183. The Crisis: W. H. Auden

A friend sent me this book while clearing up her mother’s estate:

It is the X.J. Kennedy “Introduction to Poetry” of 1941, I think.  The editor’s intent is similar, and they take the reader by the hand through a landscape of poetry.  It was interesting, in part because originally I thought it was an anthology.  There certainly was no textbook feel.

In the back was an entire chapter on revisions.  Here are the pages for an W. H. Auden poem that ultimately was titled “The Crisis” (although I have seen a mention that it was ultimately called “They” in the end).

Why do we care?  Middle school students tend to think that writing happens once.  Sure, sure we teach them about drafts, and even make them do drafts, and scaffold assignments so that they are forced to do drafts.  How does the work?  Not so well.

Drafts are a skill that has to be beaten into them through years of nagging.  Yes, nagging.  Even after years of efforts, a second draft for most of my students is a run through the spell check (if I’m lucky).  Sigh.

Does this quote sound familiar: “But I made all of the corrections you told me to in the comments.”  Sigh.

So, here’s Auden: One of the great poets of the 20th century, and he’s crossed out more than he’s written.  Cross, cross, cross.  Yes, we can talk about “If the great Auden does drafts, you should, too” not being the most effective strategy.  This will not change the world, or the mind of a twelve year old.

It does, though, slow things down.  It makes rough drafts and cross-outs acceptable.  Mistakes happen.  It is, as all of these poems are, a single tool for the tool box.  Think: 180.

Teaching: One is to type up the poem in his original, and then in the final.  (Or, better yet, have one of your advanced students do it; they get the feel of the poem and you get work done for you: win-win).  Pass it out to students, not telling them which is the “final” poem.  Have students decide for themselves which is the “better” poem, along with some analysis (this can be a freewrite or something more formal).  Then, discuss and vote as a class.  Finally, the reveal.

Another discussion is about edits in general.  Which draft is the definitive draft?  Do we gain anything by reading rough drafts?  Whitman kept revising “Leaves of Grass” until his death.  The Dickinson we know is not the same as the “corrected grammar” versions our grandparents read.  Which is correct?

The decisions writers make is fascinating.  The role of the editor, too.  Full disclosure, I’m a big T. S. Elliot criticism fan and all around New Critic.  An interesting discussion is which poem is the right poem (and can there be a “right” poem?)?  Once you’ve seen Ezra Pound’s edits on Elliot’s “The Wasteland”, and read how horrible the original way, you’ll see what a good editor can do (I would argue somewhat over authorship, having seen those edits).

A more accessible argument is to be made about J. K. Rowling.  Her editor abbreviated her name because boys won’t read female authors.  Okay, but now she’s stuck with “J. K.” instead of her given name.  Her most recent novel, “The Casual Vacancy” (which is a great read), is being panned because of her past as a children’s author.  Can we, as readers, ever separate ourselves from our biases and past knowledge?

All of which gets us far away from writing drafts.

Here’s the final version of “The Crisis.”

The Crisis
W. H. Auden

Where do they come from? Those whom we so much dread,
as on our dearest location falls the chill
of their crooked wing and endangers
the melting friend, the aqueduct, the flower.

Terrible Presences that the ponds reflect
back at the famous and, when the blond boy
bites eagerly into the shining
apple, emerge in their shocking fury,

and we realize the woods are deaf and the sky
nurses no one, and we are awake and these,
like farmers, have purpose and knowledge,
but towards us their hate is directed.

We are the barren pastures to which they bring
the resentment of outcasts; on us they work
out their despair; they wear our weeping
as the disgraceful badge of their exile.

We have conjured them here like a lying map;
desiring the extravagant joy of life,
we lured with a mirage of orchards,
fat in the lazy climate of refuge.

Our money sang like streams on the aloof peaks
of our thinking that beckoned them on like girls;
our culture like a West of wonder
shone a solemn promise in their faces.

We expected the beautiful or the wise,
ready to see a charm in our childish fibs,
pleased to find nothing but stones, and
able at once to create a garden.

But those who come are not even children with
the big indiscriminate eyes we had lost,
occupying our narrow spaces
with their anarchist vivid abandon.

They arrive, already adroit, having learned
restraint at the table of a father’s rage;
in a mother’s distorting mirror
they discovered the Meaning of Knowing.

For a future of marriage nevertheless
the bed is prepared; though all our whiteness shrinks
from the hairy and clumsy bridegroom,
we conceive in the shuddering instant.

For the barren must wish to bear though the Spring
punish; and the crooked that dreads to be straight
cannot alter its prayer but summons
out of the dark a horrible rector.

The tawny and vigorous tiger can move
with style through the borough of murder; the ape
is really at home in the parish
of grimacing and licking: but we have

failed as their pupils. Our tears well from a love
we have never outgrown; our armies predict
more than we hope; even our armies
have to express our need for forgiveness.

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