CLOSE READING FOR MODULE ONE

CLOSE READINGS FOR MODULE ONE

WELCOME TO THE CLOSE READINGS FOR MODULE ONE

I’m excited to share some work that I love with you. This is work that I find inspiring and I hope you will too.

I have included a long reading of a W. H. Auden poem (that you can either read or listen to). I encourage you to start with this.

I have also included, as a kind of dessert, a short reading of two other poems, a Sapho poem and a Rumi poem, which you will find after the close reading of the Auden poem.


1) CLOSE READING OF W.H. AUDEN'S "IN MEMORY OF W. B. YEATS": CREATING ART IN A CHALLENGING WORLD (TEXT) (CLICK TO OPEN AND READ)

In this first close reading, we will look at a poem, “Elegy for W. B. Yeats” by one of my favorite poets, W. H. Auden. We’ll learn from Auden’s own techniques as a poet, and we’ll consider the place of poetry in a challenging world.

W. B. Yeats was born in 1865 and was one of the first and most important modernist poets; he was deeply engaged in the Irish politics of his period and became one of the most important inspirations for Auden, who was born in 1907.

If Yeats was one of the first modernist poets, writing at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, Auden was a generation and a half younger. His father fought in World War I when Auden was a child, and Auden came of age when modernism was in full swing. He really looks forward to the rest of the 20th and 21st centuries to consider the role of art.

The elegy interests me on a number of levels. I chose it for this first week partly because it explores the place and role of poetry—and art in general—in the world. It also walks a careful line between darkness and light, as well as despair and determined hope and praise. One of the things I’d like you to pay attention to this week is how writing fits into your life, and what you believe your writing can—and does—do.

Yeats died in January of 1939 when it was clear that Europe was again on the brink of a major war. Yeats’ death becomes an occasion not only to mourn the individual poet, but also to explore the role of art in a tumultuous world.

The poem is written in three parts. The first part talks about Yeats on the day of his death and considers the life of the poet now that he is dead.

The second part of the poem addresses Yeats himself and takes a more pessimistic view of art.

The final section of the poem, written in more regular rhymes and meter, addresses the reader and makes a case for the value of poetry in a difficult world.

***

Here is the poem. I’ll read the whole poem to you. Just listen and enjoy it.

In Memory of W. B. Yeats
W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973

I
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

II
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
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.

III
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

***

I’d like you each to take a moment and read the poem again to yourself. What do you notice? What do you like? Where do you get stuck?

Take a few moments to pay attention to the poem line by line.

There are so many great lines. Here are some of my favorites just from the first section:

“Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests—”

I am immediately transported from the illness to the forest. I reflect on the amazing vastness of our experiences—and the life that exists even in the middle of the darkest, coldest winters.

“An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed;”

This is a great description of death—again we can feel the juxtaposition between the everyday life of nurses and rumors and the sick body that is leaving itself and becoming like a nation engaged in a deadly civil war.

Here’s another great line:

“When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
Bourse,”

Listen to all the harsh “b” sounds. We can feel Auden’s disdain for the stock market, for business that is disconnected from the important, and more sacred work of the poet and of the body.

Continuing on, Auden writes:

“each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
freedom,”

Here the many “s”s create a more slippery sound. This is a typical Auden line—smart, sharp, and ambivalent at the same time.

That “almost” is telling—today we live in an age and culture in which we are encouraged to be wholehearted. While I value wholeheartedness, and will no doubt encourage you to be wholehearted in this course, I also value ambiguity, ambivalence, and honesty to see the impossibility of complete wholeheartedness or freedom. Auden reminds us of the wisdom and honesty of ambivalence; who is ever completely free or completely convinced of anything?

The “cell” becomes the prison cell (which reappears in the last lines of the poem), and also the cells of an organism, which both are and are not independent.

Auden is always aware of how the individual fits into, is shaped by, and in turn shapes society. Auden is fiercely sharp and does not stomach illusion. He is also a poet of great moral responsibility. He makes us question: How do our actions affect our world and one another? How do our words affect our world and one another?

The first part of the poem focuses on Yeats’s death in the middle of winter.

It wonders how the poetry, no longer attached to the poet, will live on “modified in the guts of the living.”

This is something that all writers must contend with even before we die: how will our words be read?

