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How I fell in love with WH Auden (again and again) | Susan McDonald

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I first read his poetry in my late teens. He can be difficult but the images he conjures are concrete and recognisable

WH Auden said “poetry must be entered into by a personal encounter, or it must be left alone”. His poems have been personal for me for 30 years; they’re a touchstone I use now and then to take the measure of my world. There’s just something about him: the stars he sees align with mine. I can trace my own journeys – political, psychological, philosophical, spiritual – along the routes he has mapped.

I first opened Auden’s Selected Poems in my late teens. I’d taken it off my mother’s bookshelf – I knew his name and his fame; I thought I should be reading him. I started with the shorter, less obscure poems. Sometimes my eye even darted between poems, reading a stanza here, a stanza there. I felt I had to ease in slowly – graze around the edges of the feast.

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Related: Unseen WH Auden diary sheds light on famous poem and personal life

Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

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