CAN Exercise 2.3 A Poem


Choose a poem that resonates with you then interpreted it through photographs. Don’t attempt to describe the poem but instead give a sense of the feeling of the poem and the essence it exudes.

Poem – Refugee Blues by W.H. Auden

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

(Auden, 1939)

Photographic interpretation


Refugee Blues is a poem written by W.H. Auden while living in New York in 1939. It is a description of life from the point of view of a Jewish refugee living in Hitler’s Germany.

So how to metaphorically and viscerally interpret such a poem? In 1943 the American psychologist A.H. Maslow wrote a paper called ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ (Maslow, 1943). Commonly known as ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ (see below) it sets out a five-tier model of human needs. The bottom tier, known as physiological needs, contains such essential elements as food, water and warmth.

In ancient times it was believed the world was composed of four basic elements – Fire, Water, Air, and Earth (Kingsley, 2019). Photographing these four elements symbolises Hitler’s denial of fundamental human rights to Jews as depicted by Auden.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

(Maslow and McLeod, 2018)


Auden, W. (1939). Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957. Faber & Faber.

Kingsley, K. Scarlett and Parry, Richard, “Empedocles”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <>.

Maslow, A. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. [online] Classics in the History of Psychology. Available at: [Accessed 3 Nov. 2019].

Maslow, A. and McLeod, S. (2018). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. [image] Available at: [Accessed 3 Nov. 2019].

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