Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Carving Our Own Marble Monuments

While perusing an old anthology of poetry that goes back to my college days of the 1970's, it was interesting to find that so many of the poems were essentially poems of protest, protest against the cultural changes that were encroaching on our lives and, of course, the war in Vietnam. Almost every poem was tinged with this desire to be heard, to have the heart understood.

I remember reading the poem below aloud to a class; I believe it was Oral Interpretation of Literature. It was such a long time ago, but I still recall it as one of my favorite classes. And though I once saw this as sad, if not a little disturbing, I must have also seen it as a call to action. I would venture to guess that it consciously or unconsciously helped to shape my life. It remains a strong reminder to never become The Unknown Citizen. Unknown to whom?  Unknown to one's self.

The Unknown Citizen
(To JS/07/M/378/ This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

~ W. H. Auden

Image: W.H. Auden (1907 - 1973)


  1. Hello Teresa:
    What a delight to open your post this morning and to come across this poem by Auden, a favourite of ours and one which has a special significance particularly living in this country where the words recall a not very distant past.

    1. I'm so glad for your response. We often forget that history is not so very distant, and some events quite recent in the face of it.

  2. Powerful both the photo and the poem. The unknown citizen seems like a fence rider to me.

    1. Many folks seem to go through life riding fences. It's good to decide, get down from our fences and move forward, with new decisions always possible as new information arrives.

  3. I had never read that particular poem before. I am pleased to have made its acquaintance this morning, Teresa. It is thoughtful and relevant. How could I have missed so many wonderful poems in my youth? :-)

  4. I LOVE this poem. I read it with my students every year and at first they don't get it. Then we start talking about all the data collected on the "average"person on a daily basis and then they start to understand. Thanks for posting it!

    1. And in light of all that's happened and happening in the way of losing any sense of privacy we thought we speaks even more to the times in which we live.

  5. It is amazing, isn't it, that what we gleaned from a first reading, especially when we are young, is not what we take away later in life? I wonder if a poem grows with us - or we grow with it. It has been a long while since I've read Auden. You've reminded me to seek him out, likely in those old volumes of poetry I have tucked away. A timely poem, Teresa. Thank you.

    1. I would guess a little of both. I see this poem through the eyes of Big Brother watching all of us (yet we remain unknown in any meaningful sense),and I see it as a call to never trudge through life, playing the game according to rules imposed by others, or even by our own self-imposed rules, but to become better acquainted with our true selves. I'm glad I revisited this poem recently. Time and life experience bring new perspectives.

  6. I was not familiar with this poem. I can see that my response to it would have been different back in the 60s, but it has meaning to all generations.

    1. Some things never seem to change, but I would hope our perceptions about them do.

  7. I occasionally forget about Auden and then I run into him here and there and wonder why I would ever forget him, even for a moment!

  8. Dear Teresa, revisiting the poems of my youth--or the novels--always puts me back into the time I read them and I find myself embracing that earlier Dolores, that earlier Dee, that earlier Sister Innocence. And I find that I like and love and respect her still not despite of but because of her hatred of herself. For she strove to live and to go down deep into her troubles and find a pathway to wholeness.

    And when I do revisit those poems and those novels I see the circle of life, but in a more subtle way. No longer do I have to shout to the maddening crowds my discovery. Instead I hold the words like a lodestone to lead me forward. Thank you for sharing Auden with us today. Peace.

    1. Dee, Thank you very much for this heartfelt and thoughtful response. It's essential that we embrace our earlier selves, our whole selves, as stepping stones on the path to wholeness and the recognition of our Oneness.

      Thank you, dear heart.

  9. Top poem by a top man. Timeless too.

  10. You have loved poetry for such a long time. Other than what little we read in high school, I had no acquaintance with poetry or good literature until I went to college at 48 years old. Life had me by the throat at a young age and kept a stranglehold for decades, but by the time I arrived in those college desks I think I probably had a more layered view than the eighteen year olds beside me.

    The only thing close to poetry I remember from my youth was the lyrics to songs. Many of them were also filled with protest back then. And they stir me with memories as your poetry does for you. I love the poems you share with us. I am learning a lot. :)

    1. Hi Rita, Years ago, when I briefly taught H.S.English, I often used song lyrics in order to show young people another view of poetry. I have learned that poetry covers a wide swath of different styles and forms. It's our response that, to me, makes it poetic.

      What a wonderful opportunity, to return to school at that stage of life with a body of life experience to underpin it all. Just wonderful.

  11. I love the poem. We really don't see much, only looking in from the outside, do we.