For April, National Poetry Month, the Daily Beast will run a pair of poems every weekend. Curated by Eliza Griswold, these highly subjective pairings of poets she admires—and sometimes knows—are intended to evoke pleasure and provoke thought.
What makes a contemporary poem more than a tight and clever scrap of cocktail party charm? Lately, I’ve been asking myself this, and the best answer I can offer this week lies in a poem’s capacity for wisdom.
Ruins is a brand-new poem from Jonathan Galassi, author of two collections of poetry, as well as several major works of translation. The More Loving One is among W.H. Auden’s most famous. Together, they offer us a glimpse into humility; a tender recognition of the smallness of being human against the larger forces of language, time, and love.
A poem, like a life—is a ruin, Galassi tells his daughter to whom the poem is dedicated. Against the passage of time, there can be no argument. In The More Loving One Auden says much the same thing: “Looking up at the stars, I know quite well/That for all they care I can go to hell.”
Both offer us the admission of vulnerability as the only authentic way to face living and dying.
They are lessons in acceptance. As such, they offer us both the momentary pleasure of reading them, and the more enduring opportunity to see the futility in our struggles against true nature.
for B. G. G.
A poem is a ruin. In Tulum
we got to know the Maya by their stones;
we saw the hole that held the royal bones
and a vegetable-dyed wall inside a room
displayed the crossed limbs of the Diving God
falling into sun-drenched blue-green water.
They were good like us at roads and slaughter
(though that they did without the wheel is odd).
As in the Sonnets, just the bones are there;
in the Sonnets, all there is, is bone:
trajectories and vectors, lines of stone
standing in for muscle, blood, and hair—
as someday, darling, stones and bones will be
all there is to stand for you and me.
The More Loving One
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man to beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
Jonathan Galassi’s translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti was published last year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Wystan Hugh Auden, who died in 1973, was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.
“The More Loving One” by W. H. Auden, currently collected in Collected Poems by W. H. Auden. Copyright © 1957 by W. H. Auden, used with permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.