Tag Archives: w h auden

Poetry and Politics

In “10 of the best political poems everyone should read”, the site Interesting Literature lists (amongst others) W. H. Auden’s “September 1st, 1939” and Rudyard Kipling’s fine poem “Recessional”. The latter poem is no mere glorification of British imperial might. The words “lest we forget” and Kipling’s references to long gone empires, and those “drunk on power” demonstrates that the poet recognises that empires and civilisations pass. We should not be arrogant but must maintain a “humble” and “contrite” heart.

You can read Interesting Literature’s post here, https://interestingliterature.com/2020/06/political-poems/.

I have written a number of poems touching on the subject of politics, including the below poem, which is entitled “When the Squire, Sitting By His Fire”:

When the squire
Sitting by his fire,
Rang the bell,
Who can tell
Whether the servant, summoned by his call
Had any desire
For the great hall to fall.

How easy ’tis to condemn
Past men.
But tell me
would you reject
The established imperfect
For a future that may never be?

(The above Poem can be found in my collection “Light and Shade”, which is available here

https://www.amazon.com/Light-Shade-serious-not-poems/dp/B08B37VVKV.

Is Poetry Socialist?

A little while back, a friend and I sat enjoying a curry and a bottle of wine. At some point during our conversation my friend remarked on how poetry is, in some sense “socialist” or “left-wing”. At the time I said that I didn’t agree with his perspective, and our conversation moved on to other topics.

Rather than entering into an exposition of my own views on the above question, I would be interested in hearing those of my readers. Is poetry in some sense “Socialist” or “left-wing”? If so why?

Obviously there have been (and remain) Conservative poets (for example Philip Larkin). Likewise men such as W. H. Auden where of the left. However, leaving aside the fact that poets hold different political perspectives, is there some sense in which poetry appeals more to those on the left of politics? Or is the art form, in some sense profoundly Conservative with a big or a small c?

Those To Whom Evil Is Done

Much of my writing is based on the premise that evil begets evil or, as Auden so eloquently puts it, in his poem, “September 1, 1939”:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return”. (See http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/september-1-1939).

I do not contend that free will is an illusion, that we are prisoners of genetics or society. Many individuals who have experienced horrific abuse do not go on to become abusers. However the fact that significant numbers of the abused become perpetrators demonstrates that a vicious cycle can, often be set in train with parents abusing children who then go on to become abusers.

To take an example from my own writing. In my short story, Samantha, Sam is drugged and forced into prostitution by her brutal pimp, Barry. Barry possesses not a single redeeming feature. He is, quite simply a monster. Barry has, however been abused by his mother as a child (she locks him, as a 6-year-old little boy in a dark cupboard). From this ill treatment flows Barry’s view that,

“All women are bitches”.

He has experienced no love in his life and the brutality of Barry’s upbringing has destroyed the feelings of compassion which most of us, to a greater or lesser degree possess.

To take another example, in my story, The Hitch Hiker, a deeply troubled young woman exacts a terrible vengeance on men who stop to offer her a lift.

Both Barry and the Hitch Hiker demonstrate the validity of Auden’s view that, “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return”. Anyone reading much of my work might reach the conclusion that I deny the possibility of redemption, I do not. Deeply damaged individuals who have done terrible things can (and do) reform and go on to lead good and productive lives. However it does appear that a small number of people are, for whatever reason beyond help. I am speaking here of psychopaths. In contrast to most killers who can (and frequently do) show remorse for their actions the psychopath is incapable of genuine remorse (he may feign it to gain advantage but that is a wholly different issue). Barry would appear to fall into the category of psychopath, his psychopathic tendencies being derived from the abuse suffered as a child. He is, almost certainly beyond redemption.

Is Barry responsible for his actions? As a believer in free will my answer has to be yes on the basis that other equally damaged persons do not act in the manner he does.

Perhaps in the coming decades lawyers will argue that their clients should not be punished for their actions as they possess a genetic predisposition for psychopathy or, due to the lack of a particular chemical in the brain they can not be held responsible for their actions. Maybe this will happen, however (assuming such a thing exists), if certain individuals with a genetic predisposition to psychopathy commit horrendous crimes while others do not (as I suspect will be the case) then society will need to relinquish simplistic explanations for criminal behaviour and accept that “evil” stems from many and varied causes.

I am no scientist. I am, however suspicious of determinist theories whether they be Marxist or Eugenic in origin. “Evil” will, I suspect be forever with us and, in decades to come we will still be discussing why people do horrendous acts.

About Suffering They Were Never Wrong

“About suffering they were never wrong,

The old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood …”.

 

Those lines of W H Auden came powerfully to mind when I received a call from The National Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Children, the NSPCC, who are running a campaign in schools to explain to very young children what abuse is and how to report it. As a donor to the NSPCC they wanted me to increase my direct debit to assist in paying for Childline in schools. The Society say they are receiving an increasing number of calls from children aged around 11 which has prompted the Childline initiative in schools.

The tragedy of the situation is that many children blame themselves for the abuse or somehow try to convince themselves that it is normal. Here in Crystal Palace it is a lovely sunny day but those lines of Auden, quoted above just keep replaying themselves in my head. Terrible suffering of children does go on while we go about our daily lives. As I write this a child, somewhere is being physically or sexually abused. I can give money. I only wish that I could do more.

 

For Auden’s poem please visit http://english.emory.edu/classes/paintings&poems/auden.html

Poetry Makes Nothing Happen

In his poem, In Memory of W B yeats, the poet, W H Auden wrote

“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.”

 

Auden is one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, I do, however take issue with his view that poetry (and writing more generally) makes nothing happen.

In Oliver Twist Dickens portrayed the English poor law in all it’s brutality. He laid bare the cruelty of the workhouse and the corruption of those who, like the fictional Mr Bumble the Beadle grew fat by abusing the system. Oliver Twist is unremitting in it’s highlighting of the abuses perpetrated by Bumble and his ilk, however Dickens humour also helps to ensure that the novel remains widely read to this day. Who can forget his description of little Oliver daring to ask for more gruel in the workhouse? Dickens was not responsible for bringing about the abolition of the workhouse, however Oliver Twist undoubtedly stirred the conscience of Victorian England, indeed the novel continues to move our conscience in the early years of the 21st century.

To take another example, George Orwell’s terrifying portrayal of totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a world in which much of the population of Oceania is constantly observed by the telescreen, influenced and continues to influence those who oppose totalitarianism. Although a man of the left Orwell has been cited by people of both left and right in defence of pluralism. Auden’s view that “poetry makes nothing happen” was not shared by the regimes who banned Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and his much shorter novel Animal Farm. The former Soviet Union and other authoritarian states believed that writing can make things happen, why else would they have prohibited the works of Orwell and other critics of authoritarianism?

Doubtless the greater prosperity enjoyed by democratic societies had a profound impact on the populations of Communist societies. Despite the attempted jamming of western media pictures of life outside the Communist bloc did penetrate behind the iron curtain. The inhabitants of Czechoslavakia, Poland and other states which came under Soviet influence wanted consumer goods, however the intellectuals among the populace desired freedom and the writings of Orwell, Kafka and others kindled in them this desire for democracy.

In conclusion it can be said that Auden is right in the sense that writing in and of itself makes nothing happen. However the influence of authors such as Dickens and Orwell should not be underestimated. When combined with political and economic forces words can (and are) powerful tools  for good or ill.