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.