Adam Ash

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Bookplanet: three poetry lovers email each other about W.H. Auden

Auden at 100
The idealistic love poet.
By Stephen Metcalf, Meghan O'Rourke, and Aidan Wasley/

From: Meghan O'Rourke
To: Stephen Metcalf and Aidan Wasley
Subject: The Many Faces of W.H. Auden

Dear Steve and Aidan,

Last week was W.H. Auden's 100 th birthday—or would have been, had he not died at the age of 67 in 1973. According to a biographer, Richard Davenport-Hines, Auden seemed worn down at the time of his death, and the poet's friends have said that the years of drinking, heavy smoking, and barbiturate use had taken their toll. But it is tempting to imagine that it wasn't the drugs and liquor that prematurely aged him, but his literary aesthetic itself: the mantle of moral and political responsibility he believed came with the job of being a poet. If he was a formidably craggy slab of a man by the time he turned 60, it wasn't just the Chesterfields, it was the crushing responsibility.

Auden has enjoyed a jag in popularity during the last decade. His poem "Funeral Blues" was a cornerstone of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral . His drumbeat of a poem, "September 1, 1939"—composed after Germany invaded Poland—was e-mailed and faxed around the country in the days after 9/11. Its unexpected relevance and its closing note of uplift gave it grassroots appeal: "May I .../ Beleaguered by the same/ Negation and despair,/ Show an affirming flame." So perhaps it's not a surprise that this anniversary brings with it not one but two new editions of his poetry, each compiled by Edward Mendelson, Auden's literary executor: the hefty Collected Poems (Modern Library), and a revised and expanded Selected Poems from Vintage (with a new set of notes). The Selected Poems is more likely to be of interest to lay readers: It's lighter and the notes are helpful. It's also the only of the two to contain the poem "September 1, 1939." The other edition bends to Auden's wishes, expressed when he put together a Collected Poems in 1966, and leaves it out. Auden's disavowal of this poem and others is characteristic of an ambivalence he felt about his own rhetorical powers—and is one of the many things I hope we can talk about.

What made Auden so important, and why is he still so present in the cultural conversation? Aidan, you're our resident expert. Trying to take Auden's measure as a student-dabbler, I've found myself going back to the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, who zeroed in on at least two Audens—a reductive view that has come in for lots of debate, but that gets at one basic tension in the work of this endlessly evolving poet. In this narrative, Auden began his career in England in the 1920s composing precociously stunning love poems and meditative fantasias. (Among my favorites is "Lullaby": "Lay your sleeping head, my love/ Human on my faithless arm.") The early Auden was, as Jarrell put it, "oracular (obscure, original), bad at organization, neglectful of logic, full of astonishing or magical language, intent on his own world and his own forms." This is some of the work I love most, with its curious Icelandic preoccupations (Auden had a romance with the idea of Northernness); the frequency of phrases like "spring's green/ preliminary shiver" and "love's worn circuit re-begun"; and its Anglo-Saxon tones (inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins), rung in lines like "Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle."

In the 1930s, though, Auden self-consciously turned away from the private rhythms of Modernism—away from Eliot and Pound and even Hardy—in search of another kind of poetry: an accessible rhetoric that would connect the individual to the public world—what he later called "the common meditative norm." More of the poems he began to write in the 1930s (and after) were highly organized, logical, formal, didactic, and above all rhetorical , if we mean by that word language that is intent on persuasion. They concerned themselves with the legacy of Marx and Freud—with, well, civilization and its discontents. Plenty of the poems still displayed the lovely lyric figuration Auden was capable of; but a distinct category needed it less, the way a politician has less need for the sublime vistas of the sea. I'm being schematic, here—there were poems, many very good ones, that occupied the wide territory between these modes (more on this below)—but I'm thinking mainly of work like "New Year Letter" (an essay in tetrameter couplets) and even the "The Age of Anxiety" from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title.

This shift probably had something to do with Auden's political commitments. Like the rest of the so-called "Auden Group"—Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis, and Stephen Spender, all of whom met at Oxford—Auden started out as a left-leaning thinker whose intellect and poetic outlook were shaped by witnessing firsthand Europe's struggle against fascism. He spent time in Weimar Berlin and in Spain during the Civil War, and he came back frustrated at the ineffectiveness of "pink liberalism." (Around this time, as Jarrell puts it, Communists thought he was too liberal, and liberals thought he was too Communist.) And he began to follow through on the impulse toward oratory that had always been there in his poems. In 1939, he immigrated to America, where he re-embraced Christianity and grappled with what it might mean to anatomize, in verse, the work that citizens could do to create a better world—to become more humanist, more subtle in their interactions, more committed to the Christian principles of love—of "caritas" and "agape."

