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notes on / from the sensual man-in-the-street

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Blunted by mass-circulation at various points during our own low dishonest decade, Auden’s “September 1, 1939” nonetheless still has the power to raise my hackles, give me the cold shivers and the warm shakes all at once. Here’s some from the middle:

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

The best things, poetry or otherwise, veer just this way toward the peripheral parts of sense, the receding focal point, the dim heart of reason. What does the solipsism of love, the egotism of desire, have to do with the war, with the invasion of Poland? You’d have to be insane (insanely solipsistic, insanely egotistical) to think so, right? What a drawback of reasonableness in that turn from “universal love” to the next. What is Auden doing in the dive? Why is he drinking? Why is he “uncertain and afraid”?

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

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.

Ah listen to the way that the credos of the second of these stanzas repeat (syntactically, metrically, ideologically but with a slant) those in the first. “I will be true to my wife” twists into “There is no such thing as the State.”

The trick turn in the poem is what he does with the everyday. The previous masters of the everyday haunted by the outside, the wars raging at the margins, only got this halfway. Here the turn is total – the poem forgets itself, its origin, in the flipside, the real deal of chaining neurosis, repetitive speech-to-the-self. It is answering questions that no one has asked; it cannot seem to shut itself up.

The poem suggests parallelism or co-determination, but I’m not sure it’s that, I’m sure it’s meant to be heard as a false affiliation. The commuters’ fidelity or infidelity has nothing to do with what’s happening in Poland, what’s on the radio in the bar. Rather, the poem is performing the inwardness of the everyday, it’s suggesting the half-pious connections, the personal penances that we perform. I have seen, in the last few months, people give up booze in solidarity with the Gazans. I have read about the pledging of orgasms to the French General Strikes. Jokes or serious, there is a spot of truth expressed, almost vicariously, by these things. A truth about perspective, the way we run our worlds and run away from our worlds.

But…. on the other hand, one knows what Auden means, right? “We must love one another or die.” Too pat, way too pat. We are meant to hear it as pat. But we also know what he means, prismatically untangling himself in the bar, with the radio on, on fifty-second street.

A few stanzas ago, those buildings were proclaiming “The strength of Collective Man.” They were reshaped, pressed into service. Now they are sexually offensive, overbearing – they touch what they are not asked to touch.

Defenseless 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.

Ah a trick break. The same is the “Eros and dust” but not. It is the “Negation and despair.” Or both. Syntactically both. One set material yet metaphorical, poetic, anthopomorphic, the other abstract yet real, too distant, yet right. And it’s all couched in a passive-aggressive (but who is the aggression directed against? Who is the target?) unreasonably long extension – the wish, the “May I,” gets lost in itself, in the resistances that it wishes against.

There is no connection between the aspiration to let go of the “loved alone” in favor of the universal and the onslaught of violence just started in middle Europe. That is to say, there is all the connection in the world.

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 24, 2009 at 12:38 am

Posted in poetry

16 Responses

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  1. there is a speaker shift in that last stanza, it persists throughout the poem too. that ‘I’ is ambiguous, could be the poet, could be one of the Just exchanging messages, ironically connecting to ‘them,’ the war-torn ones, the mythical others, to ‘show an affirming flame,’ which sounds just like ‘i will be true to the wife,’ just as trite and desperate.
    the poem is unstable precisely by the dislocation of the speaker and his sense of ethics.
    the colons and semi’s push the thoughts forward, lurch the speeches along, but also pass voice from one ‘ironic point of light’ to another.
    it also seems to mimic the old testament (colons and semicolons were used for periods and pauses) in stark contrast to the moral ambiguity of the modern age. is the final benediction then negated? is it an ironic point of light or an affirming flame? it rhymes nicely with ‘same’ 2 lines before it so it’s nice to say, but i wouldn’t consider it genuine.


    March 24, 2009 at 3:24 am

  2. solipsistic

    not solipcistic

    You cannot just live in your own private spelling world. Tut!


