Audenesque (2012)

Audenesque is dedicated to my friends Kate Lindsey and James Zakoura without whose support, the cycle would not exist.

Movements:

In Memory of W.B. Yeats

I.
II.
III.
IV. Audenesque

 

Notes:

Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats is a poem celebrated with good reason. It’s an emotionally searing, intellectually substantive and formally acute piece of work that has all the trademarks of Auden’s brilliant wit. Above all the poem allows us to experience the transformative journey from the cold, despondent, mourning of the dead with which it opens to its opulent and reaffirming closing statements. The three parts of In Memory of W.B. Yeats have a musical architecture inherent to them. At the very opening of the poem, Auden sets a scene that brings us to the dead of winter, to a time when nations are likened to barking dogs, locked and frozen against one another. The world is at war and, to add insult to injury, an artistic titan, William Yeats, dies on January 28th 1939 together with his much needed poetic voice.

Auden famously said that “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead” and In Memory of W.B. Yeats is a great example of such a work of art. It opened the way for Joseph Brodsky, with his known admiration for Auden, to adapt the form of Auden’s poem in his Verses on the Death of T.S Eliot. When Brodsky himself died in the dead of winter on January 28th 1996 at his New York City apartment it moved Seamus Heaney to call the same day that had claimed both Yeats and Brodsky a “Double-crossed and death-marched date” in a masterful poem that adapts Auden’s four-beat quatrain to memorialize Brodsky. Seamus and I first spoke about his poem when we were discussing poetry for a different collaboration and it became clear to me that setting his poem with Auden’s in a cyclical form would present an irresistible arch of influence; a conversation linking Yeats, Eliot, Brodsky and Heaney. I decided to set Auden’s elegy as a cycle of three songs, followed by a fourth, Heaney’s tribute.

Audenesque begins with a catastrophe: the death of an artistic giant. With utter bleakness, Auden describes the mercury sinking, the airports deserted, and a cold world. When it is proclaimed twice, with great intensity, “What instruments we have agree /The day of his death was a dark cold day”, it is clear that he is talking about a coldness, as Heaney later points out, “in the poet and the word”.

The stormy first song of Audenesque gives way to the setting of the second part of Auden’s elegy. This song highlights the strings and celeste. In this intimate setting, Auden addresses Yeats for the first time. Here, poetry’s triumph is its survival in a place “where executives would never want to tamper” rather than achieving any heroic transfiguration.

Without pause, the third song begins, setting the final, metered section of Auden’s Elegy. Here, I mark the score “austere and measured” and the metered chimes ring allegorically as Auden intones for the first time the name of William Yeats. After recapping the status quo and reaching its lowest point, the music starts to heat up. It’s at the end of this poem that the miraculous transfiguration of traditional elegies happens for Auden as it did for poets of the past:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

The poet becomes a messianic hero who can descend to “Dante’s deep hell” (as Heaney puts it) and return to farm a verse that inspires us to our highest heights.

The final song sets Seamus Heaney’s Audenesque, a poem that brings the dialogue of these poets to the present day and is also the most poignant analysis of Auden’s poem. At the opening of his poem, Heaney calls both Joseph Brodsky and Wystan Auden by name. The music of this song reflects on dialogue, remembrance, a train ride that Heaney shared with Brodsky, “politically incorrect jokes involving sex and sect”; it is warm, humorous and visceral. The end of this setting brings us back to Auden’s miraculous transformation, achieved again by Seamus Heaney within the same constrained quatrains. In the last two stanzas Heaney speaks directly to the spirit of Brodsky in one of the most beautiful examples of the power of what, in Heaney’s words, “good poets do” and what good poets are capable of doing.

—Mohammed Fairouz (2012)

 

Texts:

In Memory of W.B. Yeats

I.

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

II.

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

III.

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

—W.H. Auden

 

IV. Audenesque

Joseph, yes, you know the beat.
Wystan Auden’s metric feet
Marched to it, unstressed and stressed,
Laying William Yeats to rest.

Therefore, Joseph, on this day,
Yeats’s anniversary,
(Double-crossed and death-marched date,
January twenty-eight),

Its measured ways I tread again
Quatrain by constrained quatrain,
Meting grief and reason out
As you said a poem ought.

Trochee, trochee, falling: thus
Grief and metre order us.
Repetition is the rule,
Spins on lines we learnt at school.

Repetition, too, of cold
In the poet and the world,
Dublin Airport locked in frost,
Rigor mortis in your breast.

Ice no axe or book will break,
No Horatian ode unlock,
No poetic foot imprint,
Quatrain shift or couplet dint,

Ice of Archangelic strength,
Ice of this hard two-faced month,
Ice like Dante’s in deep hell
Makes your heart a frozen well.

Pepper vodka you produced
Once in Western Massachusetts
With the reading due to start
Warmed my spirits and my heart

But no vodka, cold or hot,
Aquavit or uisquebaugh,
Brings the blood back to your cheeks
Or the colour to your jokes,

Politically incorrect
Jokes involving sex and sect,
Everything against the grain,
Drinking, smoking like a train.

In a train in Finland we
Talked last summer happily,
Swapping manuscripts and quips,
Both of us like cracking whips

Sharpened up and making free,
Heading west for Tampere
(West that meant for you, of course,
Lenin’s train-trip in reverse).

Nevermore that wild speed-read,
Nevermore your tilted head
Like a deck where mind took off
With a mind-flash and a laugh.

Nevermore that rush to pun
Or to hurry through all yon
Jammed enjambements piling up
As you went above the top,

Nose in air, foot to the floor,
Revving English like a car
Hijacked when you robbed its bank
(Russian was your reserve tank).

Worshipped language can’t undo
Damage time has done to you:
Even your peremptory trust
In words alone here bites the dust.

Dust-cakes, still – see Gilgamesh –
Feed the dead. So be their guest.
Do again what Auden said
Good poets do: bite, break their bread.

—Seamus Heaney