Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay

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Edna St. Vincent Millay was born on this day in 1892 in Rockland, Maine.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of those rare creatures: a poet who was a celebrity in her day. The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, there was something about her that packed audiences into halls to hear her read, beyond the novelty of her gender. People describe how she read her own poems: it sounds show-bizzy and consciously theatrical. She understood that she had a persona, and she used it. She was not in tune with the tenor of her own time with its Modernist onslaught. The Modernists were busy ripping themselves away from 19th century influences in a way seismic and distinct. Then you read Millay’s stuff and you can’t believe she was a contemporary of Eliot, William Carlos Williams, et al. You would believe she was a contemporary of Charlotte Bronte.

Her preferred “form” was the deceptively simple (until you try to write one) and formally rigorous sonnet.

She was one of the most popular writers of her day, and more often than not she is now treated as a footnote. Strange how that happens.

I read a biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay) and found Millay to be self-absorbed, narcissistic, and ruthless. An interesting combination. Irresistible to men. I didn’t like her very much. Lock up your husbands and boyfriends when she was around. I also felt a kind of awe when confronted with a person who lived so fearlessly by her own rules. She was a woman of a certain time. But propriety, and the mores of the day, didn’t play a part in her psyche. She was an unapologetic siren. LIKING an artist is not a requirement for Yours Truly. It couldn’t matter less. In fact, it increases the fascination, if I respond to their work. I found her fascinating.

She was a phenom: her gift of verse was recognized and lauded from the second she started writing when she was a teenager. Millay was similar to Sylvia Plath in that way, whose verses in high school were already being published. Millay was not a woman who suffered in obscurity. Powerful people read her very early on and went out of their way to help her, introduce her to the right people. No wonder her ego was indestructible.

This is my favorite of Millays sonnets.

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, — so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

The sonnet nails the particular lie that is “Time heals all wounds.”

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I love her sonnet to Elinor Wylie, a poet who also fascinates me (see my post on her here).

To Elinor Wylie
(In answer to a question about her)

Oh, she was beautiful in every part! —
The auburn hair that bound the subtle brain;
The lovely mouth cut clear by wit and pain,
Uttering oaths and nonsense, uttering art
In casual speech and curving at the smart
On startled ears of excellence too plain
For early morning! — Obit. Death from strain;
The soaring mind outstripped the tethered heart.
Yet here was one who had no need to die
To be remembered. Every word she said,
The lively malice of the hazel eye
Scanning the thumb-nail close — oh, dazzling dead,
How like a comet through the darkening sky
You raced! … would your return were heralded.

When you read the details of Millay’s life, her aching lovelorn poems seem even more poignant. Not because she was a particularly poignant personality:as a matter of fact, it is the opposite. If you only read her poetry (and she’s perfect for when you are lovelorn or nostalgic) you would think she was the most sentimental person on the planet, with one great lost love she yearned for all her days. The fact that she was a ruthless harlot makes her romantic “persona” even more interesting, more deliberate, more a theatrical act of CONJURING than reflection of a personal truth. Hats off. Her talent obviously expressed herself best in the old forms, and old forms (rhyming couplets and rigid sonnets) were at that time in disfavor. The amount of feeling she was able to get into each line, each verse, is incredible.

Millay’s reputation is a solid one, although she no longer stands as a giant of 20th century poetry as she did at the time when she was alive. Yet her lyrical romantic sonnets are still poems that people adore, even love … and many of the greater more important poets don’t have that. It’s not good or bad, just a fact. This is nothing against the poets who were far greater than she was. This is not “either/or.” I wouldn’t dream of placing her on the level of an Eliot or Yeats. But she still can express the vagaries of love to our generation in a more jaded time, with a high-flung cry of pain or ecstasy. It still sounds true.

Sonnet xxviii
I pray if you love me, bear my joy
A little while, or let me weep your tears;
I, too, have seen the quavering Fate destroy
Your destiny’s bright spinning — the dull shears
Meeting not neatly, chewing at the thread, —
Nor can you well be less aware how fine
How staunch as wire, and how unwarranted
Endures the golden fortune that is mine.
I pray you for this day at least, my dear,
Fare by my side, that journey in the sun;
Else must I turn me from the blossoming year
And walk in grief the way that you have gone.
Let us go forth together to the spring:
Love must be this, if it be anything.

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Quotes/anecdotes about Millay

“In October 1934, Edna Millay read at Yale. A young graduate student, Richard Sewell, who forty years later would become the biographer of Emily Dickinson, never forgot the impression she made that night. Walking to the center of Woolsey Hall, wrapped in a long black velvet cloak, her bright hair shining, she “stood before us,” he remembered, “like a daffodil.” Looking at her wrist, she told the audience that the poems she was about to read were from her new book, Wine From These Grapes, “which is coming off the press just about now.” That night she read with the zeal of a young Jeremiah, her words burning the air as she closed her reading with a sonnet from ‘The Epitaph for the Race of Man’. Tickets for her readings were wildly sought whether she was in Oklahoma City or Chicago, where the hall seating 1,600 was sold out and even with standees an extra hall had to be taken for the overflow of another 800 who listened to her over amplifiers.” — Nancy Milford, “Savage Beauty”

“For instance, they had shades at their window and nothing else. I don’t think they cared much. Well, once they stenciled apple blossoms, painted that pattern down the sides of the window. Or, for instance, they had a couple of plum trees in their backyard, and they never waited for the plums to ripen, but would pick them green, put them in vinegar, and call them ‘mock olives.’ Well, no one else did that sort of thing in Camden, don’t you see?” — Lena Dunbar, neighbor of the Millay family

“The poem seems to us to be phenomenal.” — Edward J. Wheeler, editor of “Current Literature”, on Edna’s poem ‘The Land of Romance’ – written when she was 14

“We have named the little one Edna Vincent Millay. Don’t you think that is pretty? … the Vincent is for the ‘St. Vincent’ Hospital, the one that cared so well for our darling brother. Nell woudl have called it ‘Vincent’ if it had been a boy.” — Cora Millay on the birth of her first daughter, on George Washington’s birthday

“– oh, this was life! It was more than life, — it was art. I might pretend to myself [at home] as much and as long as I liked, — until the deep-vibrant note I had discovered in my voice … out-Hedda-ed Nazimova — yet was my native village unthrilled and unconvinced; I was asked to serve ice-cream at church socials, and the grocer-boy called me by name …” — Edna St. Vincent Millay on her first job as an actress in a traveling stock company

“Boys don’t like me anyway because I won’t let them kiss me. It’s just like this: let boys kiss you and they’ll like you but you won’t … But I’d be almost willing to be engaged if I thought it would keep me from being lonesome … if I was engaged I would be going to the play tonight instead of sitting humped up on the steps in a drizzle that keeps my pencil point sticky. I’d be going out paddling tomorrow instead of practicing the Beethoven Funeral March Sonata. And I’d like to have something to do besides write in an old book. I’d like to have something happen to give me a jolt, something that would rattle my teeth and shake my hairpins out.” — Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her journal, 1911

“The most astonishingly beautiful and original poem in The Lyric Year, the poem most arresting in its vision, the poem most like a wonderful Pre-Raphael painting, is surely Renascence by Miss Edna St. Vincent Millay. To me it almost unthinkable that a girl of twenty could conceive such a work and execute it with such vigor and tenderness … And it is with no small pride that I give it my first vote for the prizes.” — Ferdinand Earle, 1912

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Sonnet xv
Only until this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall,
I will permit my memory to recall
The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
And then adieu, — farewell! — the dream is done.
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.

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On This Day: February 22, 1980

Al Michaels:

It was a sliver of the Cold War played out on a sheet of ice. Here you have a bunch of fresh-faced college kids taking on the big bad Soviet bear, in the United States, in the Olympics. The confluence of events was so extraordinary it can never happen again. It was the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.

John Powers, Boston Globe:

The Americans were always amateurs, college kids, some of them, or recent graduates, who still played the game but certainly not at the Russian level. There was no way they could be competitive. And the feeling going into 1980 was they really haven’t got much of a chance, even though it’s here at Lake Placid.

Jim Lampley, ABC sports:

This was a case where for a few hours at least a magical coach got a magical group of kids to believe that they could do something that they really couldn’t do.

On the Soviet Hockey Team:

Dave Silk, forward, US 1980 Olympic hockey team:

64, 68, 72, 76, right up until 1980 – the Soviets were unbeatable in the Olympics.

Igor Kuperman, Soviet sports journalist:

It was a dynasty, definitely, for 10, 20, 30 years. Their main goal was to win every game, every period, every shift. There was one regular season when they won 43 out of 44 games.

Jim Lampley, ABC sports:

They played hockey the way we played basketball, with the same kind of control of the puck, the same kind of intricate offensive patterns, and of course the presence in goal of Tretiak – how could you beat ’em?

