A Search For Who To Learn From

In the next to last poem he ever wrote, A Thanksgiving,  W.H. Auden pays homage to the voices without whom, he reckons, “I couldn’t have managed / even my weakest of lines.” 

It’s quite a list:

     – Hardy, Thomas and Frost, for inspiring his early adolescent verse

     – Yeats and Graves for a young lover, discovering the center of the universe isn’t exactly him

     – Hitler and Stalin, who “forced” questions of divinity

     – Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis, who guided the poet “back to belief”

Then comes the poet’s turn towards his own uncertain future, as the aging Auden, already a beloved master, asks: “Who are the tutors I need?”  A question the most profoundly accomplished among us never stop asking.  

We’re each on our own desperate, unending search — not just for wisdom, but for the sages generous enough to share it.  Not just a search for learning, but a search for who to learn from.

Sometimes it’s awkward, like that afternoon I spent in my office with inventor Dean Kamen, who I was dying to meet and learn from.  Turned out, Dean was far more interested in excoriating me for my ineptitude at effecting global change than anything else.  Unpleasant as it was, Dean is our generation’s Ben Franklin, and I continue to learn from him.

My own list of teachers is long and quite an array.  Filmmakers, poets, artists, musicians, curators, an evolutionary biologist, a few bankers, countless entrepreneurs and investors, journalists, philosophers, bloggers, my parents, an uncle….

I make time every month to consult individually with a smaller set, what I call my Council of Elders, a group of advisors who’ve been through what I’m experiencing many times over, and who’ve come out the other side with a perspective I’m decades from achieving on my own.

Here’s Auden’s poem (written the year he died, the year I was born), in its entirety:


A Thanksgiving

When pre-pubescent I felt
that moorlands and woodlands were sacred:
people seemed rather profane.

Thus, when I started to verse,
I presently sat at the feet of
Hardy and Thomas and Frost.

Falling in love altered that,
now Someone, at least, was important:
Yeats was a help, so was Graves.

Then, without warning, the whole
Economy suddenly crumbled:
there, to instruct me, was Brecht.

Finally, hair-raising things
that Hitler and Stalin were doing
forced me to think about God.

Why was I sure they were wrong?
Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis
guided me back to belief.

Now, as I mellow in years
and home in a bountiful landscape,
Nature allures me again.

Who are the tutors I need?
Well, Horace, adroitest of makers,
beeking in Tivoli, and

Goethe, devoted to stones,
who guessed that — he never could prove
Newton led science astray.

Fondly I ponder You all:
without You I couldn’t have managed
even my weakest of lines.

                                             – W.H. Auden, 1973