Words That Change

Poetry and politics: showing Auden’s affirming flame

In Uncategorized on 16 August, 2011 at 12:20

Came across this Auden poem today, written on the eve of WW2:

“As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade

How apt!

Riots have unelashed a villifying tactic amidst politicians and the media and a great despair of what we have become. The riots present – once the hand-wringing subsides – such an opportunity to affirm and practice what we stand for. So good news today that the Guardian reports a planned “public engagment exercise”.  That you or I would call  a consultation or ‘speaking to people’. Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, though of course for lesser crimes,  it could hugely serve to have voices and testimonies in the open. They should show them live on TV. What is more – people listened to have the dramatic effect of becoming engaged. I’ve seen first hand the results in companies with hitherto extremely unpopular bosses. Consultation works, especially if conclusions are left to the last minute.

We are so lucky – and I mean that – to live in a time where events are forcing us to take a deeper and more honest look at our contributions and attitudes to what is happening. Each one – Libya, Syria, Japan, London, Stockholm – serves like a puncture shock to rip open our psyche and dispose of the tortured remains. Please don’t mistake this for a “suffering is wonderful for the soul” type of statement. It’s horrific and horrendous what is having to be endured. But instead of bemoaning crises, or seeking these as excuses to exert a greater terror grip, let’s seize the opportunity and see what can be done, or thought or felt more deeply.

The tendency for government and personal response to lapse into fear and control is truly our greatest danger now. Look for and support the option that means more openness, transparency and support (and maybe for the rioters, an appropriately weighted cuff). The Norwegian premier calling for the massacre in Stockholm to be fought with democracy is a wonderful example. And so, hedgingly, is the UK government’s consultation exercise.

We’re all connected to these heavings of the global soul and each one, in its most horrific magnitude needs to be made most effective by our own receptivity to it. World events are taking a turn that seems only explainable by the heating of our solar system, or a very great cosmic event – so diffuse and numerous are the hugely impactful events. It needs only our greatest and most inspired response in return. And it does seem that this is only the beginning.

Defenseless under the night
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

– WH Auden September 1, 1939

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