Boris Mikhailov, forward, Soviet hockey team, 1980:

Sport was tied with politics and any victory had big political undertones. Especially during the Olympic games when the General Secretary and everybody else was worried about how we would represent our country. Our task was only to place first.

On Putting Together the US Olympic Team:

Herb Brooks, coach, 1980 US Olympic hockey team:

[The Russians] could execute at such a high level of speed – skating, passing, shooting, thinking – I tried to develop a team that would throw their game right back at ’em.

Bill Baker, defenseman:

There was a huge difference, I think, between the guys from out East and the guys from out West. They’d come in with their fancy clothes, talkin’ trash, and there’s us guys with a little bit of a different outlook on everything.

Dave Silk:

The Boston guys – we thought we were pretty savvy, and there were guys who didn’t lock their doors or left their wallets out in plain sight. You know, we thought, these guys are a bunch of hicks from the cow pastures.

Herb Brooks:

I wanted to blur the boundaries of our country, build a We and an Us in ourselves as opposed to an I, Me, Myself. Our spirit was going to be a big asset. And you can’t have that type of thing if you have pockets of individuals and there’s not those team-building exercises throughout the year.

Herb Brooks to the team:

“Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.”

On the Tension of the Time
(Iranian hostage crisis, oil crisis, Russian invasion of Afghanistan, possible boycott of Olympics averted.)

Igor Kuperman, Soviet sports journalist:

Newspapers were full of articles blaming the Americans for everything, so an attitude for the entire Olympic team: Let’s show them who we are, let’s show them who are the greatest, let’s show them who are the strongest, and let’s show them on their soil.

February 12, 1980: Start of the Olympics in Lake Placid, Day 100 of the Hostage Crisis

The US and the USSR were in separate brackets, and nobody ever expected a standoff. They would only play one another if they both made it to the medal round.

Vladislav Tretiak, goaltender for the Russian team, one of the best to ever play the game:

We were anticipating getting the gold medals because we were the strongest team. The Czech team wasn’t very strong, the Swedes weren’t strong either. The Americans never really counted as an opponent. Therefore, there was nobody really to compete with.

The U.S. played Sweden first. It didn’t start off well. They were trailing 2-1 in the final period. Herb Brooks, wanting an extra man on the ice, pulled Jim Craig out of the goal, leaving it unattended.

Al Michaels, sportscaster:

I remember the US had several opportunities to tie the game and you just got the feeling, and of course as the clock ticks down, and now you’re under a minute … well, it’s not to be.

But with 29 seconds left in the period, Bill Baker scored.

Mike Eruzione, US team captain:

You always wonder – if Billy doesn’t score, what happens to the hockey team? Well, Billy did score.

Bill Baker:

I couldn’t believe it when it went in, you know?

John Powers, Boston Globe:

That was the biggest goal of the Olympics because if the Americans lose that game they’re virtually out of contention before the games even start.

Two days later, the U.S. played Czechoslavakia.

Mike Eruzione:

Many people said that the Czechs were considered the second-best team in the world and the only team that had a chance to beat the Soviets. Well, we pretty much dominated the Czechs.

This was the infamous game where Mark Johnson was injured from a cheap shot by a Czech player and there was a closeup of an enraged Herb Brooks on live television shouting out onto the ice in a cold controlled manner, “We’ll bury that goddamn stick right down your throat.”

Al Michaels:

I think that was one of the moments where a lot of people in this country said, Hey, pretty good little story taking place here. You have these fresh-faced kids, gotta keep an eye on these guys, and look at this coach, I mean, he’s right there backing his players.

John Powers, Boston Globe:

Now you’ve got a tie against the Swedes, you’ve got a win over the Czechs and you can sense it starting to build. You can sense the interest in America, they’re now taking notice of these kids, who are starting to turn this tournament on its ear.

Al Michaels:

So everybody is starting to look ahead to this prospective match-up against the Soviets, but before that, you have three other games. Norway figured to be the easiest of the games, and it was. Then you had Romania. And they won that game. Germany presented a little bit of a problem on Wednesday night, the last game prior to going into the medal round. Germany leads 2 nothing. Wait a second, what’s going on here, you don’t want this bump in the road, you don’t want it now. And the US was able to come behind and beat Germany. So they did all of the things they had to do. But then of course you had the spectre of the Soviets, just looming there.

Vlaidslav Tretiak, Soviet goaltender:

We were way stronger. Nobody ever doubted that. We were professionals and they were just students. Simply put, we did not respect their team. And you cannot do that in hockey.

Herb Brooks:

I kept whetting their appetite. Someone’ll beat those guys, someone’s gonna beat those guys. I don’t like how they’re playing. They think they’re better than they are.

Jack O’Callahan, U.S., defenseman:

Boris Mikhailov was as close to the Hockey Chief of the World as there was and Herbie starts teasing the guy all week. Look at that guy’s nose. Look at that guy’s face. Looks like Stan Laurel. And he’s insulting the guy. Look at Tikhanov, look at his head, he looks like a chicken. He’s laughing. Who do these Russians think they are anyway? Ha Ha Ha.

Herb Brooks:

“Can’t play against Stan Laurel? Piece of cake, guys!” To relax them, to keep them focused, and also plant the seed: Hey. Someone’s gonna beat those son of a guns.

February 22, 1980

The game was scheduled for February 22 at 5 p.m. No one had anticipated the wave of interest in this match-up and so 5 p.m. was definitely not primetime. There was talk of rescheduling it to 8 p.m. but the Soviets nixed that. So the game was taped and they waited to broadcast it. Which you could never do now in this day and age of Twitter, etc.

Al Michaels:

So here in this most bizarre and freakish circumstance, you have a 5 o’clock game on a Friday where people are filing in to a building in daylight going to a semi-matinee. Little would anybody understand that it would be … maybe the most memorable sports event they would ever go to in their lives.

Good old Al Michaels in his sharp Peter Pan collar, started off the broadcast with:

The excitement, the tension building, the Olympic Center filling to capacity. I am sure there are people in this building who do not know the dif between a blue line and a clothes line. It’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Because what we have at hand is the rarest of sporting events. An event that needs no buildup, no superfluous adjectives.

Herb Brooks went into the locker room to talk to the players.

Mike Eruzione:

He told us we were born to be a player, we were meant to be here, this moment was ours.

Jack O’Callahan:

And he told that story about spitting in the eye of the tiger. This is OUR time, this is not THEIR time. Screw them, Stan Laurel, all those Russians. It’s OUR turn.

Jim Craig, US goaltender:

I remember taking that first step and looking up and around and it was …. packed. Overflowed, flags everywhere. The intensity and the hatred is incredible. You don’t want to hit somebody against the boards. You want to put ’em through the boards.

Dave Silk:

You realized that the USA on the front of your sweater meant that you were playing for your country.

First Period

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Soveit defenseman:

The Americans were so strong in the first period, it was unexpected for us. They played very fast and very emotionally in all aspects.

The Soviets scored the first goal.

EM Swift, Sports Illustrated:

The Russians scored first, and you winced, and thought, Here it comes. But the US team took that blow, Craig made some key saves, and then Buzzy Schneider came down the left …

Slap shot. The game is tied. The US celebrate as if they won the game. Scoring just one goal off of Tretiak is a triumph. As Herb Brooks said, “If you score a goal against Tretiak, keep the puck.” To underline this point, Al Michaels says during the broadcast, That’s the type of goal you don’t expect somebody like Tretiak to give up. And the United States tie the game!”

The Soviets scored again. And with seconds left to play, the Soviets made an error. Without this error, you wonder if the rest of it would have gone down the way it did. But it just goes to show you that Tretiak’s honest (“simply put, we did not respect their team”) had trickled down into the players as if by osmosis. They were not on top of it. They were still ferocious, but they were not as ferocious as they could be. These were just students. The gold is already ours. It’s still amazing to watch this footage because you can feel it happen. There are seconds left in the period. Literally. 4 seconds. And you can FEEL everyone on that ice (US as well as Soviet) slacken. Oh well, the period’s over, let’s go back to the bench.

Mark Johnson takes advantage. He knows he still has 4 seconds. The period is NOT over.

Mike Eruzione:

Davy Christian has the puck. There’s about 5 seconds to go in the period. I stop to skate to the bench thinking the period’s over.

Jack O’Callahan:

And then I see Mark Johnson scooting up. He just didn’t stop playing. He was still playing. The Russians had stopped.

Mark Johnson:

I was going hard to the net, the defensemen just sort of let me go by, and I picked the puck up off a rebound and was able to put the puck in.

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Soveit defenseman::

We relaxed a little bit. We thought that the period was over and the horn would sound. Unfortunately, that was a big mistake.

Jack O’Callahan:

[Herb] had said it all week when he was teasing the Russians. “These guys think they’re gonna walk through everybody, look how cocky they are, they aren’t here to play hockey, they’re here to trade jeans and have a vacation and go home with the gold medal. They’re not serious about this.”

