“Coming out of me living is always thinking, / Thinking changing and changing living….”
These are the first lines of an unfamous poem by a famous poet. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” and “September 1, 1939” are just a few dozen pages away in Auden’s Selected Poems, but I sometimes hesitate here, read these lines again, move my index finger in a little circle as I pass over each of the gerunds. Thinking, changing, changing, living.
Oh, the effortless, endless motion of those wee verbish wheels turning! But I stop here not exactly for them, or for their grammatical function (we could have, say, clapping, eating, smiling, with only the most superficial charm). I stop because I am invited to imagine the most vital processes of the human self—thought and change and life—fitted together and visible, as though the poet had lifted off the face of an old-fashioned watch.
Think of it: we look down from a star or some other satellite and see a series of storm systems pinwheeling across the Earth, silent and even gentle from our perch up in space. Indeed, later in the poem the speaker calls himself a “tiny observer of enormous world.” Oh, that one could hover above our world—so detached, so advanced, so adult.
In the next lines we learn that the speaker is also gazing downward, watching a few waterfowl from a bridge over a river. He later meets some friends who are behaving somewhat childishly, and he forgives them, piously and a little pompously—for they are frightened, alienated, “alone in flesh,” as, one assumes, are we all. At the poem’s end, he exhorts himself to be different, to “love my life, not as other, / Not as bird’s life, not as child’s”—and then ends in an avowal, spoken aloud: “‘Cannot,’ I said, ‘being no child now nor a bird.’” I found this to be a mature thing to say, pointed it out to friends of mine, even—really just a way of trying to say it too.
“Coming out of me living” is the second in a four-part series Auden wrote in 1929, when he was only twenty-two. This January, when I had just turned twenty-five, I pored over it for several days. At the time I thought I knew why it struck me so—the detachment, the self-assuredness—but it is clear now that some very young part of me was responding to one of the poem’s very young tendencies: the premature desire to declare oneself distant and self-assured and old.
January in Boston is frozen and lonely, and I wanted to reassure myself, against the deadening of all possibility, that it was natural to surrender possibility, that I had simply begun to age, that aging was natural and great and would bring wisdom. What I really wanted was to claim what I imagined to be the perspectival privilege of the agèd person without having earned it for an instant. (As if being old or wise meant being lofty, meant holding oneself apart from feeling, thinking oneself above life and change.)
This was a mistake, but somewhere therein lies the poem’s real beauty. It’s always a grace to see a mistake you’ve made; it’s first a pain, then a joy, to see that someone else has expressed its every contour. And what a powerful act of imagination, when a child claims a soaring, ancient, bird’s-eye view. I now feel a little awful about having wanted to look down at—or, rather, down my nose at—an entire galaxy’s worth of creatures alone in flesh; still, I would never have felt the poem’s beauty so strongly, affirmed and echoed its declaration, at any other moment.
Poems help us change our living and thinking. Even when they seem to misguide us, they show us exactly how we’ve lost our way so that we may continue on. Now I am paging through my Selected Poems again, this time looking for a poem that will prepare me for the full green blast of late spring, for bulbs pushing up under dead leaf and cigarette butt, finding myself willing to wager for now that closeness to the ground is the best way to understand what comes up out of it.
—Annie Julia Wyman