York in Poetry: Auden's Centenary

Posted on 24 November 2012 | Audio, Poem

“…when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.”

- W.H. Auden, ‘In Praise of Limestone’

there’s a plaque on a house we often pass
- to W. H. Auden, born there – an ordinary house
and round the corner is one John Woolman died in
and up the road, a pub where Guy Fawkes lived
and then, not far away, the upstairs room
my daughters were born in -
where someone else sleeps now and makes love -
in that sunny, morning place

do places matter so?
will my son, born in a hospital
now succeeded by a shopping mall
stroll reminiscent though the outlets
seeking some meaning from where his life began
(though really – it was in that same sister-bearing bed
one frosty night, nine months before)

and did Auden, I wonder, think of York, much?
the clay, the gravels, the alluvial moraine ?
limestone was more his thing,
varied, subtle, soluble,
and Woolman’s life is not revalued by his death
though Fawkes may regret his move away.

birthplaces pass, are left behind
- deeds, words, those we love
need no blue plaque, or brass,
and yet I’m glad I know these origins
can trace the arc from birth to death,
from little room to little room,
a scaffold, or a limestone landscape.

- John Gilham