Astonishingly, the Soviet coach pulled Tretiak from the game.

Vladislav Tretiak, Soviet goaltender:

I went to the locker room and was preparing to play. But Tikhonov came in and said “Tretiak is playing poorly and will not play in the second period.” That was it.

Viktor Tikhonov, the Soviet coach:

[Benching Tretiak was] the biggest mistake of my career. Tretiak always played better after he gave up a goal. The decision was a result of getting caught up in emotions. After Tretiak gave up the rebound and let in the soft goal by Johnson, my blood was boiling. It was my worst mistake, my biggest regret.

Sergei Makarov, Soviet forward:

The whole team was not happy when Tikhonov made the switch. It was the worst moment of Vlady’s career. Tikhonov was panicking. He couldn’t control himself. That’s what it was – panic.

Second Period

The Soviets quickly scored the go-ahead goal. And Jim Craig worked overtime keeping the puck out of the net, save after save after save. Watching it, to this day, is a nail-biter. It’s like fighting off a tidal wave with a thimble. Herb Brooks worked hard to keep the players focused and relaxed, to not panic. You can see him in the footage shouting at the line of players on the bench, “Poise and control! Poise and control!”

Mike Eruzione:

We were only a goal down. We’d been there throughout the Olympic games, we were down to Sweden, we were down to West Germany, this is no big deal, no big difference for us, just keep playing, keep going.

Third Period

Valery Vasiliev, Soviet defenseman:

We were already celebrating. Nobody can skate with us in the third period.

But then Dave Silk comes down with the puck, shoves it toward the net and it pretty much lands right up against Mark Johnson’s waiting stick. Johnson easily scored and the score is now tied. 3-3.

Around this time, you stop being able to hear anything. Al Michaels is screaming over the roar of the crowd. Even Herb Brooks has lost his cool.

And 81 seconds later, with 10 minutes left in the period, the earthquake occurred.

Mike Eruzione:

Puck bounces out to me, coming over. You know, as my friends say to me to this day – 3 more inches to the left, you’d be painting bridges.

Al Michaels:

And that’s when the building went crazy. That’s when sound had feel. I mean, that was like an earthquake.

Jim Lampley, ABC sports:

The atmosphere in that arena was incredible. The feeling, the sense … that they could do this. They could actually pull it off.

Jack O’Callahan:

I sat down and I looked up and I went, 10 minutes. That’s a long time against these guys.

Jim Craig:

They could score in 10 minutes what would take us 60 minutes to score, and I knew that.

And so then began the longest 10 minutes in the history of recorded time. Nobody who watched that broadcast will ever forget it.

Mike Ramsey, defenseman:

Too much time. Too much time. We can’t hold them off this long. It was just a constant clock watch, shift by shift, shift by shift.

Al Michaels:

It went on forever. Time just stood still. It kept building and building and the clock kept winding down and it just got louder and louder.

Vladislav Tretiak:

Until the last minute I thought we would beat them. To lose? That was not possible.

Al Michaels:

And I’ll never forget we had that one shot of one of the Soviet players, his chin up against the top of his stick, and he had such a curious look on his face. I mean, it was almost as if he was enjoying this a little bit.

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Soveit defenseman:

We won so often that we no longer felt the thrill that the Americans showed. On the one hand it was great to see their emotions. But it was very bitter.

The following morning, the folks back in Russia got the news that their team had lost.

Igor Kuperman, Soviet sports journalist:

When the word got out that the Soviets lost and the game was shown and replayed, nobody believed in it. First of all, it’s lost to the Americans. Second of all, it’s lost to the Americans on American soil, and then – which is the most embarrassing – you lose to the college guys! Are they … drunk or what? What happened?

Vladislav Tretiak:

When you win the silver medal, it’s an honor. But not in the Soviet Union. When we arrived back home we wanted to quickly hide from the shame in the airport. In the streets people were saying How come you lost? And to whom? Some students?

Next, the U.S. had to play Finland, the final game of the medal round.

John Powers, Boston Globe:

It was still possible that if the Americans did not beat the Finns, that they would not only not win the gold, they wouldn’t win any medal at all, and Herb understood this.

Mike Eruzione:

We were excited, we were anxious, we couldn’t wait to get out and play. And Herb Brooks walked into the locker room and he looked at us and he said, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your fuckin’ grave.” Then he stopped, walked a couple of steps, turned to look at us again, and said, “Your fuckin’ grave.”

Despite the pep-talk, the game with Finland was shaky, and after two periods, the US found themselves down 2 to 1.

Jack O’Callahan:

There’s no way that Finland is keeping a gold medal from us. We went out there in the third period and I think we just steamrolled them from the time they opened that door and let us out. They didn’t have a chance.

The U.S, scored three goals in the third period, winning the game 4 to 2, and winning the gold medal.

Barry Rosen, one of the hostages held in Iran for 444 days:

When we did come back there was a video put together by the State Department about what went on during the entire time that we were taken hostage, ending with the Olympic hockey game, and I can tell you that all of us as hostages watched that and applauded most for that one, more than anything else. For me, having just came out of Iran, it was one of the happiest things to really see. I spent 14-1/2 months in deep captivity and there I am exposed to this wonderful sight of Americans going crazy over a hockey game. I wish I had been there. That was my only regret. Captivity shows you the depravity of human beings. I think the hockey game shows you the apogee of how things can happen in life.

Source: HBO doc: Do You Believe in Miracles, Tretiak’s autobiography, and Wayne Coffey’s book Boys of Winter.

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Happy Birthday, George Washington

That video is not safe for work, by the way. Due to its total awesomeness.

Here is a big post I wrote for Washington’s birthday in 2010.

I love my father’s quote the best: “We were so lucky.” This hurts now to post. But I will not allow assholes and criminals and sociopaths and evil racists to take away my patriotism.

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Happy Birthday, Wystan Hugh Auden: “The enlightenment driven away / The habit-forming pain”

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W.H. Auden was born on this day in York, England, 1907.

Two pieces of advice for writers from Mr. Auden:

To keep his errors down to a minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be a Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and even, perhaps, hated by all the others and returning their dislike, a brutal foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish.

Then there is:

Never write from your head; write from your cock.

Good advice.

There are only two other poets I can think of who take up as much brain-space for me as Auden, and those are Yeats and Shakespeare. I’ll be in some situation and suddenly I’ll remember Auden’s words “let the healing fountains start …” (from his poem, coincidentally, on Yeats) Or I’ll remind myself that I need to try to love my crooked neighbor with my crooked heart. I find Auden himself to be a “healing fountain”.

Auden did a lot of revising of his work over the years. A lot of his stuff has multiple dates on it. It wasn’t just language he revised, it was thought and philosophy. If he outgrew a certain view of life or humanity, he would go back and tinker with the poems that expressed said original view. There’s a fascinating example of this: In his chilling poem “September 1, 1939”, written about Germany’s invasion of Poland, there is a line “We must love one another or die”.

An extraordinary sentiment, especially in 1939.

Interestingly enough, it was Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’, that made a popular comeback, so to speak, following 9/11. Hitchens writes about that in his memoir Hitch-22: A Memoir. Auden was extremely important to Hitchens. I remember the post-9/11 renaissance of “September 1, 1939,” and had similar feelings about it as Hitchens did:

In Manhattan, it was both upsetting, and yet confirming, to see my favorite poet becoming the unofficial laureate of the moment. Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ had by some unspoken agreement been sent all around the Internet, and was to be found pasted or stapled to public surfaces in the city. Its early-warning couplet, ‘The unmentionable odor of death / Offends the September night’, began to materialize itself, especially as one worked one’s way south below Union Square and began to feel the nostrils actually dilate with the miasma. (Ever since, the lovely coincidence of the words ‘fall’ and ‘New York’ has always had a wretchedly double meaning for me.) … Even as the whining and the excuse making began, Auden’s lines were being reborn and recirculated, as if to emphasize that while the great edifices of New York may indeed be ‘capitalist’, they also represent a triumph of confidence and innovation and ingenuity on the part of the workers who so proudly strove to build them.

Here’s the famous poem in its entirety:

September 1, 2939
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 dead,
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.

Defenseless 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.

The poem was published, and Auden immediately saw all sorts of problems with it, having to do with its rhetoric and tone. His multiple problems were encapsulated in that line mentioned above: “We must love one another or die:”

He said he read the published version of the poem and:

…said to myself: ‘That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.’ So, in the next edition, I altered it to ‘We must love one another and die.’ This didn’t seem to do either, so I cut the stanza. Still no good. The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty – €”and must be scrapped.

He didn’t include the poem in his own canon. The poem felt dishonest to him, and he didn’t like how it was being used as propaganda/message/cross-stitch-philosophy. And that chilling substitution – from “or” to “and” – didn’t help. You can see the entire tenor of the times in that revision, can’t you? The despair and hopelessness. “And” changes everything.

Regardless, the poem survived, and it is included in his Collected Work. Over the space of years it has regained currency, especially in times of war and fear.

