Saturday, June 18, 2011

If Equal Affection Cannot Be—

What is the poet's purpose? The artist's? Varied, I suppose, as the sensibilities of the neurotic human beings who populate the arts, but with some commonality, I hope.

So often—too often, today—art seems exclusionary. Too hip by half, self aware, even masturbatory, created by a select few for the edification of a select few. It is a bitter truth that few poets today can sell their books (beyond the sales imposed by teacher-friends upon hapless underclassmen). Some of these writers are, frankly, those of limited ability and muddled ideas; others certainly have talent, and some notion of something to say, but neither group seems too awfully concerned with the 99% of the world who have given up trying to read their work. Perhaps this is to be expected; after all, there are a number of reasons for the dimunition of the audience for poetry and literary fiction. Because the slide into (relative) irrelevancy began for reasons beyond the control of individual artists, the bitterness I mentioned at the outset is understandable.

However, the attitude of the artist in the wake of that slide has largely been to stop considering any kind of greater audience, and instead to play to the first couple of rows; in the case of some, the aim does not extend, as it were, beyond the lurkers in the wings.

I believe this is sad, for everyone. For the restive many out there yearning for the solace of art, many eroding, piecemeal, beneath the wheel of off-the-rails radical capitalism; and for the artists who never come to full realizations of their talents or themselves, because they never locate their identities within a larger context—the zeitgeist, or whatever you want to call it—the place where their identities and those of the poor slobs at the People of Walmart blog, who hipsters love to ridicule, are the fucking same—because face it, they are the same, we are the same, we are equal in our humanness, occupying the same spaces in time, regardless of what the Dumbass Idea Worm may tell us. Our differences matter far, far less than our sameness—our commonality, to sound banal, but the idea is far from that. In your soul, you know this is true. And like one of the most humane of souls once told us, We must love one another, or die. This is so, now more than ever.

We must not lose our love. Not only for our families, not only for our friends, but for all the people out their estranged from our senses of community by the blurred nature of modern perspective—we must not set ourselves up as being so different, because in every crucial way, we are not (do not be so dense as to ask which way this is—you know, and I know you know—we share senses, we share fears, and hopes, and desires, we share skin and blood and bones—we share death, for crissakes).

At a conversation during lunch, the topic concerned protesters of an ilk not much sympathized with among many I know. It occurred to me that I know of the sincerity of each side in the struggle at issue—the struggle itself having no bearing on this thought—and how fucking sad that is. The vitriol, and the rage, invested toward people who share far more than they differ, separated by imaginary walls, set upon one another by often cynical forces, beyond their understanding or control. It made me tired, and melancholy, desirous of another way of relating—can you understand what I mean? I am sick, thoroughly sick, of bitterness, and venom, and acrimony.

These lines occurred to me then, from the same poet I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, coupled with the title of this entry: Let the more loving one be me.

This is how we should live our lives, how I want to live my life, by that credo. Is it possible, do you think?

Let the more loving one be me.

And is it possible that poets, like Auden, can once again speak to us with humanity and love, and teach us how to live?


Here is the poem, once again, in its entirety—from a time when poets had a thing or two to say. The More Loving One, by WH Auden:

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total darkness sublime,
Though this might take me a little time


  1. there's so many things to say about this piece, and I previously posted something about how hipsters are much-maligned (not sure where that post went), but let's just take the first few lines--as you suggest the purpose of a poet and/or artist is varied--there's simply no way one can characterize it as a purpose or the purpose, unless one speaks of one person or a very rigid school--as to poets and artists being neurotic, how is this radically different from the general population?--further, you almost seem to be suggesting with your phrasing (and subsequent musings) that it is all the variations of purpose that is neurotic--as to the idea of commonality, I really don't see it--you certainly don't make much of a case for it here--in fact, the theme of this entire essay seems to involve tensions between bourgeois and bohemian element in Western culture--but you've left so much of this vague, it's hard to get a real handle on what you're saying here. The irony in my mind is it seems to me the work of Auden is much more in line with the bohemian/hipster element of the culture than the bourgeois.

  2. Sorry about the problems posting comments—I’ve been having trouble too, which is why I’ve been posting mine under the auspices of anonymous recently—must be a bug (God knows there are enough of em).

    First, you misunderstood what I said about the “neurotic human beings who populate the arts”, or rather what I meant. I suppose I thought it went without saying that I believe all of us are neurotic, artists, poets, bankers, lawyers, Indian Chiefs, and all of the "noisy set... the martyrs call the world"—all of us.

    Second, the crux of what I’m saying only tangentially involves the tensions between the bourgeois and the bohemian, and only does so at all because it represents one of many walls separating us from one another, constructed from the differing perceptions --- from the slightly different spaces we inhabit, and exploited by our common enemy.

    People of goodwill should respect and like one another; it pains me when they don't, and it has occurred to me that I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to the narrow judgements that permit these estrangements. I mean, too, that as artists, as people who are (supposedly) more attuned with our limitations, and our relationship to reality, that perhaps we should bear Auden's words even more closely; when confronted with differing perceptions, and even with hostility that emanates from it, who better to remember: *Let the more loving one be me*?