john j. ronan: tumbling for words in auden's "musée des beaux arts"

John J. Ronan’s writes the second in a series of stories from poets across the state on the first poem they fell in love with.

There wasn’t a first poem.  There were first poems, two that I remember clearly, that introduced me to word magic in stages.  

The first experience was reading, or rather having read to me, the news that a cow had  “jumped over the moon,” and that, not to be outdone, a “dish ran away with the spoon.”  I was just old enough to know such things couldn’t really and truly happen; and just young enough to leave the door open – much like the Santa-seesaw we all go through.  To think that someone else saw these possibilities was amazing and joyful, and a comfort, too, soothing reassurance for a boiling imagination.  In the words of Dylan Thomas, “I tumbled for words at once.”

Of course, I wasn’t thinking, “Ah, poetry!  Isn’t it grand?”  I was a bit young to do any thinking and poetry was certainly not a category of any sort in my head.  But the taste for that level of amazement, surprise and possibility, was planted.  And I have sought it out ever since, in travel and friendship, in politics, law and love, in good Scotch…  And found it, too, in all those areas, often also in science, in physical movement, in athletics, in history, in math…the sacred is everywhere.  But I learned gradually that for me the most nurturing soil for amazement and joy lay in the arts, and more specifically, in literature.  And that the king of that particular hill is poetry.       

The second experience, one that helped me define poetry as genre and eventually recognize its rule, was reading W. H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts.  I was in late grade school or entering high school, and the much anthologized poem was, naturally, in an anthology.  I read and was amazed.  Joyful.  I wasn’t sure why, really.  I had to look up the French before I understood the title, had to look up The Fall of Icarus back when that meant going to a library, had to look up Brueghel.  Hell, I had to look up Auden.  I did understand “miraculous birth” (it was a Catholic school) and “dreadful martyrdom”  (it was a Catholic school.)  That was enough for a first read.  In my artless grace, I got it.  I got the poem!  

The words worked in that mysterious and powerful way good poems do, even if the reader doesn’t understand everything all at once, even if the poem is flawed.  Those twenty-one lines rocked me. And rocked me before I did the looking up!  They still do, as my notions of suffering and the ‘human position’ fill out.  And though I have parsed the poem often, looking at diction and imagery, sound and rhythm, line length, the easy authority, all the poem’s tricks, the mystery remains.  

Many other poems have awed, poems saying what you didn’t think could be said.  But that is another story, beyond the ‘firsts’ I want to describe.  Those early poems put me on the right path, and I remain grounded by them, as writer and reader, immunized from deep-seeming unreadable poetry – mine or others’.  Besides, there’s pleasure in going back to first memories and the roots of a long writing career.  The first poems are the best poems.  It doesn’t get much better than this:

Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.

The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.


John J Ronan's last book, Marrowbone Lane (Backwaters Press, 2009), was a "Highly Recommended" pick of the Boston Authors' Club. His work has appeared in numerous journals, including Folio, Threepenny Review, The Recorder, Hollins Critic, New England Review, Southern Poetry Review, Louisville Review, Greensboro Review, and Notre Dame Review. He is a former Poet Laureate of Gloucester, MA, and a former NEA and Ucross Fellow.  He is also the producer and host of The Writer's Block with John Ronan, a Cape Ann TV Access program entering its 26th year.