Christopher Hitchens wrote, in a 2007 essay in Slate about Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

W.H. Auden, whose centenary fell late last month, had an extraordinary capacity to summon despair but in such a way as to simultaneously inspire resistance to fatalism. His most beloved poem is probably ‘September 1, 1939’, in which he sees Europe topping into a chasm of darkness … ‘The enlightenment driven away …’ This very strong and bitter line came back to me when I saw the hostile, sneaky reviews that have been dogging the success of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s bestseller, Infidel, which describes the escape of a young Somali woman from sexual chattelhood to a new life in Holland and then (after the slaying of her friend Theo Van Gogh) to a fresh exile in the United States.

Then, of course, Auden has written two lines which – as difficult as they are – are words I actually try to live by. Poets may write beautiful stuff, and many of them do, but very few approach the level of prescriptive profundity.

If equal affection cannot be
Let the more loving one be me.

There’s something very difficult and Christian about that line. Biblically based, if you want to get boring about it. Of course, Auden was Catholic, so perhaps those lines remind me of the Catholic Mass and what it has to say and HOW it says it. It’s hard to live by those words, personally, socially, culturally. You want to lash out at those who have chosen to not love you. My feelings about all of this are complicated, and I have had a long and tempestuous relationship with those lines (and the poem from which it comes). I literally wrestle with that couplet.

For me, “Equal affection” has often finding myself suddenly in the role of Muse to somebody (not to sound like a douchebag, but that’s honestly how it has played out). So that Muse-thing had to go. Being a Muse is flattering but it is a dead-end, and also a hollow experience. The feeling of desolation, though, has been the result of giving up that role. I have wondered, back to Auden’s lines, if I have lived by that phrase too much?

In other words, in plainer words, “The more loving one” is often the one left out in the cold.

Much of Auden’s work, with its complex messaging and intersecting pressures (religion, sexuality, politics, nationality), is about attempting integration of these conflicting forces. Maybe that is why he comes up for me again and again. I, too, feel un-integrated, albeit for different reasons. I think many people do. I have felt cut off from things, from myself, from my fellow man. If I had to choose to re-read only one poem for the rest of my life, it would be “The More Loving One”. There’s enough there to contemplate for a lifetime. I would recite it to myself, in bed, in the weeks following September 11th, along with the Hail Mary, my two talismans against terror, as well as the choking smoke billowing up from lower Manhattan, seen from my bedroom window.

The More Loving One
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 dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

My feelings about this poem are complex. I take issue with it. I talk back to it. I yell at it sometimes. Maybe it is the “taking issue with” thing that makes it a great poem. Find the “total dark sublime“, Auden? Sublime?? NO. I REFUSE. I am too full of sorrow. And by the way, fuck you. But then comes the great and painful last line of admission, that changes everything: “Though this might take me a little time.” Without the last line, I would not consider the poem to be profound at all. I would not gravitate towards it in times of stress. And Auden would be just another sentimental optimist, a New Age-y “Make lemonade out of lemons!” do-gooder nonentity trying to spin catastrophe in a positive “helpful” way. This is the Oprah-ized concept of finding “lessons” in everything, that everything is an opportunity for self-growth. It’s a privileged viewpoint. And I don’t mean “privilege” in the way it’s over-used now. I mean it in the more classical way: Only people who have clean water, and live without constant fear of genocide and massacre and who don’t have to hole up in refugee camps for years on end, can say stupid shit like, “Everything happens for a reason.” Tell that to the people in Darfur, you asshole. “The More Loving One” deals with some kind of apocalyptic catastrophe. The stars have disappeared from the sky. Total dark. How to find that sublime? How on earth …? Auden knows that finding the “total dark” sublime will take a little time. Give him a minute. Give us all a minute.

To go off on a Shakespeare tangent (of which Auden would probably approve, there are many lines of Shakespeare that, similar to the lines in “The More Loving One”, have been “candle beams” in the darkness for me, throwing beams bright and brave in a “naughty world”. (For example.) “The More Loving One” stands, for me, as one of the most profound poems of all time.

I first encountered Auden in my “Humanities” class, senior year in high school. I got a lot out of that class, and I remember we analyzed Auden’s famous most-anthologized “Musee des Beaux Arts”. It was a great opportunity for a Humanities class, because it allowed the teacher to kill two birds with one stone:
1. Analyze Auden’s poem
2. Study Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus, which Auden’s poem is about.

icarus1

Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Auden3

I remember reading the poem, looking at the painting, going back to the poem, trying to see what Auden saw. In such a way do young teenage minds hone their analytical skills. I am grateful to my Humanity teacher. Of course there’s way more to the poem than that (the first line spilling over into the second line? Perfection), and its observations about the meaningless of human suffering, and our indifference to one another (something Auden comes back to again and again.)

The wonderful Clive James said about Auden:

The need to find an expression for his homosexuality was the first technical obstacle to check the torrential course of Auden’s unprecedented facility. A born master of directness was obliged straightaway to find a language for indirection, thus becoming immediately involved with the drama that was to continue for the rest of his life – a drama in which the living presence of technique is the antagonist.

What Auden withholds is almost as interesting as what he reveals.

Michael Schmidt said of Auden in Lives of the Poets, “He overshadows the poets of his generation.”

Auden straddles the 20th century. He read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and realized what he wanted to do, and, more importantly, what poetry COULD do. Eliot gave him the courage to reject old-fashioned 19th-century forms. Yet at the same time, his great and well-known love for Thomas Hardy suggests that Auden was also a traditionalist.

Edward Mendelson, who edited the Selected Poems writes of Auden’s major transformational epiphany that launched the poetry in him:

“Then, in June 1933, Auden experienced what he later called a ‘Vision of Agape’. He was sitting on a lawn with three colleagues from the school where he was teaching, when, he wrote, ‘quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly – because, thanks to the power, I was doing it – what it meant to love one’s neighbor as oneself.’ Before this, his poems had only been able to celebrate moments of impersonal erotic intensity, which he called ‘love’. Now, in the poem ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed,’ prompted by his vision, he had praise for everything around him.”

Here’s that poem.

A Summer Night
Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
Vega conspicuous overhead
In the windless nights of June,
As congregated leaves complete
Their day’s activity; my feet
Point to the rising moon.

Lucky, this point in time and space
Is chosen as my working-place,
Where the sexy airs of summer,
The bathing hours and the bare arms,
The leisured drives through a land of farms
Are good to a newcomer.

Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening
Enchanted as the flowers
The opening light draws out of hiding
With all its gradual dove-like pleading,
Its logic and its powers:

That later we, though parted then,
May still recall these evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look;
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees their muzzles laid,
And Death put down his book.

Now north and south and east and west
Those I love lie down to rest;
The moon looks on them all,
The healers and the brilliant talkers,
The eccentrics and the silent walkers,
The dumpy and the tall.

She climbs the European sky,
Churches and power stations lie
Alike among earth’s fixtures:
Into the galleries she peers
And blankly as a butcher stares
Upon the marvelous pictures.

To gravity attentive, she
Can notice nothing here, though we
Whom hunger does not move,
From gardens where we feel secure
Look up and with a sigh endure
The tyrannies of love:

And, gentle, do not care to know,
Where Poland draws her eastern bow,
What violence is done,
Nor ask what doubtful act allows
Our freedom in this English house,
Our picnics in the sun.

Soon, soon, through the dykes of our content
The crumpling flood will force a rent
And, taller than a tree,
Hold sudden death before our eyes
Whose river dreams long hid the size
And vigours of the sea.

But when the waters make retreat
And through the black mud first the wheat
In shy green stalks appears,
When stranded monsters gasping lie,
And sounds of riveting terrify
Their whorled unsubtle ears,

May these delights we dread to lose,
This privacy, need no excuse
But to that strength belong,
As through a child’s rash happy cries
The drowned parental voices rise
In unlamenting song.

After discharges of alarm
All unpredicted let them calm
The pulse of nervous nations,
Forgive the murderer in the glass,
Tough in their patience to surpass
The tigress her swift motions.

Auden

“Lion griefs”? I don’t even know what that means, but I like to think about it. “When stranded monsters gasping lie …” Marvelous, scary. Whatever he might think of Yeats, Yeats’ “rough beast” “slouching toward Bethlehem” is in that line. “A Summer Night” was the first moment Auden felt he “broke through” in his work. You can feel the difference in his poems afterwards. Before “vision of agape” Auden was one type of poet, after “vision of agape” he was another.

When she was a college student, my mother went to hear Auden read at her university, (or maybe it was at nearby Yale?). His public readings were always packed, the most prized ticket in town. 20 years before that, he gave a famous series of lectures on Shakespeare at the New School for Social Research (where I went to grad school), and these lectures created a frenzy. They were not tape recorded, but a guy who was there took copious notes, writing down, in shorthand, everything Auden said. Those notes were compiled into a book (I linked to it above). Anyone interested in Shakespeare MUST read Auden’s lectures. Indispensable.

