Monday, December 8, 2014

Poem of the Week

September 1st, 1939
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
This is an excerpt from the poem "September 1st, 1939" by W.H. Auden, written about World War II. This same excerpt was used to open Larry Kramer's 1985 play The Normal Heart, excerpts of which I've been teaching my students. The Normal Heart is a largely autobiographical play about the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic and the government's conscious decision to ignore it for the first 4 years, as it was "only a gay disease." Kramer uses this poem as an epigraph to his play, encouraging his audience members to embrace one another's differences and right to love whomever they want. He also uses it to encourage people to take a stand and speak out against the government, even if it's about a problem that doesn't affect them. Because the final line of this poem asserts that "we must love one another or die," Kramer aggressively implicates passive audience members with the government, suggesting that if they do not join the cause to raise awareness for AIDS, then they are contributing to the ignorance, neglect, and spread of the disease.
My students and I spoke about to what extent that last argument is true. Are people who are silent really contributing to the problem? It's a difficult question to answer, in part because we've all ignored a problem before and we may be guilty to admit our selfishness. 
But is it really selfishness? I've often argued that in life, you need to pick and choose your battles. And if you can eliminate anger and stress by avoiding the things that don't affect you, then you're one step closer to living a happy life. After all, we all face adversity at some point, regardless of the privileges into which we were born, and there will come a time when we need to fight our own battles and deal with our own struggles. Furthermore, if we decided to fight in every battle--even the ones that don't have anything to do with us--what lives would we be living? A life of constant war?
Then again, what would a world governed by self-interest be like? What if only the LGBT community rallied for their own rights, with no help from anyone else? What if only the black community rallied for acknowledgment and correction of systemic racism? What kind of world would that be?
Think about it. And happy holidays.

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