Saint Mark Freeing a Christian Slave
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
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:
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.
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?