Thursday 6 November 2008

There doesn't have to be a death for you to mourn

I've been thinking a lot about poetry lately. Partly because I'm doing a creative writing diploma course, and partly because I've been listening to "By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember", an audio book read by Ted Hughes, in the car.

One of the poems Hughes reads on the audio book is "Stop All The Clocks" by W. H. Auden, a poem of grief and mourning made even more famous than it already was by its inclusion in the film "Four Weddings and a Funeral". Here's the poem in full, as featured in the Hugh Grant-powered film.
Stop All The Clocks by W. H. Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crépe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song,
I thought that love would last forever: 'I was wrong'.
The stars are not wanted now, put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Amazing, isn't it? Not even the over-exposure that it has had since its rom-com debut in the mid-nineties has lessened its power.

It strikes me that, although this is clearly a funereal poem, the way that it evokes grief makes it applicable to anything that can be mourned. Many, many years ago, a friend I made at university went back home, not just a few miles away but home to another country, thousands of miles away. I went from seeing her every day to not knowing if I would ever see her again. I had a sick, hollow, what's-the-point feeling in my stomach for days, no, weeks (months, if truth be told). I loved my friend, and though she was only a phone call or a letter away (this was in the days before email, instant messaging, Skype and webcams), I mourned the daily part she played in my life, and I in hers. No-one had died but something had gone, and I grieved for a long time.
I'm grieving again now. This time love, true love in the most romantic sense, is gone, and with it the hopes, plans and dreams for my future with a very special someone. She really is my North, my South, my East and West... but sadly, I am not even on her map.

At my writing class last night, we were tasked with writing an abstract poem - I wrote a couple, one of which was entitled "Despair" and I think, subconsciously, Auden's work was on my mind as I did so. Certainly you could see the influence of lines like "the stars are not wanted now, put out every one; pack up the moon and dismantle the sun" - my poem turned out similar in tone and structure. No, I'm not going to reproduce it here. Firstly, it's private and, secondly, I'm not going to be foolish enough to include a poem of my own alongside one by Auden, am I - there's only going to be one winner there. I will say, though, that the whole exercise has made me realise just how much Auden's poem can be applicable for anything that can be mourned, anything that can be grieved over. No-one literally has to die; there doesn't have to be a literal coffin for this poem to be relevant. It certainly resonates with me right now. And the irony is that the audio book was a gift from the woman who truly is "my noon, my midnight, my talk, my song".

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