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Tuesday, 14 May 2013

W. H. Auden: On the Circuit



Swissair Flight 111. On September 2, 1998, the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 aircraft on Flight 111 from New York to Geneva crashed into the waters off Nova Scotia after an in-flight fire, killing all passengers and crew aboard: image by Anynobody, 13 April 2008

Among pelagian travelers,
Lost on their lewd conceited way
To Massachusetts, Michigan,
Miami or L.A.,

An airborne instrument I sit,
Predestined nightly to fulfill
Unfathomable will,

By whose election justified,
I bring my gospel of the Muse
To fundamentalists, to nuns,
to Gentiles and to Jews,

And daily, seven days a week,
Before a local sense has jelled,
From talking-site to talking-site
Am jet-or-prop-propelled.

Though warm my welcome everywhere,
I shift so frequently, so fast,
I cannot now say where I was 
The evening before last,

Unless some singular event
Should intervene to save the place,
A truly asinine remark,
A soul-bewitching face,

Or blessed encounter, full of joy,
Unscheduled on the Giesen Plan,
With, here, an addict of Tolkien,
There, a Charles Williams fan.

Since Merit but a dunghill is,
I mount the rostrum unafraid:
Indeed, 'twere damnable to ask
If I am overpaid.

Spirit is willing to repeat
Without a qualm the same old talk,
But Flesh is homesick for our snug
Apartment in New York.

A sulky fifty-six, he finds
A change of mealtime utter hell,
Grown far too crotchety to like
A luxury hotel.

The Bible is a goodly book
I always can peruse with zest,
But really cannot say the same
For Hilton's Be My Guest.

Nor bear with equanimity
The radio in students' cars,
Muzak at breakfast, or -- dear God! --
Girl-organists in bars.

Then, worst of all, the anxious thought,
Each time my plane begins to sink
And the No Smoking sign comes on:
What will there be to drink?

Is this a milieu where I must
How grahamgreeneish!  How infra dig!
Snatch from the bottle in my bag 
An analeptic swig?

Another morning comes: I see,
Dwindling below me on the plane,
The roofs of one more audience
I shall not see again.

God bless the lot of them, although
I don't remember which was which:
God bless the U.S.A., so large,
So friendly, and so rich.

W. H. Auden (1907-1973): On the Circuit, from About the House, 1965

File:Swissair 111 debris.jpg

Debris recovered from Swissair 111 crash. The center door object is a cargo door. The material had curled on impact: photo by Trevor MacInnis, 5 August 2006


TC said...

W. H. Auden reads "On the Circuit"

TC said...

"The Love of His Life": Edward Mendelson: Later Auden, reviewed by TC, San Francisco Chronicle, 18 April 1999

Dalriada said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TC said...

Well, rhymed verse, light or heavy, is a good deal harder to turn out than free verse, as it happens. There are tricks to it.

Consider the rhymes here:

Is this a milieu where I must
How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!
Snatch from the bottle in my bag
An analeptic swig?

The element of self-mockery in this poem is unmistakable.

Auden was a pretty complicated character. The later poems do annoy some, while delighting others. Breaking this down into class, entitlement, privilege, nationality and so on is somewhat reductive. Where in those categories would one place (for example), the long 1948 one-off narrative in doggerel quatrains, The Platonic Blow, which the NYTBR reviewer (Dan Chiasson) of a recent anthology of erotic verse found to be too-too naughty to quote in those august pages.

"His poem 'The Platonic Blow' is the dirtiest verse written since Rochester — I can’t even talk about it here."

In 1965 Auden gave that poem to Ed Sanders to print as a Fuck You Edition.

Curious mutation of Episcopalianism, but -- whatever floats your bishopric.

(And by the by, as for American poetry reading audiences, they get what they ask for, and pay for it... and sometimes they get more than they have asked for, and, in this case, scarcely deserve it.)

TC said...

By the by, Colin, in case you missed that review I've linked to...


"Some of the most telling passages in 'Later Auden' deal with the poet's characteristically ambivalent response to the fame that came with being a money-making celebrity in an adopted homeland whose ways he regarded with some disdain. 'God bless the USA,' he wrote with a self-damning wink in 'On the Circuit,' 'so large,/ So friendly and so rich.'"


(Anybody who's ever endured an American reading-tour would be able to identify, if not with Auden's putative bite-the-hand-that-feeds attitude, then at least with the sense of dislocation and exhaustion -- not an easy way to make a living.)

Wooden Boy said...

I love the archaisms he drops in: "'twere damnable to ask...", "The Bible is a goodly book..." And set beside the colloquial touches stresses the sense of time and place fucked over by too much air travel, by that strange exile, perhaps by those misplaced hopes for his marriage.

"Among pelagian travelers": these opening words come very close to something integral to the American ethic.

This isn't somebody looking down their nose. It's a man struggling to get his bearings, his wit being the best means to hand.

TC said...


Wystan's dotty side shows through the seams a bit here, and I am grateful for that. That analeptic swig. Those later years can't have been easy for him. So many ports of call. Where was home? Brummagen or Manhattan? Oxon? Ischia? Austria?

As to his contempt for American audiences -- a trifle ungrateful maybe, but to be honest, wouldn't you?

The gossip always swirled, and of course gossip is such a cruel business. Still the stories always made him come off as a singular soul, of how many poets can that truly be said.

I had been hearing the Auden gossip since university, where there were wonderful tales of him snubbing the august faculty. When compelled to put in a showing at a faculty party, it was said, he always came carrying his bedroom slippers, and insisted that he be allowed to withdraw at precisely ten p.m.

Toward the end in NYC there was some laughing behind hands re. his legendary conversational recursiveness, repeating the same stock stories over and over & c. But of which senior citizen has this never been said.

Stop me right here if I'm repeating myself.

Broken heart, face like a doorstop, and all of that. Who ever said being an old human in a strange land is an easy thing.

But a great English poet, finally -- of which lot, since Hardy, and Empson, Larkin and Stevie Smith apart, how many others have there been?

Marie W said...

Oh dear. Can't concentrate on the Circuit because I HAD to google The Platonic Blow. Say no more....

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Poetic wit that does not tic(sic),
Setting off twits and nitwits.

TC said...

One can find the Auden doggerelgasm either for many hundreds of dollars, with the active possibility of contracting whatever bacteria were doing lunch with the bookdealer before the item was slipped into the Ziploc, or here, gratis.

The Platonic Blow