Friday, July 27, 2007


That Louis MacNeice is less known and less read than W.H. Auden, his friend and fellow poet, has always seemed to me a shame. Auden, it's true, attains greater heights ("Musee Des Beaux Arts", "In Memory of W.B. Yeats"), but MacNeice is a far more consistent read. Brilliant lines litter the Selected Auden, but long stretches are tedious and hectoring. It is also increasingly irrelevant. Auden's poetry has become less useful now that the historical eras with which it engaged (Nazism, Fascism, Socialism) have faded.

The Selected MacNeice is less showily brilliant. It's pleasant, approachable, and humane. This is not to say that MacNeice was never virtuosic. "Sunlight On The Garden" and "Bagpipe Music" both are monuments to craftsmanship. But what distinguishes MacNeice's poetry is their matter-of-fact-ness. It's a volume you can open at any page and find that most desirable poetic commodity: pleasure. This is one of my favorites.

Goodbye, Winter,
The days are getting longer,
The tea-leaf in the teacup
Is herald of a stranger.

Will he bring me business
Or will he bring me gladness
Or will he come for cure
Of his own sickness?

With a pedlar's burden
Walking up the garden
Will he come to beg
Or will he come to bargain?

Will he come to pester,
To cringe or to bluster,
A promise in his palm
Or a gun in his holster?

Will his name be John
Or will his name be Jonah
Crying to repent
On the Island of Iona?

Will his name be Jason
Looking for a seaman
Or a mad crusader
Without rhyme or reason?

What will be his message--
War or work or marriage?
News as new as dawn
Or an old adage?

Will he give a champion
Answer to my question
Or will his words be dark
And his ways evasion?

Will his name be Love
And all his talk be crazy?
Or will his name be Death
And his message easy?


Sebastian said...

"Prognosis" describes much of what I felt, pacing the lawn, cigar in hand, on a Monday night, waiting for you to discuss pages now lying in a drawer that is the only remnant of my old desk. When one smokes a cigar, ways to foreclose on some working man's mortgage, of course, spring ever to mind, my thoughts harmonic with those of Massey, by half a teaspoon the finest among my fellow chortling oligarchs.

Wait, what? Ah, yes: Auden. Well, I have read far less of him than you have done, to be sure, but my sempiternal* affection for "As I Walked Out One Evening," my favorite poem in the English language, a fact which unnerves my wife as surely as a dodecahedron shatters the porcelain composure of your sister-in-law. Who probably isn't really human, and who anyhow has no time to read blogs of even the most sparkling brilliance.

Juliana Hatfield hates me; add Tisiphone to her and Natasha and when they catch me you will have a fine bowl of a dead idiot's blood blackening beneath a crescent moon; and no, Bryan, you cannot have my Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, and Svartvik, nor is there ever a good reason to use the word "crepuscular." You crumple-horned git.

Alas, how quickly the gratitude owed to the dead flows off, how quick to be proved a deceiver.

*This is the stupidest word ever.

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