Saturday, November 29, 2008

Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" — Never Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Poem?

Saint Mark Freeing a Christian Slave

The Spoliation
El Greco

John the Baptist

The Third of May

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus

About suffering, they were frequently wrong,
The Old Masters: if they understood
Its human position, how it takes place
While someone is eating, opening a window, or just walking along,
That understanding is rarely in evidence
In their paintings, which more typically depict
The agonies of martyrdom, the brutalities of the state
As the central focus of the work—as though
Outside of the radiant anguish,
Little else exists or is worthy of attention.
And not simply for the viewer, we posterity whose eyes
Are directed via light effects and shadow
Toward the tear-stained face of Mary or
The tortured veins on the throat of a slave, but
For the other inhabitants of the painting, who usually
Are turned toward the central scene of pain, and not—
Like the ploughman, the expensive delicate ship
In Brueghel's atypical "Icarus"—gesturing away.
The central argument of Auden's poem seems to be
About human suffering itself, which inarguably does
Happen while others are not paying attention.
It is undebatably true we are all cocooned
Within the opaque veils that comprise
Our own fields of concern; that we fail
Again and again to attend to the suffering of others,
And that this has elements of both tragedy
(Our blindness, our inefficacy in the face of horror)
And solace: that all of this shall pass. But this much loved
(By me as well) poem argues its case
With evidence circumstantial at best, using
A painting that in no way typifies
The Old Masters approach to suffering. In their work,
One could more rightly argue
That suffering is the center of the world, and that every eye
Moves toward it as a needle points to north
To be, by its dark light, inexorably changed.

How did Auden pull this off? Is there any chance that his great poem should be read not as a statement on the nature of suffering, but about the critic's ability to force misinterpretation by misdirecting the viewer's gaze (and perhaps the poet's ability to do the same?) I'm just spitballing here ... because I don't think this poem would have survived this long if it were read as a statement about how criticism/interpretation is a tricky process in which "experts" misguide us.

Poetry often seems to be what sounds like truth—the Muses said as much to Hesiod. Yet I am not entirely comfortable with "truths" that try to claim our minds without the needed facts, which gesture toward the thinking behind edifices such as Kentucky's Creation Museum.

I have started to collect these factual issues in other poems I like: In B. H. Fairchild's "Weather Report," for instance, how everything builds nicely into his thesis: a wry acknowledgment that both grand scale injustice and quotidian dolor are perpetual—a fairly convincing argument, largely supported by his facts (and ours). Yet, stanza four is this nice little mousetrap:

Eichmann lies in bed and reads a novel;
A Holocaust survivor sets himself on fire.
The thief's in church, the priest is in the brothel;
the sky is clear, the weatherman's a liar.

Sounds great, but this is from his 2003 collection, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, and unless Fairchild wrote this particular poem back in '62, Eichmann had been dead—captured in Buenos Aires, taken to Israel, tried, and hanged—for 40 years. You can argue that the poem is outside of time in some way; that it speaks a truth beyond the factual about victims and victimizers, that it captures certain eternal realities without capturing temporal facts. But for some reason, I feel that it matters that no, Eichmann is not lying in bed and reading a novel; he is not lying anywhere because his ashes were scattered in international waters so no one could visit his grave or memorialize him. Whatever you think about state-sanctioned execution, Eichmann's fate certainly bespeaks a kind of moral justice that the poem seems to argue is absent from the world.

A good poem, even if it's not making any kind of philosophical argument as these two are, must be persuasive about its vision. And yet, I think both Auden and Fairchild's poems do persuade, even without having all the facts in order. So where is the border between fact and truth? Would these poems be improved by use of facts more supportive of their arguments, even if the names were more obscure? (There are certainly some Nazi war criminals who escaped the noose, but few would have the resonance of Eichmann.) Is all that separates great poetry from great propaganda a poet's good intentions?


Sandra said...

Interesting post. Not sure if you read his blog, but Matthew Thorburn talked about the same concern a while back:

M. C. Allan said...

hey, thanks for the reference, Sandra. I like his post a lot and will have to start reading his blog!

I always struggle with how important facts are for poetry, because god knows I've taken plenty of liberties (that "Baghdad Zoo" poem from the Winning Writers war poetry contest actually includes details from the zoo in Baghdad and Kabul; Kabul is the one with the blind lion). I guess where I come out is that if a fact is wrong enough to distract me, it's a problem ... and in Auden's poem, it seems to be a key part of his thesis about suffering, or at least his doorway into the ideas he works through.

I don't know, though. God knows I'd been loving "Musee" for years before the problem struck me! :)

Anonymous said...

About being wrong, they were never wrong.
About bacon, they were never wrong.
About hair, they were never wrong.
About the pastrami, they were never wrong.
About puppets, they were never wrong.
About flatulence, they were usually wrong. It was me.

