To commemorate the centenary of the birth of the poet W. H. Auden which falls on 21 February, 2007 I am posting my poem ‘Asking Auden’ written in 1984 and first published in A Temporary Grace in 1991.
‘Who,’ the inquisitive will ask
‘Was he?’ A writer who spoke honestly
Of his time and character
On this abrasive satellite,
Acknowledging the muck
Words can make whole.
Don’t get uptight
Or too plastered
As you prime your pals—
Chester, Igor, Rhoda;
Think of this poor planet,
Rotten with bad sorts
And horrors greater than any
Ever imagined before.
I can hear you bitching on,
Calling out the old complaints:
Frog effusions are offensive.
Why are people always late!,
Looking like a scruff and dropping
Ash upon the Muses.
Wystan, tend attentive ears,
Bless us on the earth below,
Sens a rhyming, mystic message,
Drop it in the Grand Canal
Where The Rake was first presented
And your hotel rooms were bad.
Let the gondala ferry forward
Through the reeking air and slush,
Bringing with it new precision,
Agape and eros, beauty,
Mastery of form and space.
Wystan! Please stop gossiping,
Listen to my plea,
Send unconscious powers aplenty,
Send the critics out to sea.
Suddenly a voice is heard,
Genial features looming:
These interruptions just won’t do.
Be yourself without my help.
Be true to truth and ready for the worst.
Work hard and don’t expect
That God is easily pleased!
With that he sighed, sat back, relaxed,
Ethereally smoked, and drank a glass of schnapps.
A promise then, remembering
The folds of that transatlantic face—
To summon up fresh energy
For the new century of the race
Called sapiens, whose language grabs
From past and future tense
Continuing words of grace.
Chester, Igor, Rhoda: Chester Kallman, Igor Stravinsky, Rhoda Jaffe
The Rake: The Rake’s Progress, opera premiered in Venice September 11, 1951, libretto Auden/Kallman