Readings — From the November 2017 issue

An Off Pursuit

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From a draft of a letter written in 1940 by Joan Murray (1917–42) to W. H. Auden (1907–73). The letter is included in Drafts, Fragments, and Poems, a collection of Murray’s poetry that will be published in January by New York Review Books. Auden selected Murray for the 1946 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize.

Dear Mr. Wystan Auden:

I was up to a rather off pursuit this last month and a half. I remember trying to tell you about it last season, and you said, Oh, Boy Scout stuff! and left me slightly nonplussed. I shall tell you now. I went out in dungarees and a small pack on my back and covered a scattering of New England states at a tangent. To me this breaking away and arriving at land’s end is a source of wide-eyed surprise. To be anywhere is quite unbelievable. How hard I try to grasp the Vermont hills or Cape Cod dunes. It is not that I am one of your swooning nature worshippers. God knows how often a hill or a clear night sky and I have glared back at each other. I go out quite like some small shabby Quixote to do battle. I will not admit nor yet deny the stretches of and complications on every hand. Sometimes I frighten the sea. This time, lead, and flattened smooth as a dull sun, it frightened me intolerably. In my belt I carried a small but keen Finnish knife with a reindeer-bone handle, my fetish companion, I had a touch of pelt on the scabbard, which I smoothed down and put beside my head wherever the evening and my journeyings brought me. It gave me much more strength than the various friends I would have to visit all along the way. It is always a meeting and escaping. You see I never know what to say to people. That is because I have been mentally asleep for such an endless time. Thank heavens that’s over. I’d breathe and get off to a six o’clock start. Here and there I took mental notes of outlines such as hill shape against the horizon so that someday the portentous simplicity and space would slip into writing. That I like to do. Translate broadly, press down over and over again this is what you must reach. These lines have the loveliness of gulls’ wings spread, and that is not far from exact word-phrase or subtly pointed thought. These come much more vitally alive in writing to you. The wall breaks down that always bars my direct contact with the object.

I never am a part of the thing till this moment. It is a bit worrying that I so rarely feel even a momentary belonging. I suppose I have to dwindle it down to the palm of my hand. I would indeed rather spread myself out to its height and length.

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