Here is a fascinating excerpt from W.H. Auden’s lecture on Hamlet, given on February 12, 1947. As I said above, those lectures were collected in a fantastic book: Lectures on Shakespeare (W.H. Auden: Critical Editions). He gets at something essential here, that indefinable “IT” lying at the heart of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play, most psychological play (it’s all psychological). If you read Hamlet aloud, start to finish, with no cuts, it is almost four hours long. Modern productions cut it to bits in order to get it into a more manageable form. Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most gigantic parts. But what, ultimately, does the play say? If an answer comes easily to your lips, I fear you are a shallow charlatan, not to mention un-curious and uncomfortable with Mystery. The answer to that question shifts, depending on how YOU look at it. If you want to see it one way, then it IS that way. If you want to see it another way, then lo and behold, the play cooperates. Hamlet is a shape-shifter.

Here’s part of Auden’s take on Hamlet. Hope you have a cup of coffee nearby and don’t plan on going anywhere:

If a work is quite perfect, it arouses less controversy and there is less to say about it. Curiously, everyone tries to identify with Hamlet, even actresses – and in fact Sarah Bernhardt did play Hamlet, and I am glad to say she broke her leg doing it. One says that one is like a character, but one does not say, “This is me.” One says, “I am more like Claudius, perhaps, than I am like Laertes,” o “I would rather be Benedick than Orsino.” But when a reader or spectator is inclined to say, “This is me,” it becomes slightly suspicious. It is suspicious when all sorts of actors say, “This is a part I would like to do,” not “This is a part I have a talent to do.” I would question whether anyone has succeeded in playing Hamlet without appearing ridiculous. Hamlet is a tragedy where there is a part left open, as a part is left open for an improvisational actor in farce. But here the part is left open for a tragedian.

Shakespeare took a great deal of time over this play. With a writer of Shakespeare’s certainty of execution, a delay of this kind is a sign of some dissatisfaction. He has not got the thing he wants. T.S. Eliot has called the play “an artistic failure”. Hamlet, the one inactive character, is not well integrated into the play and not adequately motivated, though the active characters are excellent. Polonious is a pseudo-practical dispenser of advice, who is a kind of voyeur where the sex life of his children is concerned. Laertes likes to be a dashing man-of-the-world who visits all houses – but don’t you touch my sister! And he is jealous of Hamlet’s intellect. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are yes men. Gertrude is portrayed as a woman who likes to be loved, who likes to have romance in her life. And Horatio is not too bright, though he has read a lot and can repeat it.

The plays of the period in which Shakespeare wrote Hamlet have great richness, but one is not sure that at this point he even wants to be a dramatist. Hamlet offers strong evidence of this indecision, becaue it indicates what Shakespeare might have done if he had had an absolutely free hand: he might well have confined himself to dramatic monologues. The soliloquies in Hamlet as well as other plays of this period are detachable both from the character and the plays. In earlier as well as later works they are more integrated. The “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet (III.i.56-90) is a clear example of a speech that can be separated from both the character and the play, as are the speeches of Ulysses on time in Troilus and Cressida (III.iii.145-80), the King on honor in All’s Well That Ends Well (II.iii.124-48), and the Duke on death in Measure for Measure (III.i.5-41).

Shakespeare, at this time, is interested in various technical problems. The first is the relation between prose and verse in the plays. In the early plays, the low or comic characters – Shylock as well as Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, for example – speak prose. An intellectual character like Falstaff speaks prose, in contrast to a passionate character like Hotspur, who speaks verse. In As You Like It, contrary to tradition, both the hero and heroine speak prose. In Twelfth Night, Viola speaks verse at court and prose to herself, and the characters in the play who are false or have no sense of humor speak verse. Those who are wiser and have some self-knowledge speak prose. In the tragedies Shakespeare develops an extremely fertile prose style for the tragic characters. Hamlet speaks both verse and prose. He speaks verse to himself, in his soliloquies, and in speeches of violent passion to others, as in the scene with his mother. He otherwise usually speaks prose to other people. There is a highly developed relation to prose and poetry in all the plays of this period. In the last plays Shakespeare exploits verse more exclusively, and tends to use prose when he is bored, or when he needs to fill in the gaps. In Antony and Cleopatra, the boring characters use prose, the rounded characters, verse.

Shakespeare is also developing a more flexible verse. He started off with the end-stopped Marlovian and lyric lines that were suitable to high passion. In Hamlet he experiments with the caesura, the stop in the middle of the line, to develop a middle voice, a voice neither passionate nor prosaic. Hamlet also shows a development in Shakespeare’s use of the double adjective. From such a phrase as “sweet and honey’d sentences” in Henry V (I.i.50), which is tautological, he moves to pairs of adjectives in Hamlet that combine the abstract and the concrete: Laertes’ “And keep you in the rear of your affection / Out of the shot and danger of desire” (I.iii.34-35), for example, Horatio’s “These are but wild and whirling words, my lord” (I.v.133), and Hamlet’s “Led by a delicate and tender prince” (IV.iv.48). George Ryland’s book, Words and Poetry, is very good on Shakespeare’s language and style.

In this period, also, Shakespeare appears to be tired of writing comedy, which he could do almost too well – he was probably bored because of his facility in the genre. Comedy is limited in the violence of language and emotion it can present, although Shakespeare can include a remarkable amount of both in his comedies. But though he wants to get away from comedy, he doesn’t want to go back to the crude rhetoric of King John and Richard III or to the lyric and romantic rhetoric of Romeo and Juliet and Richard II. He doesn’t want a childish character, who doesn’t know what is going on, like Romeo and Richard II, nor a crude character like Brutus, who is a puppet in a plot of historical significance, where the incidents are more important than the characters. Finally, he doesn’t want a character of fat humour that the situation must be constructed to reveal. And having done Falstaff, he doesn’t want to go back to the crude character.

Shakespeare’s very success as a dramatic poet may have led him to a kind of dissatisfaction with his life that is reflected in Hamlet. A dramatic poet is the kind of person who can imagine what anyone can feel, and he begins to wonder, “What am I?” “What do I feel?” “Can I feel?” Artists are inclined to suffer not from too much emotion but rather from too little. This business of being a mirror – you begin to question the reality of the mirror itself.

Shakespeare develops Hamlet from a number of earlier characters who are in differing ways proto-Hamlets. Richard II is a child, full of self-pity, who acts theatrically but who is not, like Hamlet, conscious of acting. Falstaff is like Hamlet, an intellectual character and the work of an artist who is becoming aware of his full powers, but he is not conscious of himself in the way Hamlet is. When Falstaff does become conscious of himself, he dies, almost suicidally. Brutus anticipates Hamlet by being, in a sense, his opposite. Hamlet is destroyed by his imagination. Brutus is destroyed by repressing his imagination, like the Stoic he is. He tries to exclude possibility. The nearest to Hamlet is Jaques, who remains unexplained and can take no part in the action.

Auden29

Quotes by and about W.H. Auden.

“The subject of his poetry is the struggle, but the struggle seen, as it were, by someone who whilst living in one camp, sympathises with the other; a struggle in fact which while existing externally is also taking place within the mind of the poet himself, who remains a bourgeois.” – Edgell Rickword, “Auden and Politics”

“I think of Mr. Auden’s poetry as a hygiene, a knowledge and practice, based on a brilliantly prejudiced analysis of contemporary disorders, relating to the preservation and promotion of health, a sanitary science and a flusher of melancholia. I sometimes think of his poetry as a great war, admire intensely the mature, religious, and logical fighter, and deprecate the boy bushranger.” — Dylan Thomas

“A stanza of that witty and beautiful poem ‘On the Circuit’, written in 1963, registers W.H. Auden’s dread at the thought of lecturing on a booze-free American campus and asks, anxiously and in italics:

Is this my milieu where I must
How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!
Snatch from the bottle in my bag
An analeptic swig?

