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Poem of the Month, November: W H Auden The Art of Building Bonds To ask the hard question is simple: Asking at meeting With the simple glance of acquaintance To what these go And how these do; To ask the hard question is simple, The simple act of the confused will. But the answer Is hard and hard to remember: On steps or on shore The ears listening To words at meeting, The eyes looking At the hands helping, Are never sure Of what they learn From how these things are done, And forgetting to listen or see Makes forgetting easy, Only remembering the method of remembering, Remembering only in another way, Only the strangely exciting lie, Afraid To remember what the fish ignored, How the bird escaped, or if the sheep obeyed. [...] Shall memory restore The steps and the shore, The face and the meeting place; Shall the bird live, Shall the fish dive, And sheep obey In a sheep's way; Can love remember The question and the answer, For love recover What has been dark and rich and warm all over? Who was W H Auden? This week’s poem is on the theme of ‘bonding’, and it was written by W. H. Auden (1907 – 1973). Auden was brought up in England and studied at Christ Church Oxford. After this he travelled widely, from Germany to China and eventually to the US, where he became a citizen in 1946. He was also part of something of a literary gang, known as the Auden group, which included the poet Stephen Spender and the writer Christopher Isherwood, with whom he co-wrote three plays: clearly, for Auden, a firm sense of bonding with his friends and fellow writers was a crucial part of his life. To Ask the Hard Question is Simple We can see this, too, in the poem above, which explores how those simple questions – ‘how have you been?’ – are often the most difficult to answer. They are those questions that friends and associates often ask (with great ease and simplicity) without really listening for the response. Here Auden thinks about what it would be like if we answered honestly. He explores this in several ways. Structurally, the poem is antiphonal – which is just a fancy way of saying ‘call and response’, or, in this case, ‘question and answer’. Notice how the first stanza discusses the question, and the second then turns to the answer. It is like two people having a conversation, but one that goes beyond the formalities into which all so often slip, and, instead, the poem talks honestly of how difficult it can be to form a proper response: But the answer Is hard and hard to remember: On steps or on shore The ears listening To words at meeting, The eyes looking At the hands helping, Are never sure Of what they learn The lines are short and sharp and build a confused image of many eyes and ears: an overwhelming scene, and not one that cultivates an atmosphere in which bonding can take place. For Auden, the true answer to this confusion is understanding and love, which comes through asking questions that are truly meant, and listening patiently and carefully for answers: ‘Can love remember / The question and the answer, /For love recover / What has been dark and rich and warm all over?’ This is not a simple question but notice how the poem ends by opening itself up to the reader, as though waiting for our answer. By doing this, Auden creates a meaningful connection between himself and the reader, whoever she or he may be. Notice, too, how the final line takes the form of a riddle: ‘What has been dark and rich and warm all over?’ The answer might be: the bond between us. Jack Barron

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