War Poetry: W.H. Auden on the FOB

In an Atlantic magazine article, author Caleb Crain touts the virtues of memorizing poetry, and for him in particular the mid-20th century British poet W.H. Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone.”  I’ve followed Crain for a while—he’s got a great blog—and I’ve also memorized many poems and prose passages.  Not lately, though—trying to remember so much as a birthday these days brings me to my knees—but the ones I secured in my mind as a young man are still with me, friends for life.  I like Auden, too, though I don’t know his work so well.  But Crain’s essay recalls an anecdote from my tour in Afghanistan.

While stationed at FOB Lightning in Paktiya province, my hooch was in a “B-hut” partitioned into cubicles by plywood half-walls.  Inside your space, no one could see you, but you could easily converse with your neighbor to either side.  Next to me was a full-bird colonel whom I’d already come to know and respect.  A veteran of three or four tours, he still threw on his body armor and clambered into an armored vehicle and drove out into sector 3-4-5 times a week.  Just to put things in perspective, some hardcore infantry squads didn’t go outside the wire that much. The colonel was not just still brave and committed, but wise and practical and friendly and against lots of evidence to the contrary, optimistic and hopeful about Afghanistan.

When he heard that I had been a college English teacher, he asked me from the other side of our cubicle wall if I knew “September 1, 1939,” a poem Auden wrote about the beginning of World War II.  I did, a little, or at least the first lines:

I sit in one of the dives 
On Fifty-second Street 
Uncertain and afraid 
As the clever hopes expire 
Of a low dishonest decade 

My battle-hardened neighbor then told me that he knew the poem by heart and that he recited it to himself—all 99 lines of it–almost every day.  He told me that he’d learned it in his first year at West Point, that it was the first poem he had ever loved and had always remained his favorite poem, and that it had inspired him to read much more poetry and to write verse himself.  “From one thing, everything,” as the saying goes.

For the rest of the time that we were neighbors, the colonel would often recite the poem, or bits of it, to me.  He would also probe me about my own knowledge or interest in Auden.  I didn’t know much, but because I had access to that particularly modern accoutrement of contemporary deployment, a laptop computer with an Internet connection, I could cheat.  I would bring up Auden on Wikipedia and feign expertise, unseen by my neighbor:

“So, did you know Auden visited the front lines of both the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese War?”

“Did you know that he actually hated ‘September 1, 1939,’” especially its most famous line, ‘We must love one another or die’?”

That was true.  Auden had come to regard the sentiment as trite and the poem’s ending too smiley-faced:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Auden basically refused to speak about the poem and only rarely gave permission for it to be republished.  But I love those lines, and so did the colonel, and so do many others.

I never discovered if the colonel realized that I was cribbing from the Internet, but I was trying to keep up with someone who knew a lot more about Auden than I did.  Maybe he knew and didn’t care, or perhaps he enjoyed reversing the roles and being the teacher.  He also knew a lot more about the US Army, working with Afghans, and fighting the Taliban than I did, and I learned plenty from him about those things, too.

Good man.

Lots of Auden recited inside this FOB Lightning b-hut in the summer and fall of 2009.
Lots of Auden recited inside this FOB Lightning B-hut in the summer and fall of 2009.

4 thoughts on “War Poetry: W.H. Auden on the FOB”

  1. I met Auden when I was a cadet at VMI in 1973–he spoke at Washington & Lee next door–he did refuse to read “September 1, 1939,” but was kind enough to read “In Praise of Limestone” when I asked him to.

    I carried a book of Emily Dickson with me during the first gulf war, along with a ton of other books–I read Dickinson when I was in a helicopter, which was a lot after the cease-fire–I memorized her longest poem (“I Cannot live with You”) only because it worked so nicely with the rhythm of the rotors of the OH-58.

    One of my tent-mates (another VMI grad who worked for me) had memorized “Prufrock” and declaimed it aloud one night–he ended by saying “fuckin’ a, I shoulda been a pair of ragged claws” and fell immediately asleep–cathartic, i suppose.

    1. Hey sir, how are you doing?! (May I assume you remember me from when we were once colleagues?) And thanks for writing–I saw your comment on the Atlantic website and am glad you’ve responded to me here, too. Great stories, though who knows how Auden, Eliot, and Dickinson would feel about it all???

      1. Pete–I’ve been retired so long the only person who calls me sir is the wal-mart greeter. Glad to see your blog–Mike Edwards, as you know, sent me the link. I think Eliot would have disdained it–we sort of forget what draft-dodgers so many modernists were. Though i do think The waste land is all about WWI and its aftermath. Dickinson has some Civil war poetry–but it is a distant presence. Higginson, of course, had some serious combat chops–how much that affected Emily’s poetry I don’t know–her brother Austin was of age to serve, but was probably too old–32 or so in 1861. Glad you are still pumping s**t out of cadets’ heads!

  2. Well, that’s one way to describe what I’m doing, laugh laugh! I always get a kick out of that line in The Great Gatsby that tells of Gatsby’s service in a “machine gun battalion” in WWI. And it’s cool that Fitzgerald wrote This Side of Paradise while in the Army at Fort Leavenworth. Did anyone ever write a better novel while in uniform??

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