W.H. Auden Clearly States the Problem

There is a special place in my heart for the poet W.H. Auden (See my previous post on The More Loving One here) because for my dollar he deals, as poets go, most directly with the conundrum of the human spirit in the age of technology. And we can hardly say to have faced up to this problem in our own time. There are articles published all the time which nobody reads about the disturbing correlations between the use of social media with depression and anxiety, especially among young people, and it’s no wonder why. But things are not poised to get any better any time soon. Quite the opposite. And as time goes on we continue to come up with canned excuses for keeping certain types of technology in our lives which only act as a weight around our neck. We must obviously bow to the god of convenience.

One of my favorite meditations on this subject is Auden’s preface to The Sea and the Mirror, a poetical commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In it Auden questions whether or not science and art are sufficient to fill our desperate need for meaning. O what authority gives existence its surprise? / Science is happy to answer / That ghosts who haunt our lives / Are handy with string and wire. But this is hardly satisfying. Our wonder, our terror remains. If we turn to art then for an answer still we will meet The lion’s mouth whose hunger / No metaphors can fill.

I am sometimes put off by poetry because to me there is nothing worse than trying too hard. And there is a lot of poetry that tries very hard to be poetry and that comes across in reading. But Auden is one of the exceptions. His style is effortless. I don’t think there is one line where he takes liberty with my trust as a reader. There are no easy answers. And I find a good dose of old-fashioned congenial Britishness is never a bad companion on one’s quest for meaning anyway. Enjoy:

The aged catch their breath,

For the nonchalant couple go

Waltzing across the tightrope

As if there were no death

Or hope of falling down;

The wounded cry as the clown

Doubles his meaning, and O

How the dear little children laugh

When the drums roll and the lovely

Lady is sawn in half.


O what authority gives

Existence its surprise?

Science is happy to answer

That the ghosts who haunt our lives

Are handy with mirrors and wire,

That song and sugar and fire

Courage and come-hither eyes

Have a genius for taking pains.

But how does one think up a habit?

Our wonder, our terror remains.

Art opens the fishiest eye

To the Flesh and the Devil who heat

The Chamber of Temptation

Where heroes roar and die.

We are wet with sympathy now;

Thanks for the evening; but how

Shall we satisfy when we meet,

Between Shall-I and I-Will,

The lion’s mouth whose hunger

No metaphors can fill?


Well, who in his own backyard

Has not opened his heart to the smiling

Secret he cannot quote?

Which goes to show that the Bard

Was sober when he wrote

That this world of fact we love

Is unsubstantial stuff;

All the rest is silence

On the other side of the wall;

And the silence ripeness,

And the ripeness all.


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Charlie Brown: Building Character

Charlie Brown is arguably one of the most recognizable fictional characters of all time—he and the rest of the Peanuts gang are larger than life.

But you may be surprised to learn that in the first Peanuts strips, published in 1950, Charlie Brown was little more than a prototype of his future self. He was more like a stock character than the unmistakable loser we all know and love. And beyond Charlie Brown almost every other piece of Peanuts was missing in these first strips. There was no Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, or Pig-Pen. The other starting main characters from the early 1950s strips–Shermy and Patty–would eventually be scrapped to make room for the future stars.

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Above is the very first strip of Peanuts ever published, October 2, 1950.

Although most of what we’ve come to know as Peanuts doesn’t appear in Schulz’s work until the 1960s, the original germ of what the character of Charlie Brown would become is present in this very first panel. Of all that’s absent, it’s what’s present that is most striking. There is Charlie Brown the likable loser:

Good ol’ Charlie Brown.

How I hate him!

I like this first strip and the beginning era of Peanuts–the early 1950s–because, all throughout this period, you can see that Schulz is still working. I think that’s why the first panel is two other characters looking at and commenting on Charlie Brown. It’s a way of acting out Schulz’s own task, which was to see and define a character people would be interested in. He was still trying to see Charlie Brown. He didn’t have a fully formed character to begin with. He just began and worked it out as he went along. It took him some time but he eventually got it. Below is a much more recognizable strip which was published January 1957.

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That’s more like it.

