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Saturday, 3 February 2007

Two Centenaries

Think of a poet. Can you recall the details of your first experience of a poem by him or her? I ask because it just so happens that this year is the double centenary of two poets, W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, and it also happens that my first encounter with the poetry of each was memorable. I suspect that is somewhat unusual.


Auden, I met on the night mail crossing the border. I was young enough to be completely bowled over by the rhythm of it, and though I didn't realise it at the time, also by what was in fact my first dose of Benjamin Britten - but that's another story. I can still recite chunks of it from the memory. On that occasion I couldn't get them out of my head, particularly:

"This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door."

(full text at: http://www.newearth.demon.co.uk/poems/lyric206.htm )

It was a documentary, a classic film of the Postal Special's night run from London to Scotland. No, not A documentary, it was THE documentary of its day. Auden spoke for his generation and to the man on the tram on his way to work. The same man today, I suppose, will know of Auden, if at all, from "Twelve Songs" from his "Funeral Blues" featured in the film "Three Weddings and a Funeral". I rather think that most people, reminded of it, would say they loved it, but haven't heard it since.

He spoke to his generation, but his work could also be highly intellectual and/or laced with private jokes. He tackled the romantic entanglements of his fellow man, along with the big problems of the day. I find one of his most moving works to be "In Memory of W.B.Yeats". (Full text at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15544 )

Often overlooked is Auden's revival of verse drama. He wrote several libretti for opera and several successful verse plays and he was before his time in believing that there should be no distinction between cast and audience, all should be involved. He co-scripted with Isherwood and Benjamin Britten, though this last partnership did not achieve the success it promised.

Louis MacNeice

"Bagpipe Music" was my first encounter with Louis MacNeice. Like "Night Mail", though for vastly different reasons, it wouldn't leave me; words were going round in my head, particularly the couplet:

"It's no go the Yogi-Man, it's no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi."

(Full text at: http://www.artofeurope.com/macneice/mac6.htm)

Was I lucky or unlucky in my introduction? Both, I think. I felt at the time that he was probably not one to be taken too seriously, that what I had heard sounded too much like a cross between a nonsense rhyme and material for a stand-up commedian.

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