Christopher Hitchens, introduction to ‘One Man in Havana’, by Graham Greene

“One Sunday afternoon in March 1922, a friend suggested that I should [write poetry]: the thought had never occurred to me.” — W.H. Auden

“For more than a year I read no one else.” — W.H. Auden – on Thomas Hardy

“Another celebrated Auden line — ‘We must love one another or die’ — was annexed without his permission and used in Lyndon Johnson’s notorious attack ad on Barry Goldwater in 1964, showing a little girl counting petals as she mutates into a thermonuclear countdown. The hideous scene closes with Auden’s words. He was so furious at this that he removed the poem from his canon. He was prone to excise things that had been exploited or distorted, which is why ‘1 September 1939’ — the poem from which the line is taken — can still be hard to get hold of. The same is alas true of ‘Spain 1937’ and of his verse obituary for W.B. Yeats in 1939 — three utterly magnificent works in the space of three years.” — Christopher Hitchens, “The Essential Auden”, Los Angeles Times

“[Thomas Hardy had a] hawk’s vision, [a] way of looking at life from a very great height…” — W.H. Auden

“Chroniclers of Hitlerism have tended to divide between those who stress the ‘subjective’ personality, the man’s ravings and delusions and sexual inversions, and those who emphasize the ‘objective’ conditions, the resentment of millions of Germans at national humiliation and general penury. Some other scholars have simply pointed out, as if on a blackboard, that Hitler loudly proposed to ‘cure’ the second condition by railing at an ‘enemy within’, the Jews, and ‘an enemy without’, the Bolsheviks, with their Jewish characteristics. But that’s only to state the same problem in a different way. Obviously, there would have been nationalistic and anti-Semitic reaction to defeat on the battlefield, to the Communist threat, and to the Treaty of Versailles. W.H. Auden grasped this pathology, with a poet’s insight, in his ‘September 1, 1939’:

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…

Christopher Hitchens, review of ‘Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris’, by Ian Kershaw

“Auden: almost the only Englishman to have successfully mutated into an American, or at any rate certainly into a New Yorker. A previous occupant of his rather ramshackle old apartment building [in New York] had been Leon Trotsky, who could have made a considerable American if things had been very, very different.” – Christopher Hitchens, ‘Hitch 22’

Fascinating excerpt from Christopher Hitchens‘s book Why Orwell Matters, about the “feud” between Orwell and Auden, which came about because of Auden’s poem “Spain”:

I first struck across [Orwell’s] writing at about the same period that I encountered the poetry of W.H. Auden, and it has subsequenty grieved me that the quarrel between the two men makes it impossible to esteem them as allies, or as co-authors of equivalent moral clarity. This is Orwell’s fault: his attack on Auden is one of the few thuggish episodes in his prose, and is also related to his unexamined and philistine prejudice against homosexuality. But this depressing episode has its redeeming sequel, as I shall try to show. In May 1937 – the very worst month in the battle between the Spanish Republic and the deadly metastasis of Stalin’s regime within Spanish institutions – Auden published a long and beautiful poem entitled, simplly, ‘Spain’. The publication was not without its propaganda dimension; the poem first appeared as a shilling pamphlet with proceeds going to a Popular Front-organization ‘medical aid’ charity. However, in form and content the verses summon the idea of Spain itself (‘that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot / Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe’)’ the place it then held in the hearts and minds of thinking people (‘Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever / Are precise and alive’); and finally the agony experienced by those non-violent intellectuals who had decided to abandon neutrality and suppressing misgiving, endorse the use of force in self-defence:

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

It is hard to imagine it being put better: the fascist poets had exulted in violence and cruelty and domineering rhetoric, celebrating death and denigrating the intellect, while their opponents gathered resolve reluctantly yet with mounting determination. This was not at all Orwell’s reading of the poem. In two articles, one of them written for The Adelphi in 1938 and another more celebrated under the title ‘Inside the Whale’, he took venomous aim at the above stanza in particular. It was, he sneered:

a sort of tabloid picture of a day in the life of a ‘good party man’. In the morning a couple of political murders, a ten-minutes’ interlude to stifle ‘bourgeois’ remorse, and then a hurried luncheon and a busy afternoon and evening chalking walls and distributing leaflets. All very edifying. But notice the phrase ‘necessary murder’. It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder … The Hitlers and Stalins find murder necessary, but … they don’t speak of it as murder; it is ‘liquidation’, ‘elimination’ or some other soothing phrase. Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.

The laden sarcasm here is as gross as the cheapness of the argument. Who can possibly have thought that terms (not phrases) like ‘liquidation’ or ‘elimination’ were ‘soothing’? By giving the word ‘murder’ its rightful name, Auden was precisely declining to use the sort of euphemism that Orwell elsewhere found so despicable. His ‘brand of amoralism’ consisted in a sincere attempt to overcome essentially pacifist scruples, and to be candid about the consequences.

We do not know for certain how much Orwell’s excoriation weighed with Auden, but in 1939 he revised ‘Spain’ to delete all allusions to such moral dilemmas, and by the 1950s he had made sure that the poem, together with some others of the period, could not be anthologized under his name. This is in several ways a great pity: it suggests the mentality of an auto-da-fe and it also tears from its proper context a haunting phrase which still resounds in literary memory. The phrase is ‘History to the defeated’, and it occurs at the close of the poem, where Auden says: ‘We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and / History to the defeated / May say alas but cannot help or pardon.’ He developed a special horror for this formulation, writing later that: ‘To say this is to equate goodness with success. It would have been bad enough if I had ever held this wicked doctrine, but that I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective is quite inexcusable.’ Perhaps he was being too harsh on himself; few if any readers have interpreted the lines as a ruthless Hegelian equation of history (or ‘History’) with victory. Rather, the lines acquire their power from a somewhat remorseful recognition of necessity.

Or so Orwell may have come to believe. In concluding a review of a book by General Wavell in the critical month of December 1940, he wrote, of the preceding First World War:

The thick-necked cavalry generals remained at the top, but the lower-middle classes and the colonies came to the rescue. The thing is happening again, and probably on a much larger scale, but it is happening with desperate slowness and

History to the defeated
May say Alas! But cannot alter or pardon.

He quoted from memory as he often did, but seemed to approve the sentiment as rousing people to see that here was a way which could not be lost… Even when writing ‘Inside the Whale’ several years earlier, he had apologized to Auden for having described him previously as ‘ “a sort of gutless Kipling”. As criticism this was quite unworthy, indeed it was merely a spiteful remark … ‘ And, in preparing to take aim at ‘Spain’, he had taken care to observe that ‘this poem is one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war.’ “

“He was very lazy. He hated polishing and making corrections. If I didn’t like a poem, he threw it away and wrote another. If I liked one line, he would keep it and work it into a new poem. In this way whole poems were constructed which were simply anthologies of my favourite lines, entirely regardless of grammar or sense. This is the simple explanation of much of Auden’s celebrated obscurity.” — friend Christopher Isherwood

“The public, or ‘political’, poems of W.H. Auden, which stretch from his beautiful elegy for Spain and his imperishable reflections on September 1939 and conclude with a magnificent eight-line snarl about the Soviet assault on Czechoslovakia in 1968, are usually considered with only scant reference to his verses about the shameful end of empire in 1947. Edward Mendelson’s otherwise meticulous and sensitive biography allots one sentence to Auden’s ‘Partition’.” – Christopher Hitchens, ‘The Atlantic’, March 2003

“The poet who writes “free” verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor – dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.” – W.H. Auden

“Auden: great poet or great representative poet? A poet or a ‘classic of our prose’? He overhsadows the poets of his generation. He is Chaucer to the Gower of Betjeman and the Langland of MacNeice.” — Michael Schmidt

“In the [unpublished] poem, he [Auden] saw the blood trail which had dripped from Grendel after his arm and shoulder had been ripped off by Beowulf. The blood shone, was phosphorescen on the grass … It was as if Auden … had given imaginative place and ‘reality’ to something exploited for the Examination Schools, yet rooted in English origins.” — Geoffrey Grigson on what he called Auden’s “Englishness”

“Yet when I had been to hear W.H. Auden recite his poems at Great St. Mary’s Church in 1966, I had noticed that he closed with the words ‘God bless the USA, so large, so friendly, and so rich.’ (I now believe that that evening I was privileged to hear the first public rendering of ‘On the Circuit”, of which that is the last line. It’s a poem I have come to adore as I go around the United States as an itinerant lecturer.)” – Christopher Hitchens, ‘Hitch 22’

“A poet has to woo, not only his own Muse but also Dame Philology, and, for the beginner, the latter is more important. As a rule, the sign that a beginner has a genuine original talent is that he is more interested in playing with words than in saying something original; his attitude is that of the old lady, quoted by E.M. Forster – ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say?’ It is only later, when he has wooed and won Dame Philology, that he can give his entire devotion to his Muse.” — W.H. Auden

“It was indeed Auden – who had been a master at such a school as well as having been a pupil at one – who had said that the experience [of British boarding school] had given him an instinctive understanding of what it would be like to live under fascism. {He had also said, when told by the headmaster that only “the cream” attended the school: “yes, I know what you mean – thick and rich.”) — Christopher Hitchens, ‘Hitch 22’

“I ought to have recognized that my indignation was less against the injuriousness of his opinions than against him for holding them. I could not dissociate him from himself as the young poet who for me and for other poets of his generation had been the only potential giant among us.” – Poet, friend, and foe of Auden, Edward Upward, who fell out with Auden about ‘September 1, 1939’