Once we write our poems or our stories, they have a life independent of us.

This is something that we will talk about again: what is our intention for our work? How much control do we have over that intention? Can we let our work have a life of its own?

***

The second part of the poem turns to address Yeats.

“You were silly like us. Your gift survived it all”

There is a juxtaposition throughout this section between the life and the art.

Yeats was a normal person, like us, yet his gift was abnormal.

He was “hurt into poetry” and yet his poetry did not substantially change the conditions that inspired him to create it.

This is a conundrum for Auden at this point in the poem, and I think for many writers. We are often hurt into our art. What then, do we do with that hurt? Do our creative acts have the power to be transformative?

In this part of the poem, Auden suggests that art—and poetry, in particular, might not be transformative:

“poetry makes nothing happen.”

This, of course, is a concern: can we change the world through our art? Auden was particularly worried about this in 1939.

He had spent several years in the 1930s in Berlin. He had seen the rise of the fascists and he had seen them reading the great German poetry.

If the Nazis were reading and appreciating great, spiritual poetry—Rilke, for example, was often a favorite—what role, then, did poetry have?

But as soon as Auden makes this proclamation that poetry makes nothing happen, he assigns poetry a different place:

“it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper”

Poetry has and creates its own river that is not part of and not of interest to executives or those at the bourse; it has its own spring and flow.

It is a “way of happening, a mouth.”

Here Auden reminds me of the Buddhist notion of presence and being. Poetry’s power is its “way of happening” and not its causal effect on the world—its “way of happening” is enough and will create whatever good karma can come of it.

The mouth at the end of the stanza can be whatever we want it to be: a hungry mouth, opening to be fed, a kissing mouth, kissing the beloved, a singing mouth, praising. It is the part of us that opens with wonder and enthusiasm to the world.

Many poems have mouth images: what is the mouth in this poem doing for you?

What is the role of poetry in your life?

What part of the body would you assign to this role?

***

Each part of the poem has its own poetic form and the third part is the most formal in its regular meter and rhyme.

The heavily stressed lines are trochaic—meaning that they start with a stressed syllable, not the traditional unstressed syllable of iambs, which so much of English poetry is written in.

The shorter lines, each with four beats, also are more formal and keep the poem moving. The regular rhyme scheme, aa, bb, give the lines a sense of closure and simplicity.

But Auden is never simple, and one of his great gifts is the way he works against the very regularity he creates.

The poem addresses the earth.

“Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.”

I love the slant rhyme between lie and poetry—does poetry lie down? Does poetry tell the truth or lie?
Does poetry rest or not?

But if the poet is being buried, an empty vessel, the world around him is not only cold and dark, as in the first stanza, but now a “nightmare.”

“All the living nations wait,/ Each sequestered in its hate.”

Auden is not afraid to be direct.

“Intellectual disgrace/ Stares from every human face.”

Auden’s poem runs the full range of emotion and expression—they are not afraid to take on the biggest—or the smallest—topic or to call a spade a spade.

I like to take his poems as a challenge—can I stretch out of my comfort zone? Can I be angry, indignant, self-righteous, politically active, loving, quiet, self-deprecating, questioning, or full of grace in my poems? Can I yell and sing? Can I write in different forms? Can I try different models?

In the second and third stanza of this third section, Auden is appropriately upset about the political situation in the world.

***

I want to step back and tell you a bit about Auden’s own political involvement and the trajectory of his career as a writer.

Auden was born in 1907. He was 20 years younger than the high modernists like Eliot and forty years younger than Yeats.

He was the first generation of writers to grow up in the wake of the disillusionment and fragmentation of modernist art that came about as a response to the “Great War”—the war to end all wars; the war that decimated an entire generation; the war that introduced the machine gun, trench warfare, tanks, and chemical warfare.

Whatever illusion of progress that the Victorian period held onto was shattered. Art itself fragmented.

Auden started writing at an early age and was clearly “gifted” (to use a word he uses in this poem). His father went off to World War I to serve as a medical officer when Auden was seven or eight. Around the same time, Auden started attending boarding schools.

He started writing poetry as a teenager and his early juvenilia shows the strong influence of Yeats. He was also strongly influenced by Thomas Hardy and others, but Yeats remained one of his strongest influences for many years.