    March 24, 2009 at 2:17 pm

  3. He revised it to “love one another and die.”


    March 24, 2009 at 4:37 pm

  4. Hi there anonymous,

    You’re not wrong about the “I” being potentially slippery. I love that sort of thing.

    but also pass voice from one ‘ironic point of light’ to another.

    Nice, yes….

    Other anon,

    Oh shit, sorry. I was trying to be careful with that word too! Anyway, I’ve fixed it….


    It’s sort of like the version of “Revolution” where Lennon says “Doncha know that you can count me out…. innnnnn” no?


    March 24, 2009 at 4:50 pm

  5. “It’s sort of like the version of “Revolution” where Lennon says “Doncha know that you can count me out…. innnnnn” no?”

    Um, no. It’s sort of like a late-blossoming Christianity that abandons a serious left baby for some humanist bathwater, actually.


    March 24, 2009 at 8:54 pm

  6. yes, ok, sure. do you really think it was serious though? I mean, I sort of know the remnants over here, at one hand or another, the wives and such of the old poetical left. You probably know who I mean. I’m not sure the poetical left is ever all that serious. Retrospectively or prospectively, hard to take them seriously I mean. As the man said, it make nothing happen, which has always been true, no? Coterie work etc… So take it as such….


    March 25, 2009 at 12:14 am

  7. Oh Ads, tell it to St-Just!


    March 25, 2009 at 12:44 am

  8. Can’t! He dead! Low bandwidth world that was that he organted on in, no?


    March 25, 2009 at 7:49 am

  9. No actually though, that’s what I’ve been trying to get to – 9/1/39 is sorta a lot about scale right? The scale of poetry / scale of events. What the poet can reach…


    March 25, 2009 at 7:55 am

  10. A bit of a contradiction, I’d say, the “makes nothing happen” phrase and the fact that you’re quoting it 50 years after the fact in support of an argument about the unseriousness of left poets.

    It might be much harder to make nothing happen than it first appears. Anybody can make something happen. Nothing, on the other hand, takes work. Serious work.

    But who passes this test of seriousness? Not many, it would seem.


    March 25, 2009 at 4:48 pm

  11. Hmmmm…. Yeah I was mostly arguing about the fact that I find it a little hard to take Auden’s early leftism (like say Spender’s) a bit tough to take all that seriously for a variety of reasons, immanent and external. I wish I could take it more seriously, in some ways, actually… That’s all I was saying… It was an odd time in London, an odd time in Brooklyn Heights…


    March 25, 2009 at 11:44 pm

  12. Well, yeah, Auden’s a weird example. And I’d agree that the leftism of writers and artists is often disappointing, but then again so is, in general, the leftism of the left. Capitalism is still here, after all.


    March 26, 2009 at 1:27 am

  13. Ads that wish to ‘take it more seriously’ is precisely what’s being expressed here. It’s less the standard communism v capitalism debate, more the moral power of the individual in society.


    March 26, 2009 at 9:17 am

  14. Yes but in a self-dramatizing way. It is not so much expressed as performed I think. Do you see what I mean? I will say more when I have a bit more time.


    March 26, 2009 at 9:19 am

  15. Of course, you’re right. We can tell by the rhetoric and rhetorical questioning. He performs because he doesn’t truly believe.


    March 26, 2009 at 6:24 pm

  16. Hm. Maybe I’m just repeating what Anon #1 said, or maybe I’m way out on a limb, but I’ve always read that “Love one another or/and die” as part of the semicolonned list that enumerates “the folded lie, / The romantic lie in the brain / Of the sensual man-in-the-street / And the lie of Authority…” After all, “Love one another…” is of a piece both syntactically and truth-wise with “There is no such thing as the State / And no one exists alone; / Hunger allows no choice / To the citizen or the police.”

    Which, if true, means that it doesn’t matter whether it’s baby or bathwater: it’s getting tossed.


    March 27, 2009 at 12:40 pm

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