“Long before the parable poetry of postwar Europe, Auden arrived at a mode that was stricken with premonitions of an awful thing and was adequate to give expression to those premonitions by strictly poetic means. But this unified sensibility fissured when Auden was inevitably driven to extend himself beyond the transmission of intuited knowledge, beyond poetic indirection and implication, and began spelling out those intuitions in a more explicit, analytic and morally ratified rhetoric. In writing a poem like ‘Spain’, no matter how breathtaking its condensation of vistas or how decent its purpose, or a poem like ‘A Summer Night,’ no matter how Mozartian its verbal equivalent of agape, Auden broke with his solitude and his oddity. His responsibility towards the human family became intensely and commendably strong and the magnificently sane, meditative, judicial poems of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were the result. We might say that this bonus, which includes such an early masterpiece as ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ and such a later one as ‘In Praise of Limestone,’ represents an answer to the question posed in ‘Orpheus’. That answer inclines to say that ‘song’ hopes most of all for ‘the knowledge of life’ and inclines away from the ‘bewildered’ quotient in the proferred alternative ‘to be bewildered and happy’. To put it another way. Auden finally preferred life to be concentrated into something ‘rich’ rather than something ‘strange’, a preference which is understandable if we consider poetry’s constant impulse to be all Prospero, harnessed to the rational project of settling mankind into a cosmic security. Yet the doom and omen which characterized the ‘strange’ poetry of the early 1950s, its bewildered and unsettling visions, brought native English poetry as near as it has ever been to the imaginative verge of the dreadful and offered an example of how insular experience and the universal shock suffered by mankind in the twentieth century could be sounded forth in the English language.” — Seamus Heaney, “Sounding Auden”

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The Importance of Editing

Here’s a great cut. A startling cut. A cut that tells the whole story. One image to the other: Boom.

Michael Luciano was the editor of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. He worked with Robert Aldrich quite a bit – he edited Kiss Me Deadly (that opening sequence!), as well as The Big Knife, The Dirty Dozen.

This cut. This is what storytelling is all about.

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From the Dusty Vaults: Awkward Bored Bed-Rumpled Slightly Disreputable Actors All in Black With Funereal Attitudes Submit To An Interview


Wait. Where am I? What is being said to me? Someone help me.

These images are pretty hilarious, sans context. Or maybe it is only the context that makes them hilarious. Or maybe it’s only Michael and me who find them hilarious. Or maybe you had to be there. Who cares.

Many moons ago, I was in a production of Killer Joe in Ithaca, New York. I’ve written about that experience before, mainly in this piece about Michael, who was also in the show. To describe what was going on with both of us at that particular moment in our lives and how we came together and why we got on so well immediately – where he was coming from, where I was coming from – would require a Venn diagram that I just don’t have time for, although I did get into some of it in that piece. Regardless, it happened. Our romance didn’t last long (because of that Venn diagram I don’t have time for), although a marriage proposal did come out of the blue 5 years later – at a time when we hadn’t seen each other in years, and weren’t even in touch on a regular basis – and I threw a wrench into the works by saying Yes – heavens! what do we do NOW? – but our friendship has lasted to this day. It seemed very important to me once upon a time to ask myself WHY so-and-so played such a huge role in my life. It doesn’t seem as important now. All that matters is it happened. Sometimes people find each other.

During our time in Ithaca, three of us in the cast (there were two more who bailed: lucky them) appeared on a local cable access show (one notch up in production values from Wayne’s World) to promote the show and be interviewed by the host (I cannot remember his name). There was a local station and Michael, Laurie and I showed up at the appointed time, having no idea what we were walking into. The interview, as I remember it, as Michael remembers it, was excruciatingly long – half an hour! – and awkward. The weirdest thing though is that I – only me? It can’t be – was provided with a video taped copy of the broadcast. Which I still have. I watched it just once back when I first received it, just enough to know that it was 1. almost too unwatchably awkward to endure; and 2. one of the funniest things I have ever seen.


This moment pretty much says it all about what the entire experience was like.

The VHS tape captures a certain moment in time, in a way that seems particularly precious because it came from before everyone had videos on their phones. I have no “footage” of myself in Ithaca, or that time in my life, of course I don’t. Just some pictures, including a photo I treasure, maybe my favorite photo of me. I don’t say that with vanity, but with gratitude that the MOOD of that time – who I WAS at that time – was captured. And it was taken by Michael.

There is that experience, there are my feelings for him and that time. Maybe I am nostalgic. I have a very hard time with the past, though. Let’s just say I am grateful for that time in my life, that blazing autumn of Ithaca and Michael and Killer Joe.

I look at pictures of us, and we dress alike, we stand alike, our body language mirrors one another, our glasses are the same, our shirts were the same (Gen X grunge kids), and etc. You see this happen with couples who have been together for 10, 20 years, but after 2 weeks? We weren’t imitating each other. We showed up for that experience and recognized a kindred spirit. That’s all.


hahahahaha. We hated playing cards. Laurie and Pat – who also coupled up during the show – forced us.


With Pat and Michael.

How on EARTH did we get that close that fast? Only youth can be that free and courageous. My favorite example of this is Michael saying to me, 4 weeks into our time in Ithaca, “I think you and I are in a rut. We need to shake things up.” A rut. After 4 weeks. We sure were though. Exhibit A.


Guys, you’re young, but you’re not SEESAW young. You’re in the first flush of passion. What the hell are you doing?

There are a couple of immortal lines from the interview that have stuck with me, and both came from Michael, who could barely restrain his feelings about what was going on. He COULD NOT DO IT.

1. The interviewer said, “The show is very violent and you –” looking at me — “take the brunt of it. How do you avoid getting hurt?” I opened my mouth to give a professional answer about running the fight choreography before every show, but Michael beat me to the punch, drawling, gesturing at me, “You should see her knees.” It was so inappropriate, because he said it like, “And believe me, pallie, I have, and they’re a MESS”, and I burst out laughing.

2. The interviewer asked the three of us, “Have you been enjoying your stay in Ithaca? What do you do during your time off?” Laurie and I were both about to give professional polite answers, telling him we had done hikes, gone out to wine country, ate at the Moosewood Cafe (all true), but Michael beat us to the punch, saying, “We sleep.” Laurie and I burst out laughing, and then hastened to add our polite responses to counteract the image Michael put out there into the world. Although he was right. Everyone spent a lot of time in bed although maybe not sleeping. Ba-dum-CHING.

So many years have passed since this ridiculous interview I forgot I had the VHS copy. In packing up to move to my new apartment, I found a pile of old tapes, looking through them. (I still have a VCR for this very reason. So many of my favorite films did not make the transition to DVD, let alone streaming. Screw technology.) The entire experience came flooding back into my mind: the interviewer’s bright green socks. Michael’s sprawling posture next to me, nearly horizontal.


Michael, why are you basically lying down while you are sitting in a chair? Also, couldn’t ONE of you have worn something colorful? You look like an Amish funeral.

Our monotonous voices as though we were announcing a death as opposed to promoting a show. The cameraperson who was basically John Lithgow in Garp. I am not saying that with judgment. I am saying it with celebration: Go you in Ithaca in the 90s! – but it was still part of the random-ness of the atmosphere. The bright blue background that made us look – again – like we were in a Lynchian space or about to film an extremely boring porno. Michael’s inappropriate comments suggesting a vast world of disreputable behavior behind the scenes.

Out of curiosity, I popped in the tape to watch. Only 15 seconds later, I was laughing so hard that tears were literally streaming down my face. It HURT. It has been a long long LONG time since I have laughed that hard. I couldn’t breathe. I scared my cat. Every second was funnier than the last. And nobody SAID anything funny (well, Michael did. Repeatedly.) It was more the VIBE on display. The three of us were so GLUM, so SERIOUS. Nobody really smiled. We sat in a row, all in black, clasping our hands in our lap, like Automatons of Doom, as opposed to actors excited to broadcast the show to the local audience. Who on earth would want to come out and see the play starring these gloomy-Guses?


You guys, are you promoting a show or are you listening to a verdict of death by lethal injection? I’m not clear.

Michael and I are almost identical twins. Our body language mirrors one another. But I, of course, in watching my facial expressions can see what was really happening with me. Back then, I was in tune with Michael’s extreme discomfort, his awkwardness in self-promotion, his self-conscious awareness of how ridiculous the experience was. And I KNEW how funny the experience was, and there are moments when I am looking at Michael where I can see now that I am barely holding on. I glance at him, take him in, and then have to quickly look away.


Uh-oh. Sheila’s about to blow.


Michael and I listen to something Laurie is saying. I look at my face and I see barely controlled hysteria. I am about to LOSE. IT. Of course the second the three of us got out of the TV station, post-interview, we could not – could NOT – stop laughing. It was such a relief to let it all out.

I took some pictures off my television and sent them to Michael, because I could not bear having this experience alone. He was blown away. WHAT AM I LOOKING AT. DM-ing me, “Please send me more. What am I saying?” My favorite comment from him was: “I will always be disappointed in us that we did not take the opportunity to use this as a Punk Rock Moment. We should have behaved really badly, lit up a cigarette, get offended at questions, storm off. Why didn’t we do that? It would have been legendary to the 15 people who actually saw it.” Michael’s only concession to that brilliant idea was after the interview ended, we sat there as the “credits” “rolled,” and the interviewer kept talking to us, even though we couldn’t be heard, and Michael, slumped in his chair, hand on his face, slowly raised his middle finger at the camera.