Auden attended Oxford, where he was quickly recognized as a rising poet. He sent his first book of poems for publication to T. S. Eliot, who by then was one of the most famous poets and was working in publishing. Eliot turned down the manuscript but encouraged Auden to keep working on it, which Auden did. A few years later he submitted it again and Eliot accepted it.

Auden’s early work, thus, was written not only under the influence of the high modernists but explicitly for the most famous high modernist poet, T. S. Eliot.

Auden’s early work is often oblique and fragmented. They are lyric poems of miscommunication, of desolate landscapes, of secrets and spies, and of fragmentation.

His early poems are brilliant and I find them deeply moving. In fact, when I first read them, I fell in love with them. But they circle around themselves and keep coming against dead ends.

After his first book of poems—and some dense prose—Auden re-invented himself. He moved away from the legacy of modernism with its fragmented communication. In essay after essay from the early thirties, he talks about wanting to connect with an audience. He starts to write more accessible poems.

He becomes the poet spokesperson for his generation, a voice on the left who has a vision of community and fellowship.

When the Civil War in Spain broke out, he went to witness the fighting and to aid the leftists through his writing. He wrote about his time there but left feeling disillusioned. He had seen the ways in which the people fighting Franco turned on one another. He started to wonder about the role of poetry and whether it would be able to fulfill his hopes for it.

He was also increasingly uncomfortable in his role as a national poet and figurehead. Partly this was because as a gay man in a country that still outlawed gay love, he did not want to be—nor could he authentically be— a normative figurehead. The secrecy and oblique nature of his early poems in good part is an expression of being gay in a society in which it was illegal to be a gay man, and in which the deepest expressions of love and physicality of gays needed to be clandestine.

Even aside from his sexual orientation, Auden was in many ways an anti-authoritarian, and in the thirties in England, the most famous poet was still something of a national celebrity to whom people looked for answers. But Auden was increasingly concerned about the political situation in Europe and did not have easy public answers—much as he always was a poet deeply concerned in the social and moral public world.

Auden’s great dismay at the hate and violence that he saw brewing in Europe is expressed in the second and third stanza of this part of the poem.

“And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye/”

People have become locked and frozen. The “cold dark” days of the first stanza have frozen people from their own compassion so that they cannot even cry. For them, the river of poetry has stopped flowing.

But in the next stanza, Auden directly addresses poets—and makes a great claim for what poets and poetry can do.

“Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;”

Even in the face of the nightmare that the world is experiencing, the poet can “still persuade us to rejoice.”

Just as Ireland “hurt” Yeats “into poetry,” the poets that Auden are addressing—in his time and in the future, including us—are to follow right into the bottom of the night.

He advises us to go into the dark, and from those dark places to rejoice.

“With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;”

To write poetry—to create art—is to transform the soil into vineyards and create lush fruit.

The juxtapositions that we looked at in the first stanza are heightened here at the end of the poem: the harshest things—curses, unsuccess, distress, all produce fruit. If on one level “poetry makes nothing happen,” on another level it grows beautiful nourishing intoxicating gardens.

So the poem ends with more juxtapositions:

“In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.”

If at the beginning of this section, the seas of pity are “frozen,” by the end of the poem, the healing fountain starts in the “desert.”

Though he is in “prison” the “free man” will learn how to praise.

The role of poetry, according to this poem, finally, is to praise.

But this is not simple-minded praise that denies the harsh realities of the world.

Instead, this praise comes directly from following to the bottom of the night.

Nor is this a simple answer that untangles all the knots. The juxtapositions and challenges still remain.

In the end, Auden’s Elegy for Yeats is a celebration and affirmation of poetry in a difficult, complicated world.

***

Does this poem speak to you?

Perhaps yes. Perhaps no.

I share this poem with you in this first module partly because Auden has meant so much to me over the years.

In his course, we are going to be listening deeply to ourselves and exploring our own creative voices and visions.

Those voices and visions come in large part from the communities we come from, the books we read, and the authors we love.

Auden wrote this elegy for Yeats because he read so much Yeats and learned so much from him.

In this course, I want to share some of the writing that I love—and I will try to share different kinds of work, with different styles and voices. See also the suggested reading for this week.

