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Monday Quote

I was "political" not just because I was involved, but in feeling I must choose to defend a good cause against a bad one. Auden remarked to me at the end of the war that he was political in the 1930s just because he thought something could and should be done. On the other hand, I never felt that the writers who did not feel this obligation were wrong. They might be concerned with values beyond action which, after all. alone justify action and therefore must not be allowed to lapse. Or they might be witnesses of a fatalism and despair which were equally important truths for the human soul as the "il faut agir" [we must act] of André Malraux. Politics of a rather direct kind had become my experience, but I defended those who had other attitudes. 

~ Spender, World within World


I envied the painter's life ~ the way in which he is surrounded by the material of his art. A writer does not have a visible palette of words laid out before him into which he dips his pen, mixes them and lays them on the page. The painter can immerses himself in his work more than a writer, because painting is largely a craft, a sensuous activity with tangible material, whereas writing is largely cerebral.  

~ Ibid. 


Interesting that Spender's autobiography is not in the NYPL, but books about him are, including one by his son on growing up Spender. He's insightful on poetry & goes on rather too much psychoanalyzing himself, which is dated. I wanted to read it because of his connection to the Spanish Civil War & his poem "Port Bou." 

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In his autobiography World within World, Stephen Spender says that the art in which you hope to excel is the one for which you are willing to take immense pains over detail. I've had that same thought ~ when I'm working on a poem, every comma is a matter of consequence, every line break worth infinite thinking & rethinking. For most that I do "good enough" is good enough but in poetry, I not only take time, I love to keep turning the poem around & around. When I was writing So Late into the Night, I kept thinking up new challenges, so that I could keep rewriting it with additional strictures in the form. 

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What I'm reading

World Within World is Stephen Spender's autobiography, republished after David Leavitt plagiarized from it in a 1994 novel, When England Slept. He wrote it at age 40 & looked back to his youth as though it had been a half century earlier. People got older faster then! He says he was too shy to take advantage of offered friendship from the likes of T.S. Eliot & Virginia Woolf, but he seems to have run in those crowds early on, perhaps as Auden's mentee from their college days. His explanations about poetry & schools are incisive & convincing. 


I wanted to read this book because of his poem about the Spanish Civil War, "Port Bou," a rare war poem that admits to fear:

I tell myself the shooting is only for practice,
And my body seems a cloth which the machine-gun stitches
Like a sewing machine, neatly, with cotton from a reel,
And the solitary, irregular, thin 'paffs' from the carbines
Draw on long needles white threads through my navel.


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