What a great reminder for the creative person. You don’t need to have everything all worked out. What you need is one good idea to build on.


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How Reading Raymond Carver Can Make You a Better Writer

Raymond Carver’s short stories are some of the most distinct in the English language. He wrote most prolifically in the 1970s and 80s, and was inclined toward what he described as “brevity and intensity.” His sentences are short, the subject matter is often the grimy rough-and-tumble of the American lower-middle class, but the impact left on the reader defies any easy categorization.

“I Could See the Smallest Things,” isn’t one of Carver’s more popular stories, but it’s my favorite. Published in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, it was cut heavily by Gordon Lish, Carver’s longtime editor, by about twenty pages. The final version of the story is only five pages, but doesn’t lack any power for that. On the contrary, “I Could See the Smallest Things,” is an object lesson in how to capture your reader’s attention with grace and subtlety.

The opening paragraphs of “I Could See the Smallest Things,” begin with a mystery:

I was in bed when I heard the gate. I listened carefully. I didn’t hear anything else. But I heard that. I tried to wake Cliff. He was passed out. So I got up and went to the window. A big moon was laid over the mountains that went around the city. It was a white moon and covered with scars. Any damn fool could imagine a face there.

There was light enough so that I could see everything in the yard—lawn chairs, the willow tree, clothesline strung between the poles, the petunias, the fences, the gate standing wide open.

But nobody was moving around. There were no scary shadows. Everything lay in the moonlight, and I could see the smallest things. The clothespins on the line, for instance.

I put my hands on the glass to block out the moon. I looked some more. I listened. Then I went back to bed.

But I couldn’t get to sleep. I kept turning over. I thought about the gate standing open. It was like a dare.

In true story-teller form, Carver is artfully inviting us to be interested in the mystery the protagonist is experiencing. The gate. What made the noise at the gate? Sometimes, as writers, we forget that simple open-ended questions are powerful tools. A reader nagged by a question is a reader motivated to turn the page. This doesn’t mean we should give up the poetry in our writing, or over-emphasize an arbitrary question. Notice how Carver includes details about the moon and what the narrator sees in her yard. But these aren’t arbitrary either. These details work in service to the story as a whole. We are experiencing the world of the protagonist and her context. The details contextualize the relevance of the question, while the question gives direction to the details.

Pretty simple so far.

The narrator, Nancy, walks outside to her gate to see what made the noise and finds her neighbor, Sam, leaning on his own fence.

“Evening, Nancy,” Sam Lawton said.

I said, “Sam, you scared me.” I said, “What are you doing up?” “Did you hear something?” I said. “I heard my gate unlatch.”

He said, “I didn’t hear anything. Haven’t seen anything, either. It might have been the wind.”

He was chewing something. He looked at the open gate and shrugged.

His hair was silvery in the moonlight and stood up on his head. I could see his long nose, the lines in his big sad face.

I said, “What are you doing up, Sam?” and moved closer to the fence.

I let myself out and went along the walk. It felt funny walking around outside in my nightgown and my robe. I thought to myself that I should try to remember this, walking around outside like this.

Sam was standing over by the side of his house, his pajamas way up high over his tan-and-white shoes. He was holding a flashlight in one hand and a can of something in the other.

It’s easy to miss what’s being done here. Did you notice the bait and switch? In section 1 the object of interest is the opening of the gate. Now it’s switched. Sam dismisses the opening of the gate, “It might have been the wind,” and now we are left wondering a) who is Sam? and b) what is he going to show the narrator? This switching doesn’t mean the gate is meaningless or just a trick to catch our attention. But, as we will see, the meaning of the gate changes.

Sam and Cliff used to be friends. Then one night they got to drinking. They had words. The next thing, Sam had built a fence and then Cliff built one too.

Sam then shows Nancy his problem.

“Look at this,” Sam said, hitching his pajama trousers and squatting down. He pointed his light at the ground.

I looked and saw some wormy things curled on a patch of dirt.

“Slugs,” he said.

Sam takes Nancy by the arm and guides her to see the holes in his rose bushes and the traps he sets for the slugs. “An awful invention, the slug,” Sam says.