I encourage you at the same time to continue to read outside the course, find work that you love, and be inspired by that.

I also think this poem is a nice place to start because it is a kind of complicated ars poetica, a poem about the role of poetry itself, for a complicated world.

What is your ars poetica—what does writing make happen in your life and world? What does it create? What does it transform?

*

Finally, another aspect of this poem that interests me is the way it places the poet in relation to his poems.

In the first section of the poem, Auden considers the ways in which Yeats’ poems will go on to have lives of their own lives, independent of the author, “among a hundred cities.”

All of us release our writing to have its own life when we publish it—as I said, this is something we will talk about—how do you set intentions for your writing and at the same time allow it to have a life of its own and let it go?

The poem also considers the relationship between the poet’s body and the poems.

Auden was one of the first poets to really write from the body’s experiences. In his later poems, he explores the body in more detail.

Indeed, if he turned away from modernism after his first book of poems towards a more communal authoritative role of poetry, then after 1939, he turned away from this more normalized role to embrace a model of poetry rooted more in what he called the “sacred importance” of the human body in its ordinary details.

In 1939, Auden also moved from England to America, where, though still recognized as a great poet, was not a national figure and had more personal freedom.

If he first turns away from modernism and then turns away from being the political poet of the left for England, he arrives at a model of poetry that is rooted in the personal, the physical, and the sacred.

Auden is particularly interesting to me because he interrogates his role as an artist, and tries on different roles at different times. His Elegy is just a small example of his versatility. Over the arc of his career, he really explored different ways to write and to be a poet—for himself and in the world.

Though he is not a female writer, I believe some of the work he did as a poet opened the space for women writers.

We are writing after a long tradition of a canon dominated by wealthy white male straight writers. There is nothing wrong with being a wealthy white male straight writer—but that is just one position, not the normative position, and that position comes with its own rewards and challenges, just as every position comes with.

What is your role and position as a writer?

I believe that all artists and writers need to have a vision for their art in relation to their life, their audience, the history of their art form, and their society.

Many of us are writing to claim our own stories, our own lives, our own experience, and our own voices.

We are also writing, like Auden, in a period that is very precarious.

How does our writing fit into our present world?

I encourage you to explore the traditions you write in: Why do you write? Why does it matter? Where does your writing come from?

These are not rhetorical questions, but questions that each person answers differently, and the more aligned you are with your personal answers, the more your writing will flourish.

You don’t need, of course, to have answers to these questions now—or ever. But it might be exciting to try them on and turn them over.

In turning them over, you explore voice, responsibility, art, the sacred, the body, equality, representation, the individual, and society. And questions are often more interesting than the answers.

The feminist movement coined the term “the personal is political” and we can say too that the political is personal.

As you write, as you meditate, as you read, as you move your body and connect the different parts of your life and self, you are also part of a larger political and social movement towards integration and wholeness and voice.

Or at least that is my vision.

Perhaps that is not your vision—take this as a jumping-off point—respond to it—let it help you develop your own, unique vision.

Take what works and let go of what doesn’t work for you.

Enjoy! Give yourself the freedom to explore, experiment, pontificate, laugh, weep, write in different forms, take some time for silence, and just be.

I have included some questions that come from this reading below and in an attached document that you can respond to on paper and help clarify your own relationship to art and creative expression.

‘Here are two more poems I want to share with you as you start Align Your Story.

Like “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,”  “Invocation,” by Sapho, is about the power of poetry. And like Auden’s poem, “Invocation” suggests that poetry and art come from a place of being hurt. Also like Auden’s poem, this is a finely crafted, evocative, inspirational piece of writing.

A Greek poet who was born in the early 600s BCE, Sapho was widely known and celebrated in her time. Today, most of her poems remain only in fragments.

Like Auden and Yeats, Sapho lived in a time of political turmoil, and like them, she wrote poetry to address the individual both inside and outside of society.

Here is the poem:

Invocation

As if yoked to twin swans a bronze carriage
hauled you back aslant the black earth
(the night air winded from its wing-beat rush)

you showed up breathless at my bedroom door
to ask again, How am I hurt?
What new heartaches have I summoned you for?

Sapho translated by Sherod Santos. p45 Greek Lyric Poetry. New York City. W W Norton, 2005.

