Monday night I attended a belated celebration of the 100th birthday of W.H. Auden (born Feb 21 1907, died 1973) at the 92nd St. Y. To be honest I was unsure about attending because I've been increasingly anxious about focusing on my current film project and am wary about distracting myself with other activities (including, ahem, this blog). But attend I did and I'm glad I did. I can't remember the last time I was in the presence of such well-spoken literati as Shirley Hazzard, Oliver Sacks and many others - who all have this Manhattan literati form of speaking, upright, wry, direct, vividly self-possessed and relishing each carefully chosen word that rolls off their tongues. It was like opening a window to a musty part of my existence that I hadn't peered into since my college days in the Berkshires, attending many a poetry reading in many a mahogany-panelled row house lounge. I was left with many thoughts about what might be like to live a thoughtful life (something I don't uphold despite my pretensions -- I don't have so much thoughts as relentless anxieties.Â I'd rather have butterflies than bees). Many of Auden's poems were read, but I'd like to share the one that made the biggest impression on me. It exemplifies the poet quite nicely: plain-spoken yet eloquent, reflecting a sensitivity that's delicate and melancholy and resilient nonetheless, taking constant refuge from the world's disappointments in the act of inspired expression.
Their Lonely Betters
As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade To all the noises that my garden made, It seemed to me only proper that words Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.
A robin with no Christian name ran through The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew, And rustling flowers for some third party waited To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.
Not one of them was capable of lying, There was not one which knew that it was dying Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme Assumed responsibility for time.
Let them leave language to their lonely betters Who count some days and long for certain letters; We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep: Words are for those with promises to keep.
In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise
On Auden's grave marker, in Kirchstetten, lower Austria