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Filtering by Tag: Dickinson

Felix Culpa

Jean Hoefling

apple-on-stump-with-flowersNothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.      – Robert Frost

It was the first grown-up poem I burned to memory. I was seventeen, and Mr. Hunt's poetry class was a lifeline in that unhappy season of affected hippie clothes, a tumultuous first romance I still believe probably killed me, and a month of March that gives new meaning to the word bleak.

The passionate Mr. Hunt read poetry aloud to us—all his favorite sonnets by Donne and Shakespeare, and lots of Plath, Hopkins, Dickinson, and many others. O for a muse of fire… Glory to God for dappled things…I died for beauty…That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me… I’d watch our teacher’s mouth form each word and phrase, then place those exquisite nuggets of expression into his students’ hearing as though they were sacraments intended to bless and heal. And somehow, they did. There seems to be a given about most good poetry: it is true. Even if it’s harsh or vulgar, it’s still true. And where there is truth, there is power and mystery and healing. “The truth shall set you free.” Poetry’s aching bluntness gives us something to hang onto as we struggle to grow up over the course of a lifetime.

Maybe that’s why I took Frost’s haunting poem about life’s transience so seriously. I memorized it for life within minutes of my first reading. I lived inside that poem for years while I healed from the sinking Edens of my junior year of high school—the dawns that had too quickly turned to garish midday and the golden things I did not have the maturity to manage before they subsided forever. “Nothing Gold” gave me hope by expressing a sorrowful reality in a gracious and beautiful way.

Many years later, I think of this poem in light of the western theological term, felix culpa: happy fault. In felix culpa is the paradox of Eden’s calamitous fall as a necessary and blessed catharsis for the appearing of the One who, in Christian eschatology, will one day restore lost Eden; who is himself that paradise. Frost’s job as a poet was to point out the heartbreaking fact that in this world, nothing gold can stay. Faith takes it one step further: In the next world, gold will never pass away. 

The Folded Lie

Christina Lee

(Image of Auden from the January, 1957 cover of The Atlantic, by Stanley Meltzof, via Roger Doherty)

The habit-forming pain, Mismanagement and grief: We must suffer them all again.

These words were written by a gay man—a man who had recently met the love of his life, a man who did not feel safe to speak openly about this love, a man under threat of incarceration and violence because of this love. These words were written by a man facing news of tragedy—a horror caused by politicians’ greed and stupidity and inability to live in peace, a horror which he’d been through before, a horror which seemed to be repeating itself in a nightmarish, unstoppable cycle.

These words are W.H. Auden’s. They are from his poem “September 1, 1939,” written on the eve of World War II.

America loves this poem. We turn to it in moments of national mourning. It was ubiquitous after the 9/11 attacks. Politicians quoted it. Newspapers reprinted it. I myself have shared it with students and on social media during each of the recent mass shootings.

When we reach for the comfort of this poem, we don’t usually leave time to discuss Auden’s sexuality. We don’t pause to decode the poem’s references to the struggle of being queer in the 1930s. In fact, in some versions reprinted after September 11th, 2001, all sections that hinted at this were snipped out.

These references are obscure, so they probably just seemed confusing and off-topic. (Remember Auden, as a British citizen, lived under threat of criminal prosecution for sodomy—references to his homosexuality had to be coded. This was more than a stylistic choice.)

Nothing hateful was meant by the shortening of the poem, right? It just seems pointless to bring up Auden’s queer identity, right? Pointless to acknowledge that the first line, “I sit in one of the dives /on Fifty-second Street” is most likely a reference to a gay bar. What good would it do, bringing that up? After 9/11, it probably seemed like an irrelevant detail. In the wake of the Orlando shooting at Pulse nightclub, it seems less so.

You can posit that an author’s sexual orientation is nobody’s business, or claim we shouldn’t bring biography into art. But we live in a society where straight is default, so to say nothing is to imply heterosexuality.

So with a writer like Auden (or Whitman or Dickinson or Shakespeare or Woolf or Cather or Bowie or St. Vincent Millay or Oliver or Cohen or Ocean or Jónsi), to say nothing is to be complicit in a lie of omission.

This lie is convenient, as most lies tend to be. It lets readers absorb all the beauty and comfort and strength of a poem without ever even knowing that they’ve been identifying—on a personal, emotional level—with a queer writer. Many Americans who drew strength from Auden’s poem in 2001 never had the opportunity to grapple with the fact that its author was queer, simply because they didn’t know.

When we read, we are in someone else’s head for a minute. Through this mind-boggling miracle that is literature, we learn to listen to voices other than our own. We develop empathy.

Some might say, oh, let me just enjoy the beauty of this art without worrying about its context. Nope. You don’t get that luxury. Our country has an empathy deficiency. Does that sound dramatic? Consider the conservative churches who wondered “how to respond” to the mass murder at Pulse, or worse, responded with hate. Consider that threats toward the Muslim community in Orlando have already begun.

Queer voices are already included on required reading lists in nearly every high school. These could be a powerful weapon against hate and ignorance, but we can’t activate that power unless we acknowledge the sexuality of the authors we teach. (And of course, we need to drastically increase the diversity of those reading lists, too.)

If you’re familiar with “September 1, 1939,” you’ve probably heard that Auden later disowned his poem. The line he hated most was “we must love one another or die” because, he said, “we die anyway.”

Here’s the stanza in its original form:

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.

I can see why Auden would write off that last line. After the war, it must have seemed so naïve. And the famous image in the poem’s final stanza—lights dotting a dark horizon—can feel a little pat in the face of so much tragedy.

The poem has value, though. Maybe not so much to comfort, but to challenge. When I read the line “all I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie,” I think of the many “folded lies” we face today: the NRA’s bizarre grip on our legislation, bigotry thinly disguised as patriotism, religion being twisted to justify both hate crimes and hateful responses. And the folded lie of heteronormativity that continues to be told through the censorship and casual omission of queer voices, both in literature and in life.

So many lies, folded up so tightly. It is overwhelming. That’s probably why Auden wrote (and why most of us still like) that comforting-if-slightly-illogical line about love.

We can’t undo all the lies at once. But we can honor Auden’s voice. Re-read “September 1, 1939,”—all of it—and remember it was written in a gay bar; read it in remembrance of the 50 beautiful lives cut horrifically short on a Sunday morning in a gay bar. And when you finish the poem, spend some time reading the stories of the victims. Find yourself in these stories, even if—especially if—they are different from your own. Mourn for each lost voice. Mourn for all of us.