukowski completely overrated and over-read. And his influence is dreadfully felt. Among contemporaries, I also can’t see what all the fuss is about Dorothea Lasky, there doesn’t seem to be much there there. (I can see the email daggers massing in my in-box or, for that one.)
4. Are prizes like Pulitzer, NBA, NBCC are good for poetry. Is there discrimination against women poets, non-white poets, gay poets?
Prizes are for poets, not poetry. It seems like a popularity contest more than anything. I’m sure there is discrimination; you find that wherever there are human beings, cliques, factions, and dominant cultural hierarchies. Others have VIDA stats and ratios to prove it.
5. Is poetry useful?
Poetry is neither as useful as a tool nor as useless as a whim. Of course, I couldn’t live without it.