WH Auden: The Z-list and the Zeitgeist

To mark the start of WH Auden's centenary year, Bill Greenwell takes us on an Audenesque poetic tour of 2006 - the rockers, the rich kids, the crop-topped clubbers, and the political poodles
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The Independent Culture

Letter to W H Auden

You'll know that your centenary is up

And these mere travesties, but still it's right

That more of us should raise a decent cup

To you. Last year was Betjeman's, a knight

Whose poetry was skilled but slightly tight:

A rummy bo'sun to your brooding cap'n

(Though once you claimed your art made nothing happen).

There may be some - your publicists, one thinks -

Who think you're better known because John Hannah

Recited "Funeral Blues". The whole world blinks

To hear them now, and any graveside planner

Will blubber "Stop The Clocks", and in a manner

That hardly typifies your work, since, Wystan,

You never aimed to be the national cistern.

So here's to you, you satirist, you mimic,

You crazy diamond (you won't get this reference),

As happy with a gimcrack and a gimmick

As mordant wit - you didn't have a preference -

You wrote with heart and head, and lack of deference

Which means you'll last when other scholars languish:

Outsiders - like you - must capture human anguish.

After 'Musée Des Beaux Arts'

About celebrity, they are always right,

The Young Pundits: how well they televise

Its shallow ambition; how it works best

When someone vain is pouting or trying the tango or just feeling a spider bite;

How when some viewers are eagerly, desperately hoping

For a classic serial, there always must be

Others who do not actually want to watch one, groping

For a zapper down the sofa's sides:

They calmly insist

That even a great adaptation can be safely stored

On some other channel, while a Z-list

Of celebs gets on with their nebulous lives and a fraudulent horde

Pimps up their indolent careers for a fee.

Take Channel 4's Big Brother, for instance, how everyone turns quite

Happily over from drama; the viewers might

Have cheered the actors, the sheer suspense,

But for them it is not a particular issue; it may gleam

As it must do on the other side, with elegantly designed

Costumes; and the expensive sensitive script that some might find

Simply amazing, a joy thrilling, even intense,

Is something to dump while Chantelle lives the dream.

Mister Bee

Let me tell you a little story

About Mister Tony Bee;

He went to the House of Terrors

In Washington, DC.

He'd a slight tic in his left eye,

His quips they were slick enough,

He had scripts in various folders,

And he spoke no end of guff.

He'd a plan in his leather briefcase,

For his new friend to applaud,

About a way to save the world

From the Mesopotamian horde.

He stood there, holding his wallet,

With his tongue so gung and ho,

But his friend slapped him slowly on his back,

And only answered, "Yo."

Mister Bee came home on an airplane,

It was filled with mirrors and smoke,

Mister Bee flew home and he called his friend

"An utterly decent bloke."

Mister Bee he drank a mug of tea,

Yet the tea did not quench his thirst.

"O God, I pray for peace on Earth,

But my friend must bomb them first."

They took Mister Bee to retire

In a home so rich and grand.

There was blood on the desert's sandy floor,

There was blood on his face and hand.

Yes, they took Mister Bee to retire

In a home for a rest and cure,

And he combed through dossiers late at night,

And he said, "My heart is pure."

They brought Mister Bee the papers,

And he read through the Nicene Creed,

Said: "History shall be my judge,"

But Posterity disagreed.


O what is that sound which so dins the ear

Down in the handbag squalling, squalling?

Only my mobile's ringtone, dear,

There's someone calling.

O what is this light I see flickering here

Like the eye of a partridge, partridge?

Only the inkjet monitor, dear,

For another cartridge.

O what is that ping so loud and clear;

Is it the sign of the spin docs, spin docs?

Only the sound of new e-mail, dear,

Filling my in-box.

O where is that roar, that sounds like a jeer,

Rising to a crescendo, crescendo?

Only the kids killing orcs, my dear,

On the Nintendo.

O who are those men? Why do they cheer?

Why does it seem like derision, derision?

The president's showing his bombers, dear,

On the television.

O why does it howl through the hemisphere?

Why do they urge us to stay back, stay back?

Only some men on a mission, dear,

Looking for payback.

Night Female

This is the fright wig perched on the clubber,

Brought up on burgers and turning to blubber,

Lurching through the town, hunting for cabs,

Flaunting her navel stud, munching kebabs,

Crop-topped and alcopop-fuelled, tattooed

Somewhere her parents would think rather rude,

Flighty but flightless, a light-dazzled moth,

Wearing the monochrome garb of the Goth,

Eyes like a panda, skin like vanilla,

Carving initials on concrete pillar,

Prowling precincts, sick without warning,

Texting her friends at two in the morning,

Ready to meet, when the day comes to pass,

Sitting neat in her City Academy class.


Ladies and Gentlemen, sitting here,

Moving the goalposts, asking the Chair,

The fact of the matter is, into the bargain,

Who's sitting next to you? It may be Jargon.

Jargon is proactive, 24/7,

And his action plan gets you into Heaven -

If you're client-facing, thinking blue skies,

And provided, my friend, you prioritise.

Jargon is far-gone, and he may be shivery,

But his bottom line is core delivery:

When you're implementing him, don't touch base,

Or move his goalposts. He'll be on your case.

Jargon thinks of you as his clients,

And he's all win-win, not rocket science;

He hears what you say. He gives you hope,

But remember to push that envelope.

So whether you're drilling down, or closing the loop,

And while mission statements are alphabet soup,

Jargon's trialling you, and he has a third way,

So be sure you're value-added at the end of the day.

O Tell Me the Truth About Pete

Some say that Pete's a foolish boy

And some that he's a star,

Some say his finger's on the pulse

And that he plays guitar;

But when I asked his agent, dear,

Who really ought to know,

They claimed Kate Moss was very cross,

And Pete was only blow.

Does he look like a rich kid who gambles

Or a shark in an underground sewer,

Does the band seem more baby than shambles,

Or has it some secret allure?

Is he sickly, a chicken half-plucked, if

You pass when he struts down the street,

Is he talented, trite, or seductive?

O tell me the truth about Pete.

From 'The Witnesses'

You are the drivers, and we are the flash,

We are the clampers collecting the cash

you owe;

At the gates, and on the roof,

When you pause, or are on the hoof,

we see where you go.

On every Saturday or Friday

We will ask you for your ID:

we tape

Every move you make, and every look.

In every cranny and every nook

there is no escape.

Fill in a form, fill out your CV,

And still you'll be on our CCTV

without cause;

Do not act in a suspicious manner -

Even Dodi Fayed and Diana

came through our doors.

Never mind policemen, or your polemic,

For we are ceaseless, and we are an endemic


Your blood is banked, your carbon print,

In the passport booth, neither smile nor squint,

till we have your iris.

Asylum seeker or refugee,

When you arrive, be assured that we

compute you;

We know your age, your skin, your size,

If you have distinctive Mongolian eyes,

then we will shoot you.

Quiz Contestant Blues

Over the ether my image flows,

I'm the weakest link on the trivia shows.

My brain is rattling but I must reply,

I'm a quiz contestant, I don't know why.

The host rakes over my life with cheek,

My wife's in the audience; her smile is weak.

Tarrant has a hangdog, poker face,

I can't answer his questions, I'm in disgrace.

Noel knows his numbers, I don't know any;

I might win a quarter-mill, might win a penny.

I gave them a ring, and they put me through;

I want the cash, but I haven't a clue.

The audience titter, and the audience squeal,

Ask me the question, Noel. Deal? No deal.

When I'm a veteran, I won't be restful:

All calls are charged, but not all are successful.