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Indoors, outdoors

September 5, 2013

He’s probably best known for being friends with Auden. Louis MacNeice isn’t a major poet, by any stretch of the imagination. His best poems draw on simple, deeply felt emotions, his worst try to draw from the same well but come up dry. Still, while they’re not particularly complex, I do think poems like his early “Sunlight on the Garden” can be quite powerful. Or this later poem, “House on a Cliff”:

Indoors the tang of a tiny oil lamp. Outdoors
The winking signal on the waste of sea.
Indoors the sound of the wind. Outdoors the wind.
Indoors the locked heart and the lost key.

Outdoors the chill, the void, the siren. Indoors
The strong man pained to find his red blood cools,
While the blind clock grows louder, faster. Outdoors
The silent moon, the garrulous tides she rules.

Indoors ancestral curse-cum-blessing. Outdoors
The empty bowl of heaven, the empty deep.
Indoors a purposeful man who talks at cross
Purposes, to himself, in a broken sleep.

The contrasting images are simple, but the contrast works. Mostly because the details are expertly selected and they’re all bound together by an excellent ear for linguistic music. “The winking signal on the waste of sea” is the best description of a lighthouse I’ve ever read–not that you encounter poetic distillations of lighthouses that often. Consider, too, the wonderful rhythmic stuttering of “the garrulous tide she rules.” Or the enjambment at “cross / Purposes.” There is beauty here, and it should be acknowledged.

But once you acknowledge all that, what more is there to say? You could, of course, give a close reading. You could ponderously explicate the central contrast, could describe the relation between the speaker and the “purposeful man,” could try to figure out why the man’s sleep is broken. Doing those things is a great way to learn how to read poetry, especially “difficult” poetry. But once you know how to read–and with this poem in particular–I don’t quite see the point, and will refrain from doing so. This is not difficult poetry. It’s just poetry.

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