This month in poetry: Words through the darkness
Excerpted from September 1, 1939
By W.H. Auden
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
These two stanzas are the final ones of the poem “September 1, 1939” written at the start of WW II by British poet W.H. Auden. The poem, whose full version has nine stanzas, is one people have turned to during many dark times including various wars and 9/11, and it was one of the first I went to after the violence at our Capitol on Jan. 6. Its lines hold imagery, history, metaphor, and rhythm and uses them all to express universal themes of light, power, evil and love in a way that few other poems do. Through it we are able to feel the deep darkness surrounding us, but also the light and potential that is present.
As Auden implies, our words may indeed sometimes be the only thing we have, and the most powerful thing. “All I have is a voice/To undo the folded lie,” he writes. So many of us have found and used our voices in these past four years, feeling a growing urgency to make them heard clearly and align them with our actions. This has been just as true and necessary at the local level, in many aspects of our communities. It seems there is a great deal these days to call out and unfold.
Within the lines “Hunger allows no choice/To the citizen or the police;/We must love one another or die,” there is the suggestion of deep physical hunger, yes, but also spiritual and societal hunger. If we don’t find lasting sustenance for our individual and collective spirits those parts of us will die. We are in desperate need of a world that speaks a resounding “No” to destructive, divisive, authoritarian behavior and “Yes” to leadership of integrity, love and competence. We need leaders who will shape and be shaped by the many people today who are already living examples of the lines, “Ironic points of light/Flash out wherever the Just/Exchange their messages.” When I read these lines, I picture images of words and light flying through the darkness from city to city.
The challenges are monumental, but the ground work is being laid for a new era. Perhaps borrowing from the past some of our very best language, will help guide us to a new language of aspiration and manifestation for these times, one that can help repair the damage while also empowering us to be the harbingers of the light filled work of justice and creative change that we so need.
Susan Jefts is a poet and educator who lives in the Adirondacks and Ripton, Vt. She has recently completed her first full-length book of poetry and runs workshops using poetry as a way to explore our relationships with nature, as well as other themes. Her website is manyriverslifeguidance.com.
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