On this day in 1907 WH Auden was born. His poem ‘September 1, 1939’, written in a bar in New York at the outbreak of war, seems to chime with our own time (even if he later disowned the poem, saying it was ‘infected with an incurable dishonesty’). And on this day in 1933, Nina Simone was born. ‘I wish I knew how
it would feel to be free; I wish I could break all the chains holding me,’ she sang, while in her song ‘Revolution’, after a lifetime of tireless advocacy for the civil rights movement, she saw in the demand for Black Power the challenge to continuing racism, inequality and repression in the United States: ‘The only way that we can stand in fact/Is when you get your foot off our back.’ And now, written this month we have a superb poetic response to the present situation in America from Joanna Clink.

Despite his rejection of the poem, Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ continues to resonate, from its memorable opening 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:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives

– to the concluding stanza with the famous line which Auden (needlessly) altered to read ‘We must love one another and die’:

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.

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.

Nina Simone would have been 84 today (she died on 21 April 2003); here are two memorable performances. The first is her singing ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ at the Montreux Jazz Festival in1976:

I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holding me
I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say ’em loud say ’em clear
For the whole round world to hear

I wish I could share
All the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars
That keep us apart
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free

The second clip is from ‘Black Woodstock’, the event which took place in Harlem at the same time as the better-known hippie namesake in upstate New York. The Harlem Renaissance concerts featured the best black musicians of the time, intended as a celebration of African American music, designed to promote black pride and unity in the aftermath of the despair and riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy the previous year. Here she is singing her uncompromising ‘Revolution’:

And now we got a revolution
Cause I see the face of things to come
Yeah, your Constitution
Well, my friend, its gonna have to bend
I’m here to tell you about destruction
Of all the evil that will have to end.
Some folks are gonna get the notion
I know they’ll say I’m preachin’ hate
But if I have to swim the ocean
Well I would just to communicate
Its not as simple as talkin’ jive
The daily struggle just to stay alive
Singin’ about a revolution
Because were talkin’ about a change
Its more than just evolution
Well you know you got to clean your brain
The only way that we can stand in fact
Is when you get your foot off our back

Finally, here is Joanna Klink’s superb ‘New Year’, the American poet’s response to the first days of the Trump  administration.

Since the election I’ve been feeling, like so many others, physically overwhelmed at the magnitude of what is about to be dismantled in my country, what is about to be taken away from very real people already barely able to get by. In writing the poem I was trying to sense a way forward through my own demoralizing hopelessness, trying to clarify what I need to do, and—with the ‘we’—be reminded of what’s still possible.


We woke to the darkness before our eyes,
unable to take the measure of the loss.
Who are they. What are we. What have we
abandoned to arrive with such violence at this hour.
In answer we drew back, covered our ears
with our hands to the heedless victory, or vowed,
as I did, into the changed air, never to consent.
But it was already too late, too late for the unfarmed fields,
the men by the station, the park swings, the parking lots,
the ground water, the doves—too late for dusk
falling in summer, chains of glass lakes
mingled into dawn, the corals, the neighbors,
the first drizzle on an empty street, cafeterias and stockyards,
young men asking twice a day for
work. Too late for hope. Too far along
to meet a country, a people, its annihilating need.

Because the year is new and the great change
already underway, we concede a thousandfold
and feel, harder than the land itself,
a complicity for everything we did not see
or comprehend: cynicism borne of raw despair,
long-cultivated hatreds, the promises of leaders
traveling like cool silence through the dark.
My life is here, in this small room, and like you
I am waiting to know—but there is no time
to wait for what has happened.
What does the future ask of me,
those who won’t have enough to eat by evening,
those whose disease will now take hold—
and the decades that carry past me once I’ve died,
generations of children, the suffering that is never solved,
the heat over the earth, its marshes,
its crowded towers, its unbreathable night air.
I would open my hand from the wrist,
step outside, not lose nerve.
Here is the day, still to be lived.
We do not fully know what we do.
But the trains depart the stations, traffic lurches
and stalls, a highway crew has paused.
Desert sun softens the first color of the rock.
Who governs now governs by grievance and old scores,
but we compass our worth,
prepare to do the work not our own,
and feel, past the scorn in his eyes, the burden
in the torso of a stranger, draw close to the sick,
the weak, the women without jobs, the twelve-year-old
facing spite half-tangled into sleep, the panic
tightening inside everyone who has been told to go,
I will help you although I do not know you,
and strive not to look away, be unwilling to profit,
an ache inside that endless effort,
a slowed-down summons not from those
whose rage is lit by greed—we do not consent—
but the ones who wake without prospect,
those who don’t speak, cannot recover,
like the old woman at the counter, the helpless father
who, like you, gets no more than his one life.

One thought on “On this day: three voices that speak to our time

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