I find myself part owner of a book shop – Desire Books & Records, in Manly. How I came to own a fifth of it is a blog post for another time (I know I say that a lot, but it’s too long a story to tell now, especially as a preamble for the quick post I want to write right now).
The other day, I was behind the counter when an older gentleman came in. He was in boardies and t-shirt, and though getting on a bit, was built like the proverbial brick shithouse. Like he’d been surfing since surfing was first introduced to Australia by Duke Kahanamoku (or not, as it turns out).
However, I was taken aback by his choice of purchase – a paperback biography of the poet W. H. Auden. (I’d love to be able to tell you who the biographer was, but I didn’t pay enough attention; I was only clever enough to put it towards the end of the a’s in the poetry section, figuring someone looking for Auden’s work might also be interested in his life.)
If you’re not familiar with the work of Wystan Hugh Auden, I say you’re mistaken. You’ve most likely been exposed to one of his poems; it’s read out at the funeral in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the so-called ‘Funeral Blues’ (AKA ‘Stop All the Clocks’):
If you studied him at school, particularly a generatation-and-a-half ago as I did, you would have analysed ‘Lay Your Sleeping Head My Love’, but have been told repeatedly that the fact Auden was homosexual and the love addressed would have been a same-sex partner, was not at all relevant. And then when you got to university, a lecturer would have insisted that of course the poem has a greater imperative, given it deals with ‘the love that dares not speak its name’. Even less mature school kids, nowadays, are generally much more chilled than adults a generation-and-a-half ago – even the adults whose professional duty it was to broaden the educational horizons of the children in their care.
And of course, if you did study him, you probably had a copy of a Faber & Faber anthology, the one adorned with a headshot of the poet quite late in life, where his face was so wrinkled that were you trace every contour with the tip of a fine marker, you could stretch out his skin and come up with a map of the greater London area – or something quite like it.
None of this is, strictly speaking, relevant.
However, being a chatty, interested seller, I of course couldn’t just sell the book, I had to do some ‘interesting chat’.
“Ah, Auden,” I said. “I remember studying him in high school. I can still remember my favourite poem of his, ‘The More Loving One’. It’s about unrequited love.”
I left a polite pause, in which the customer could have directed the conversation away from me; handed over cash, taken change and scarpered. Instead, he looked interested and made an ‘okay, go on’ kind of sound. So I began quoting from memory – not verbatim, because I haven’t looked at it for some 25 years, but as accurately as I could remember it:
That for all they care I could go to hell.
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be one be me.
Again, I left a little pause to give him time to close the transaction, or at least give me a ‘look’, to let me know that I should. Still nothing, so I continued.
Of stars that could not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see one, say
I missed one terribly all day.
This time my only pause was a dramatic one, the first of the few that rendered the final stanza a tour de force as I grew in stature and whatever the god or patron saint of hamming it up, possessed me…
I should learn to look upon an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime –
Though this might take me a little time.
Although the look on the customer’s face never quite said, “you’re clearly a freak!” it was at this point that he did feel the need to explain, “I just wanted to read about him before I read his poems!” as he literally backed away, and then escaped from the shop.
To be honest, though, he did get off lightly: I only recited a poem. Depending on the audience – ie non-older, former surfy, built like the proverbial brick shithouse – I usually prefer to share a particular anecdote about Auden. It’s one I remember Stephen Fry telling, and, as with the poem, I quote it as I remember it, so I’m almost certain it’s not verbatim.
Apparently, the artist David Hockney, tasked with sketching the poet, looked upon Auden and said, “Christ! If that’s his face, imagine what his bollocks must look like!”
But I barely had time to tweet about it before the customer returned. “What was the name of that poem?” he asked. “I’m going to go to the library and find it!”