And then there are a few key images:

A plane passed overhead. I imagined the people on it sitting belted in their seats, some of them reading, some of them staring down at the ground.

“Sam,” I said, “how’s everybody?”

“They’re fine,” he said, and shrugged.

He chewed on whatever it was he was chewing. “How’s Clifford?” he said.

I said, “Same as ever.”

Sam said, “Sometimes when I’m out here after the slugs, I’ll look over in your direction.” He said, “I wish me and Cliff was friends again. Look there now,” he said, and drew a sharp breath. There’s one there. See him? Right there where my light is.”

I closed my arms under my breasts and bent over to where he was shining his light. The thing stopped moving and turned its head from side to side. Then Sam was over it with his can of powder, sprinkling the powder down.

“I quit, you know,” Sam said. “Had to. For a while it was getting so I didn’t know up from down. We still keep it around the house, but I don’t have much to do with it anymore.”

I nodded. He looked at me and he kept looking.

“I’d better get back,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll continue with what I’m doing and then when I’m finished, I’ll head in too.”

I said, “Good night, Sam.”

He said, “Listen.” He stopped chewing. With his tongue, he pushed whatever it was behind his lower lip. “Tell Cliff I said hello.”

I said, “I’ll tell him you said so, Sam.”

Sam ran his hand through his silvery hair as if he was going to make it sit down once and for all, and then he used his hand to wave.

Nancy then gets in bed and lays her robe “within reach,” hears Cliff clear his throat, and swallow.

I don’t know. It made me think of those things that Sam Lawton was dumping powder on.

I thought for a minute of the world outside my house, and then I didn’t have any more thoughts except the thought that I had to hurry up and sleep.

Raymond Carver can teach the willing writer that a simple story, like life, can be more than the sum of its parts. The writer need not smack the reader over the head. Sometimes all a powerful story does is leave a trail of bread crumbs to something else.

Remember the gate. It opened. We never found out how it opened. “It might have been the wind.” Or maybe Sam opened it himself. But the real point of the story isn’t the gate, or who opened it, but that it opened. The gate, once a piece of tangible mystery, a who-done-it, becomes a symbol. The gate, a doorway through the fence, that was built out of spite, becomes on opportunity—perhaps a damned opportunity—to restore what has been lost.


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W.H. Auden’s The More Loving One: Simplicity & Depth


W.H. AUDEN’S REPUTATION as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century is rarely questioned but many critics prefer ‘early Auden’ to ‘later Auden’. So much is the division between early and later that the demarcation even creeps into Auden’s own literary estate, as Edward Mendelson, Auden’s own literary executor, entitled his critical biographies of Auden “Early Auden” and “Later Auden.” The difference is classically summed up by the American poet Philip Larkin who criticized the ‘later Auden’ for ‘turning his back on political and social engagement in favor of the self-indulgent and the frivolous.’

“The More Loving One,” was written in 1957 when Auden was 50 and is considered to be one of Auden’s better later poems but has all the elements that some critics don’t like about his later work in general. There are no nods to his early far leftism (or any politics at all). It’s a poem about unrequited love, of all hackneyed subjects. John Fuller, in his “W.H. Auden: A Commentary,” says of “The More Loving One,” that it is ‘merely an extravagant way of coming to terms with unreciprocated love.’

Like the general critiques of later Auden, I think this take on “The More Loving One,” is unfair, or at least incomplete. Later Auden probably was frivolous and extravagant but “The More Loving One,” is upstream of politics, and is, in my opinion, more profound for it. And it’s not just a poem about love. It’s about our place in the universe and how that human idea has evolved over time. These are questions that can be asked and have been asked in any time, by anyone.

“The More Loving One,” is a series of couplets linked together with an AABB rhyme scheme, told from the 1st person point of view. This 1st person method is something Auden used in many of his most famous poems, (September 1, 1939; As I Walked Out One Evening, etc.) putting himself at ‘the moving center’ of his world. This gives the work a personal feeling and when read out loud can make the reader feel as if they are at the moving center of Auden’s world: going into a dive bar, walking on Bristol St, or looking up at the stars.

Don’t let the simple structure fool you. “The More Loving One,” is deceptively complex.