Oooh, rebel.

There’s one moment where the interviewer asks all of us about our experiences in acting before this show. (As a real grown-up now, I can hear a lot of condescension in this well-meaning man’s questions. Here we were, professional actors, in a show. And he treated us kind of like Stephen Colbert treated Eminem in that classic cable access interview.) “So is this what you want to do with your lives?” Uhm, we already ARE doing it. But anyway, Laurie gave a brief resume. I gave a brief resume. Then it was Michael’s turn. Michael was still in college. I think he had just turned 20. At age 26, I robbed the cradle. (Although Michael was a go-getter. Only a couple of years later he wrote/directed/starred in his own movie, which you all should see. Kwik Stop, I discussed here, and championed by Roger Ebert, Charles Taylor for Slate. And I wrote about it for the Ebert.com series “My Favorite Roger Review”. So Michael, all evidence to the contrary, his posture to the contrary, was no slouch. He knew what he wanted. He already had the idea for that script while we were in Ithaca, and we would discuss it. I had no doubt he would do what he said he was going to do. And he did.)

But at the time: what the hell acting experience did he have? A couple of college shows. Michael was so uncomfortable with the question, that he mumbled some answer, all as he twisted his body practically horizontally so that he was almost totally off-screen (I was DYING watching this), and from off-screen, you can hear him say – and I swear I’m not making this up – “I’ve done some kabuki.”

WHAT? I told this to Michael and he said, “Kabuki?? What the fuck.”


Wait, what is he asking me? When can I leave?


I am being forced to answer this question about what I’ve done before this and I feel like such a fraud that I can only start laughing, inappropriately, and I cannot stop acting like a weird person.


I’ve done some kabuki. SOMEONE GET ME OUT OF HERE.

Laurie was the ring-leader, trying to corral Michael in. I couldn’t do it because I was finding his behavior so outrageously funny that I feared to get involved. Laurie spoke about the play, about Tracy Letts, about the rehearsal process, and the themes of the show. I spewed some bullshit about how I liked to explore “dark stuff.” NO SHEILA NO. STOP TALKING.


Oh shit I can’t stop talking about “dark stuff.”

I sent the photo below to Michael. He responded, “Aw, that’s beautiful. Look at you buying my bullshit.”

I posted some of these images on Facebook. So many of my friends were saying, “I have GOT to see this.” “You all look like you’re about to shoot a porn film.” “Are these outtakes from Blue Velvet?”

But my favorite thing was that every person involved in that show – every cast member as well as the director – “Liked” the post, and left comments about how special the experience was.

You see? These bonds last.


To me we always look like 1. we just rolled out of bed OR 2. just came off a killing spree.

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My Parents’ Anniversary

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My parents on their snowy wedding day. (That’s my O’Malley grandfather, known to his grand-kids as “Pop”, sitting in the background. If you’d like to see how spiffy Pop was, take a look at this treasured photo of my O’Malley grandparents.)

A thoughtful day of love, gratitude and remembrance. I wrote about my parents’ romance (and other things) in this piece for Pixar Week, of all things.

I love my family.

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Review: American Fable (2017)

I reviewed American Fable, the REALLY impressive debut from writer-director Anne Hamilton for Rogerebert.com.

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X Marks the Spot

Teddy Roosevelt’s diary from the day his wife Alice and his mother died, Feb. 14, 1884.

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Valentine’s Day Story #2: The Spitball Valentine

In the 6th grade, I was passionately in love with a boy named Andrew Wright. My love for him had begun to blossom tentatively in the fifth grade, but the sensation that exploded in sixth grade was real love, no more kid’s stuff, and I could sense the difference like night and day. I didn’t love Andrew Wright because he was cute, or because he had a nice way about him and was really funny and would crack jokes in Sunday School, or because he thought I was a good person to have on his baseball team. I loved him because he was the epitome of all that was good and right in the world.

We grew up in the same neighborhood, and had been hanging around since we were little kids. We went to the same church and had made our first communions together. We were on the same school bus, we would play tag or baseball in the summer twilights or the two of us would take turns re-enacting Carlton Fisk’s famous homer from 1975, as our mothers called us impatiently in to dinner, we would sneak into the backyard of the house diagonally across the street from mine and pick the raspberries that grew there, running away at the slightest movement from inside.

It was all very unrequited. We were eleven years old. Half of the fun was just being in love with someone. Nothing ever had to be done about it.

That winter in 6th grade, Andrew and I spent all of our time after school, and on weekends, skating on the frozen pond in the woods near our houses. He would steal my hat, and I would chase him to get it back. We would wrestle for it, sometimes rolling around on the ice, I would get it back, and then he would chase me. It was a private thing we did. We didn’t reference it when we were in school. We didn’t say to each other, “Let’s keep this a secret.” €I guess when you’re a kid you understand these things. We had become very close, in an unspoken way, in an outdoor way. Our true milieu was on the ice, the grey wintry woods around us, chasing each other on skates, laughing, bantering, freezing cold, and the bare trees towering above.

In February of that year, sixth grade, there was a big Valentine’s Day ceremony in our class. In grade school, the custom was to buy Valentine’s Day cards in bulk, the ones with cartoons and silly rubber-stamp sentiments (2 good 2 be 4gotten). Each kid was called up by name, all the cards passed out, with everyone hovering over their pile, pre-pubescent misers, reading the messages, fluttering with sixth grade romantic feelings and alarming hormone surges.

Of course, once I settled down with my pile, I started searching for Andrew’s card immediately, trying to play it cool in case anyone looked over at me, womanly wiles already kicking in. You know, no biggie, whatever, just lookin’ at my Valentines, not looking for one in particular, heck no!

By the time I got to the bottom of the pile, my heart had clenched up into a tiny hard ball bearing. He hadn’t given me a card. There was no card from Andrew Wright in my pile. How could he? How could he … how could he have not written me a card? After all that we had shared? After the frozen pond?

It was my first taste of that particular brand of dread, something that I perceive now as adult in nature. My feelings were clearly not reciprocated. How could that possibly be? And what will I do now with all of this feeling?

It was an entirely new sensation, startling to me in its relentless clarity.

I thought I might have to get up and leave the classroom, which was abuzz with conversation and laughter and gossip, everybody wandering from desk to desk. I had a pile of cards in front of me, but not one from the boy I loved. I needed to get away and just be really really sad for a minute, maybe even cry, away from my classmates. Nobody must see my grief. Andrew must never ever know how much I had hoped for a Valentine from him.

But then, suddenly, Andrew Wright, on his way somewhere else, walked by my desk and, without stopping or saying a word, dropped what looked like a tiny spitball in front of me. He kept going, didn’t look back. Nobody looking on would have perceived what had happened. It was a sly gesture, meant to appear invisible, a camouflage.

Disbelieving, I opened up the spitball.

It was not a store-bought card. It was not a rubber-stamp Hallmark that he had signed his name to. It was not generic. It was not, in short, like the card I had given to him. (Even then, the intensity of my emotions was such that I felt the need to hide it, to protect people from it, even the boy I loved. It would be “too much”, right?)

What he dropped on my desk was a tiny piece of white construction paper that he had clearly ripped off the corner of a larger sheet, and he had written his own message on it in smudgy #2 pencil:

Dear Sheila
Youre a good kid and a good story writer.
Andrew

Even though I was a child, I knew what had just happened and the enormity of it:

— He couldn’t have just given me a cutesy Hallmark Valentine. It wouldn’t have been right. In his young boy’s heart, he knew we were closer than that.

— He needed to express how he felt about me privately. It would have been a disaster if other kids in the class had seen that message. Our frozen-pond twilights were in that card.

— In the note, he didn’t talk about how cute I was, or how he liked my freckles, or any other “part” of me. He talked about my qualities and my talents, and how he liked those. We are on the cusp of young adulthood here, still little kids, but with adolescence breathing down our necks. In the years to come, much of the attraction of another human being would be pheromonal, and chemistry-driven, based on the overwhelming desire to roll around on a couch in a clutchy-grabby way with that person. All awesome stuff, but Andrew’s note pre-dates those desires. He probably wouldn’t have written such a note a mere year later, when we were in 7th grade. But here? He likes me because I am a “good kid”, and he likes me because I am a “good story writer.” I did not realize at the time what a gift that would be, to have someone perceive ME, in that way. Or, let’s say, I didn’t realize how much I would yearn for such a note in years to come.

— A generic flirty note would not have been right either, he knew that, so he made the bold move to go personal. He addressed me. Directly.

The note from Andrew, written before I wore a bra or knew about things like cramps or heartbreak, written during the bleak tail-end of the 1970s, is still the most romantic I have ever received.

andrew.jpg

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