***

How does inspiration come to you?

Does it put you in touch with a sacred place?

In this poem, the poet is addressing a god, a muse, a lover—the source of creativity. Or perhaps the poem is spoken in the voice of the god, muse, lover addressing the artist. Or perhaps these are two parts of the same self.

The choice of verbs is interesting: the carriage carrying this creative, generative force is as if “yoked” to swans, and “haul[s]” the force back “aslant” to “black” earth.

This is not an easy and perhaps not a willing journey, but it is indeed dramatic, and the night air is “winded” from the rush of the birds’ wings—as if the wind were created by some magical form of transportation.

In the second stanza, “you” appears at the bedroom door.

The creative force is intimate and it asks a mysterious question: “how am I hurt?” Notice the question is not how are you hurt, but how am I hurt. Whoever it is that is summoned is hurt. Perhaps the very source of our creativity and the sacred itself is a wounded being.

Or perhaps the poem is an invocation to part of the self that comes and visits itself and enters into a sacred dialogue with its own intimate inner life.

The poem ends by asking another question, “what new heartaches have I summoned you for?” We are summoned into this world for heartaches, and also for art.

If the poem expects hurt and heartaches, at the same time its invocation of a beautiful intimate meaningful night scene, its delicate language, and skillful music and imagery makes me as a reader, at least, not fear this hurt and heartache, but see the beauty in it, and accept it with a different kind of openness and compassion.

If poetry cannot dissolve the world of its pain, it can at least in its own creative act, transform it into something beautiful and shared, and as such less isolating.

The world becomes full of whatever spirit has come to the bedroom door, whether it is a god or a muse or part of ourselves or the long-dead poet Sapho.

Both the Auden poem and the Sapho poem are masterful, and I hope the richness of their language and imagery will inspire you.

They are also both slightly dark.

I want to end the module’s close readings with a poem by Rumi.

A mystic Sufi poet who lived in thirteenth-century Persia, Rumi is perhaps the world’s most famous poet and has been widely translated and read and loved in the Middle East and the Far East for seven centuries.

He was translated into English in the late nineteenth century and in the twentieth century by several translators. Coleman Barks started translating Rumi in the late 1970s and has since published more than a dozen books of Rumi poems and has really brought Rumi alive to the English-speaking world through his inspiring translations.

I want to leave you with this poem for this week, an invitation to open your door to mystery and to wake up.

What is this mystery, what is the threshold of this poem? Is it the creative life? Is it the dream life? Is it death? Is it this life itself? The poem is open to any level of interpretation.

​What it urges the reader is to wake up, to be aware, to ask for what we really want. To listen deeply. To be open oneself, like the open door.

The Breeze at Dawn
by Rumi translated by Coleman Barks

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

So as you are writing this week, stay connected to that threshold, that doorway of meaning. Enjoy!

2) QUESTIONS I ASK IN THE CLOSE READINGS (CLICK TO OPEN AND READ TEXT)

Questions from Close Reading of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”
​(See the downloadable file if you want to print the questions out)
I don’t have the expectation that you answer the questions on paper, unless you want to. Let these questions guide you to consider your own writing practices. Sit with these questions and see if they bring up anything for you.

I’d like you each to just take a moment and read the poem again to yourself. What do you notice? What do you like? Where do you get stuck?

We are often hurt into our art. What then, do we do with that hurt? Do our creative acts have the power to be transformative?

Many poems have mouth images: what is the mouth in this poem doing for you?

And what part of the body would you assign to your writing self?

Does your writing tell the truth? How and in what ways? And in what ways does it not?

Can you stretch outside of your comfort zone as a writer and person? Can you be angry, indignant, self righteous, politically active, loving, quiet, self deprecating, questioning, full of grace in my poems? Can you yell and sing? Can you write in different forms? Can you try different models?

I encourage you to explore the traditions you write in and from: Where does your writing come from? Why do you write? Why does it matter?

Another way to ask a slightly different, if related question, to the ones above is how does inspiration come to you? What inspires you? Is it an encounter with yourself? With language? With the sacred?

What is your ars poetica? What does writing make happen in your life and in the world? What does it create? What does it transform?

What life do you envision your writing having beyond you? What intentions do you want to set for your writing?

​How can your practices help you stay awake?







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