The first couplet de-romanticizes star gazing:

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well

That, for all they care, I can go to hell,

Stars are not the anthropomorphic gods/characters the Greeks superimposed upon them. They do not tell our fate. They are impersonal incidental fixtures of nature. The observer looking at the stars in this poem presupposes a modern scientific worldview. The stars are indifferent to us, beautiful as they are. But as Auden expresses the stars’ indifference to human activity, he uses ‘go to hell,’: a casual phrase expressive of human indifference which doubles as a sly religious injunction.

The second couplet grounds the observer and the reader, locating consciousness on earth:

But on earth indifference is the least

We have to dread from man or beast.

But it also informs the first couplet. Does the “I” looking up at the stars dread the stars’ indifference? It wasn’t clear at first.

The third couplet raises a question which expands these considerations into a new theme: unrequited love:

How should we like it were stars to burn

With a passion for us we could not return?

As humankind moved from ancient to modern times, we ‘discovered’ nature does not love us back. Auden is imagining this as a kind of classic love story. We are the spurned lover. Nature is the indifferent object of our affection. But in this is a kind of revelation: consciousness, being the sole enterprise of biologically ‘living’ things, is rare, and therefore valuable.

Would we give up this valuable consciousness in return for the dread, the heartbreak of loneliness?

Auden answers in the fourth couplet:

If equal affection cannot be,

Let the more loving one be me.

This is Tennyson’s famous line—Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all—as more than a riff on romance. Auden states it as a kind of universal law. Love is more valuable than indifference in a lover or in Nature. Even at the price of disappointment in either case.

THE THIRD STANZA continues to blend these two interdependent concepts so that it never becomes quite clear whether this is a poem about romance that uses Nature as a metaphor, or whether this is a poem about Nature that uses romance as a metaphor:

Admirer as I think I am

Of stars that do not give a damn,

I cannot, now I see them, say

I missed one terribly all day.

Auden overtly states his admiration for the indifferent stars in the fifth couplet while simultaneously calling it into question (“Admirer as I think I am”) which again smuggles in both ways of reading the poem. Is he getting over love lost? Are the stars a metaphor for an irretrievable human beauty he must learn to live without? Or is he feeling the loss of personal affection at discovering the demystified scientific picture of the universe?

Whichever it is, the doubts reach a personal level in the second couplet of the third quatrain: “I cannot, now I see them, say,” calls on the first couplet. We’re reminded that this whole train of thought is present tense. He is “Looking up at the stars” now and having all these thoughts now and upon remembering the previous day he cannot say he “missed one terribly[…]” In other words he admires the stars while he looks at them but does he really love them when it seems he doesn’t miss them?

Is this the old lover seen randomly in the marketplace after many years—still beautiful—awakening memories that are mistaken for feelings?

Or are the stars ghosts of old mythologies? Dead effigies to Zeus, Hercules, & Andromeda—disenchanted by modern science?

Or is it both?

THE LAST STANZA does not abandon the previous three in theme but does shift focus. Science is taken on as the new mythology, pivoting from the anthropomorphisms of ancient paganism to the final objective scientific event: the heat death of stars, and in this pivoting of subject, Auden also pivots to a future when stars will no longer be visible to human eyes.

Were all stars to disappear or die,

I should learn to look at an empty sky

And feel its total dark sublime,

Though this might take me a little time.

THROUGH WHAT SEEMS to be a simply structured aggrandizement of stargazing or unrequited love, W.H. Auden weaves together two metaphors that seem to be incompatible on the surface but were always meant to be together: Love & Nature. Modern science—or the world transparent to reason, i.e., Nature as it really is—has put old ways of interpreting the world on trial. Old story recedes. A new one replaces it. We are like a bug that continually sheds it’s skin. We moderns have adapted to our demystified world. We are used to it. We feel it’s ‘total dark sublime.’ But for those who remember the stars, it may take a little time.

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Works cited:

  1. Smith, Alexander McCall: What W.H. Auden Can Do For You. September 2013.

  2. Mendelson, Edward: Later Auden. April 1999.
  3. Fuller, John: W.H. Auden: A Commentary. August 2000.