Wystan

Every once in a while I get it in my head that I’m going to learn a poem by heart. Just now, I’ve been learning one by W. H. Auden. He wrote it in 1935, when probably he was still in Germany fucking lots of German boys (being a boy at the time himself, albeit an English one).

I wasn’t an English major and they didn’t have queer studies back in my day, so I wasn’t too familiar with this faggoty elder statesman of English poetry and in fact first learned about him from reading Christopher Isherwood’s memoirs in which they’re dear friends and sometimes lovers. Then I got a BBC recording of him reading things on the radio.

The delicious shock of hearing his voice, knowing the little bit about his life that I do, this opportunity to connect the cadence of his words, the timbre of his voice, to the living, breathing, fucking, creative, observant, moody, and a hundred-other-adjectives-that-make-up-someone’s-life, queer artist that he was really moved me. And since I’ve got the cd in my car, hearing him read the same poems over and over again as I went about my urgent, voluntary errands, just continued to move me, since, as I so often forget, poems, especially his, are meant to be heard over and over, said over and over, memorized so that they’re in your head, the rhythm a comfort, the content a renewed challenge to think more, go deeper, relate, renew, react.

As I say the words to the poem beginning, “Look, stranger, at this island now…” it’s just so damn good. It feels so damn good. You don’t think Wystan didn’t say those words himself hundreds and hundreds of times before he let the poem go? (And I’m sure, like every artist, he never really let it go, would always see something to tinker with.) It gives me such a marvelous, fabulous feeling to be saying those words again and again, just like he did, knowing how the very same words passed through his lips, lips that sucked cock, that kissed boys, that kissed Chris and probably sucked Chris’s cock.

Why think about sucking cock when the poem doesn’t have anything to do with sex? Doesn’t it, though? Who are we to say that his looking out at this view and writing this gorgeous poem didn’t have something to do with feeling himself, being able to live as himself, fuck who he wanted, without the conventions and constrictions of a disapproving society back home? Or if he was in England when he wrote it, that his sojourn in Germany in the wildness before the war, hadn’t opened his eyes in a way they never would have been if he’d stayed in England?

I expect that the whole time he was the beloved elder statesman of English poetry, no one really asked him about his lovers or his sexuality. I expect that aspect of his life (only the heart and soul!) was politely ignored, and he played along, giving the public what they wanted from him and keeping the rest private. Who knows, maybe he wanted to keep it private and maybe he would even want to keep it private if he was alive today. I haven’t the faintest. But for me, a queer artist myself, it is intensely meaningful to imagine his whole life, and not just the words out of context on the page.

And the magical thing is, the words on the page just by themselves are amazing and universal; imagining him as a whole person, with soul and sexuality and depth, makes them both universal and personal in a way that makes them even more universal. Art is funny that way!

Imagine me saying this poem as I stand alone in the kitchen looking out at our slightly scraggy back yard. Say it yourself. Say it hundreds of times!

Look, stranger, at this island now

The leaping light for your delight discovers,

Stand stable here

And silent be,

That through the channels of the ear

May wander like a river

The swaying sound of the sea.

Here at the small field’s ending pause

Where the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges

Oppose the pluck

And knock of the tide,

And the shale scrambles after the suck-

ing surf, and a gull lodges

A moment on its shear side.

Far off, like floating seeds the ships

Diverge on urgent voluntary errands;

And the full view

Indeed may enter

And move in memory as now these clouds do,

That pass the harbor mirror

And all the summer through the water saunter.

November 1935

Wystan, thank you for your poem, your queer life, and for having agreed to do some recordings so I can hear your voice even now that you’ve walked on. Dear reader, you can hear it, too, right here:

Published in: on March 13, 2012 at 10:36 AM  Leave a Comment  
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