M. C. Allan said...

If they were right about the bacon and the pastrami, they should have been smart enough to work out the flatulence issue as well. A clear causative connection.

JeFF Stumpo said...

Hi, M.C.

Came over here after your endorsement of Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book over on John Gallaher's blog.

Going to muse on this post for quite a while. I've been working (slowly, have an unrelated dissertation to write) on a short article about ethics, history, and poetry. It, too, takes art as its starting point. For me, it was a wonderful quote regarding the possibility that Goya's Colossus might not actually be by Goya: "This is happening with Caravaggios all the time." This led to doing some brief research, finding a lead that suggested Goya's Black Paintings were actually done by his son - a concept that sparked a hugely creative writing frenzy, only to continue researching and find that this was a fringe theory with little reasonable basis.

One of the major questions, which I can now raise in terms of the authors you mention rather than just referring back to myself: is the world nonetheless better somehow for the presence of the poems, even with their factual blemishes?

Anonymous said...

carrie, glad you got around to writing about the auden inconsistency. i think the key point, as you say, is whether a falshood distracts the reader from the poem's emotional impact.
... auden's assertion distracted me (after you pointed it out). i'm more comfortable with eichmann in bed reading. there is no real pretense of truth here.
... add to your lovely art collection titian's 'flaying of marsyas.'
-- mouse

M. C. Allan said...

Hey Jeff: Thanks for dropping by and for your thoughtful response. The Goya material sounds really fascinating. I've been trying to work through some interesting reading on the Vermeer forgery that fooled all the primary experts ... now most people look at it and go, "How?" (The painting is "Supper at Emmaus," in case you want to look it up -- some fascinating stuff, to me, and I'm trying to mine it right now because it seems so layered in multiple types of fakery).

I agree with you about the world being better for these poems, especially Auden's, which I've long loved. I've always found it really comforting ... so I wish I hadn't noticed that he hung it on a flimsy peg! It reminds me a little of how I felt when someone (back in high school, I think) first told me that Frost's "The Road Not Taken" was meant ironically. I'd always taken it very sincerely and haven't been able to love it in the same way since, though I guess I'm glad to know!

Good luck with your research; would love to hear where it leads you.

M. C. Allan said...

Mouse: Yeah, it only took me three months to get around to parsing out the Auden thought! Oy, the busyness of life.

I'm comfortable with the generic idea that "Eichmanns" (using Eichmann as a prototype for murderous evil bureaucrats) are lying around peacfully reading novels while their victims suffer. I'm less comfortable with the idea that the actual Eichmann is. I just think it's a bad example.

"Pinochet takes a nice warm bath" or "Stalin eats a tasty meal at home" might have been better lines to use here. I say this only halfway tongue-in-cheekily. The resonance would have been different and fewer people would have the immediate association that you get by using a Nazi (thank god the Nazis are good for something: given writers easy and immediate figures for all that is bad in the world!), but since both of them died relatively peaceful deaths after their lifetimes of butchery and paranoia, the poem would have the facts on its side.

JeFF Stumpo said...

Hey M.C. (I feel odd typing that, like it should be cadenced and followed by a heavy beat),

I'll keep you in the loop on the research. Haven't decided yet whether it will just end up as a blog post or something I'd try to send to, say, Poets & Writers. Your Eichmanns/Eichmann parsing is exactly one of the places I'm going with this idea, so if it works out, expect that I'll reference you :-)

Will take a little while for a serious update on progress however - am about to release a free spoken-word/performance poetry "album" and move to New Hampshire. Throw in end-of-semester grading, and everything is in the air for a few weeks.

A final (overtired) note - I read in your response that you were trying to "mime" Supper at Emmaus, and I wondered how well that would work through the web. Sigh...

M. C. Allan said...

Jeff: it is cadenced and followed by a heavy beat, but only because I pay a DJ to follow me around scratching. (call me Carrie. I write under M.C. Allan, but only because M.C. Hammer was taken).

I think you could do an excellent (creepy) photo of someone "miming" Supper at Emmaus. Religious miming is an underrepresented genre, really.

Anonymous said...

about the old masters,
auden was always wrong

-- mouse

JeFF Stumpo said...

Carrie: I will now and forever picture you as Jack Nicholson in "Batman" being followed by a guy with a ghettoblaster. I know, it's not a turntable, but pop cultural icons tend to impress themselves upon the mind.

Religious miming is certainly underrepresented. A path to world peace? We get representatives of the major religions together and have them explain the major tenets of their faiths to each other through mime. The first one to just start hugging everybody else wins all our souls.

As far as miming Supper, have you ever come across this piece?

M. C. Allan said...

If hugging is required, I think the Presbyterians might be in trouble. The Catholics will do OK, but every hug will have to lead to a child.

HA - I LOVE that piece! Definitely a lost Vermeer.

JeFF Stumpo said...

Every hug is sacred? Every hug is good?