"September 1, 1939"

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.

Accurate scholarship can 
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. 

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire 
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
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.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

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.

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.

-- W. H. Auden


W.H. Auden’s poem "September 1, 1939" has been circulating in the city like a text by Nostradamus. It was quoted on the editorial page of the Post (in the same issue that offered readers a "Wanted Dead or Alive" poster of Osama bin Laden), posted in a forum on the Academy of American Poets Web site, and read aloud on NPR. (One writer says that he received it as an E-mail six times within the week.) This is the poem about the onset of the Second World War. The poet, in exile from London, sits "in one of the dives on Fifty-second Street" as the hopes of a "low dishonest decade" expire and "The unmentionable odour of death/Offends the September night." He sees an enemy gone mad in the worship of a psychopathic god, confronts "the lie of Authority,/Whose buildings grope the sky," and decides that "we must love one another or die." Composed "of Eros and of dust," he prays to "show an affirming flame."

Auden, whose "Funeral Blues" became the semi-official poem of AIDS in the eighties, seems confirmed as the preeminent elegist of our time. Yet "September 1, 1939" was one of the poems that he banished from his collected works, as too sonorous and false (we are all going to die whether we love one another or not). The poem, as Joseph Brodsky once pointed out, is really about shame -- about how cultures are infected by overwhelming feelings of shame, their "habit-forming pain," and seek to escape those feelings through violence. What drives men mad -- drives them to psychopathic gods -- is the unbearable feeling of having been humiliated. The alternative, the poem says, is not to construct our own narrative of shame and redemption, which never really comes in any case, but to follow our authentic self-interest, which means being in touch with the reality of what is and is not actually possible in the world. Although a lot of people have said that the attack marks the end of irony, this poem of the moment is actually pro-irony. That affirming flame begins, ironically, as "ironic points of light," meaning the skeptical clarity that sees the world as it is, rather than as our fears would make it. The crucial movement in the poem is not from decadence to renewal but from symbols to people and from rhetoric to speech. "All I have is a voice," the poet says, " to undo the folded lie."

The dive in the poem, as it happens, was a gay bar and cabaret on Fifty-second Street called Dizzy’s, once, apparently, a wild place. If you go at night, after many hours on foot, and stand on West Fifty-second Street where Auden imagined the poem, you find that Dizzy’s is gone, and so is the town house it was in. Now there is just another mute lit tower groping the sky, and hoping the sky won’t grope back.

-- Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker

Theologians say God made the world in seven days. Well, a group of lunatics with cutlery changed it in 90 minutes.

-- Neil LaBute