In the aftermath of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, extracts from WH Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” were shared widely, in particular its opening stanza:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Over the past week, amid horrific and brutal images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the poem has again resonated around the world, this time via social media (which didn’t exist in 2001), and with the emphasis now on its final stanza:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Nearly eighty-three years after it was written, Auden’s poem has lost none of its currency or force. This is not as trite as it sounds: yes, The Iliad still leaps off the page after nearly three millennia, and the same could be said for almost every poem in between that’s still being read — indeed, this is arguably why we still read them. But poems written in response to contemporary historical events often age badly, either because they’re too close to their subject to be able to sift the meaningful detail from the noise, or because they reach too quickly for the true-but-inane; or, equally likely, because they are forced out in a hurry, in a way that doesn’t align with that unbiddable alchemy of individual preoccupation, previous hard work, the unconscious, and blind luck from which all ultimately-successful poems originate.
Any response to conflict is inadequate, just as not responding is unconscionable. Seven months before “September 1, 1939”, Auden had written “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”, with its equally-famous (and now equally-decontextualised) assertion that “poetry makes nothing happen”. In the face of tyranny and violence, we are seized by the urge to do something, and beset by a sense of helplessness when we can’t or won’t.
Twenty-four-hour news coverage and a palimpsest of Twitter threads amplify that sense of helplessness just as they amplify the horror. Those of us with no direct connection to Ukraine might donate to humanitarian aid or reach out to friends from the region, but we’ll never escape the sense that we’re not doing enough. In the weeks and months to come, we may do other practical things — in an optimistic scenario, we might successfully pressure our government to open its borders to desperate refugees, or to reform the systems that have made us so complicit in corruption, kleptocracy and murder. We may even engage meaningfully with the (undeniably racist) ways in which we and our governments have ignored other recent conflicts and atrocities, and find ways to change our future behaviour. All of which matters in a very real way: in the face of acute suffering, the first imperative is to end or alleviate it.
But another version of the urge to do something is the one that wanders out of the pub and volunteers to fight for Ukraine with no experience, training, language, or knowledge of the region. The same Auden who wrote “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” had a few years earlier volunteered as a front-line ambulance driver for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. After spending most of his time frustrated in a journalists’ hotel in Valencia, he headed home after a brief journey to the front, having achieved little more than a couple of propaganda broadcasts and an article for the New Statesman. He had (clearly, farcically) made nothing happen. But that later phrase needs to be read in its original context:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
“Executives” are here not only the business cadre or the branch of government, but the etymological sense of those who get things done (albeit with another, less palatable meaning of “execute” hovering just out of vision). Auden’s presentation of the world of getting-things-done, and his apparent criticism of poetry’s inability to do so, are in fact far more balanced than the phrase in isolation suggests. On the one hand, making things happen; on the other, the endless and failing exploration of what it means to be human. In the realms of humanitarian aid and politics, we must make things happen; but if we want to understand suffering, violence, humanity, and love, we also need other modes of being, especially in the face of horror. Where that understanding is lacking, the urge to do something becomes at best a displacement activity, and potentially something actively harmful.
The importance of what “survives / [i]n the valley of its saying” was brilliantly illustrated on the third day after the Russian invasion, when the US-based Ukrainian poet Ilya Kaminsky tweeted about having written to an older friend in Odessa to ask how he could help, and getting the reply: “Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.”
Coming back to where we began, those stanzas from Auden’s “September 1, 1939” powerfully enact and convey the human response to atrocity-at-a-distance — the helplessness, fear, anger, and hope. It’s no surprise that they were shared so widely and continue to resonate. But they are only part of the poem’s overall effect.
“September 1, 1939” is still in copyright in the UK, but you can read the whole poem here. Its nine stanzas move from immediate response, via attempts to understand, to the fragile imperative for some kind of utterance. For me, the heart of the poem is not its rhetoric of stunned common humanity, but the honesty of the central three stanzas. Here, Auden invokes a different and altogether more unsettling vision:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
And the international wrong.
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
Here the potential for evil is not located elsewhere in an overseas aggressor, but looking back at us in the mirror. Auden was as obsessed with mirrors as any other 20th-century poet — as a symbol of art (most explicitly in The Sea and the Mirror) and as both sign and instrument of the fragility of self-knowing (“O look, look in the mirror / O look in your distress / Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless”). But it’s hard to think of a more revealing mirror-image in Auden’s work than this one. The phrasing is intentionally clunky: no one would ever naturally say “Imperialism’s face / And the international wrong”, but that’s part of the point. We are at the boundary where self-knowledge breaks down, where the truth is almost unsayable, for now we see through a glass, darkly. Every one of us is complicit, just as every one of us has the potential, given the right circumstances, to be a monster.
Auden is not exhorting us literally to see Vladimir Putin’s face when we look in the mirror, but to acknowledge that we participate in a system of self-interest and selfishness that includes at its extremities war and tyranny and oppression — and, by extension, that acknowledging and resisting these tendencies in ourselves (especially the craving “to be loved alone”) in a small way makes the world incrementally less hospitable to violence, even though the blame for tyranny and oppression lies squarely with the tyrants and oppressors and those who enable them. This is a complex, contradictory and nuanced point, but in Auden’s image we encounter it in a way that an essay or a newspaper article simply can’t convey, because poetry is experienced rather than understood.
None of this should distract from the urgent need for humanitarian and political action. But it makes it that little bit harder for any of us to pretend that we’re entirely innocent, even if we only admit that in the valley of its saying.