Thursday, November 21, 2013

`Get the Begging Part Over With Quickly'

“Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct--it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.” 

With those words, Auden closes “Making, Knowing and Judging,” his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University from 1956 to 1961, later collected in The Dyer’s Hand (1962). It reformulates a theme Auden repeats metronomically, especially in his later years: Give thanks, bless, be grateful, praise. It’s a sane, generous impulse, one that resonates with a sentiment I saw this week on a bumper sticker: “Stop Global Whining.” Beside it was another sticker: “Dziękuję!” That was the word I heard most often last year during my visit to Kraków.

Auden’s final book of poems, published posthumously in 1974, is Thank You, Fog. It contains a poem titled “A Thanksgiving,” and the volume’s best-known line is from “Lullaby”: “Let your last thinks all be thanks.” Dr. Oliver Sacks says of his friend: “Wystan’s mind and heart came closer and closer in the course of his life, until thinking and thanking became one and the same.” Today I undergo the second of two surgeries for cataracts. I’m being given a chance to see clearly again, perhaps with more acuity than since I was a boy. Here are the concluding lines of “Precious Five” (Nones, 1951), addressed by Auden to his senses: 

“I can (which you cannot)
Find reasons fast enough
To face the sky and roar
In anger and despair
At what is going on,
Demanding that it name
Whoever is to blame:
The sky would only wait
Till my breath was gone
And then reiterate
As if I wasn’t there
That singular command
I do not understand,
Bless what there is for being,
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?” 

Six years ago today, Joseph Epstein published a piece devoted to Thanksgiving, “Let All Your Thinks Be Thanks,” in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s an excerpt: 

“I wish the poet W. H. Auden were still alive, so that he might be at the same table where I eat my Thanksgiving dinner. Auden, I think, nicely captured the spirit of Thanksgiving when he wrote that, in prayer, it is best to get the begging part over with quickly and get on to the gratitude part. He also wrote, `let all your thinks be thanks.’ 

“To be living in a prosperous and boundlessly interesting country, at a time of high technological achievement, and of widening tolerance -- much to be thankful for here. ‘Wystan,’ I'd like to tell the poet, `you got it right, kid. Now how about a drumstick?’”

2 comments:

George said...

Yet He whom Christians recognize as the foremost authority on the matter gave us the Lord's Prayer, in which the praise appears first, and the begging follows. And the root of the word "prayer" in English and the Romance language, and for that matter of "beten" in German, is to request.

But as Epstein says, there is much to be grateful for.

jrbenjamin said...

"Interesting country" -- that's one way to put it... I wish I could muster such euphemism.

Excellent post though, by the way. Had never read that Auden poem.

I wish you the best in recovery from your surgery.

John