The poems of the "second" Auden help explain why he still matters in the public arena—why so many journalists, liberals, and public intellectuals admire him: They spoke to the cultivated reader of op-ed pages (and there was no Sanskrit in them, as there was in Eliot's poems). And the search for a common idiom in which to combat the soapbox orthodoxies of fascism helped Auden shape gems like "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" and "Musée Des Beaux Arts," which direct a moralizing public rhetoric at an intimate audience—at the individual . These are pretty great poems. And given poetry's almost total isolation from public discourse today, there's something deeply appealing about Auden's quest to establish a poetry of public intimacy. His own hands-on experiences lent that quest some nuance; poets should have "more than a bit of a reporting journalist," he once said. If his poems could devolve into vague liberal wishes for the individual to be an "affirming flame," he also knew that "art … cannot be midwife to society."

Yet the spokespoet stance plainly could lead Auden into torturous abstraction: "Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood/ Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,/ Dreading to find its Father lest it find/ The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:/ Alone, alone about our dreadful wood." A number of the resulting poems were neither elegant poetry nor philosophically astute. Finally, it is important to note Auden's own ambivalence about much of this work. He revised his poems obsessively because he found earlier tones and expressions false, and he cut some of his most famous poems ("Spain" and "September 1, 1939") from later editions: "Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest. … A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained," he said.

This last bit is, let's face it, pretty odd. Most poets don't repudiate their earlier work so absolutely. I'd love to know what you make of it, and how you think it's most helpful to conceptualize the many different Audens to be found in this big body of work. Which do you like most?


From: Stephen Metcalf
To: To: Meghan O'Rourke and Aidan Wasley
Subject: Is Auden the Honorary American?

Hi, Meghan and Aidan,

I thought I'd fill in and counterpoint your terrific first post by offering some ideas about Auden's oddly mixed reception in this country, and then by engaging his poetry more directly. It's true that Auden has enjoyed a recent and encouraging spike in popularity. But I'm not convinced (yet) that this is an important shift in his reputation among Americans, a reputation that is not so much good or bad as indistinct. I think there are three reasons for this. First, inasmuch as Americans experience poetry at all, they tend to get their most consequential dose of it early on, as students. But Auden is not a young person's poet, the way T.S. Eliot, say, can be. The contrast with Eliot is instructive. Eliot, the American who went to England, is superficially obscure but easily mastered. For 50 years his work has filled bright high-school students with feelings of high cultural and metaphysical dread, a useful derivative, for the English teacher, of adolescent self-importance. In spite of his being personally repulsive, and disliked by the Yale (and Yale-derived) critics who have dominated literary criticism since the '60s, Eliot remains a totemic presence on the syllabus. On the other hand Auden, the Englishman who emigrated to America, is a poet for adults. In fact, he is everything Eliot was not: supple, feminine, urbane, funny, relaxed, erotic, gossipy, generous, worldly, and humane. It is easy to teach a person under 22 The Wasteland . Now try teaching him or her The Age of Anxiety .

Secondly, though Auden matured far beyond his origins as a '30s poet nurtured in the homosocial Petrie dish known as Oxford and became a poet deeply engaged with the reality of postwar life, he remained very English—meticulously careful in his effusions, effortlessly catholic in his erudition, relaxed in that way that only the most intimidating people can be relaxed. He was the last poet for whom the university was never a meaningful patron, and for whom Latin and Greek and the entire canon of English poets seemed casually ready-to-hand. An American can become acclimated, and come to love unsentimentally, the crabby-crabbed eccentricities of Yeats more easily than he can grasp Auden's, in part because Auden's eccentricities are not meant to be easily grasped, if grasped at all.

So I wish you first a
Sense of theatre; only
Those who love illusion
And know it will go far:
Otherwise we spend our
Lives in a confusion
Of what we say and do with
Who we really are.

"Who we really are" is an American, maybe the American, obsession. It was not Auden's, and to an American ear he can sound slippery and fey.

Thirdly, Auden has never found a dominant American critic to champion him. I may be wrong on this, but I remember Auden as entirely absent from the syllabus at every stage of my education, and have never found him written about with the same disciplined adulation that American critics have offered up to Yeats, Stevens, Moore, Bishop, Lowell, Berryman, to produce a quick list. Jarrell, as you point out, was neurotically preoccupied with Auden, and finally could not side with him; Bloom once dismissed his work as "reducing too easily to paraphrase," though I am paraphrasing here from memory. The highly placed shill has eluded Auden. Maybe this is for the best.

Enough reputation; the poems! My favorite Auden is the American Auden, the middle-ish Auden, the Auden that started to emerge in the '40s, with New Year Letter , and came out more fully in the Yeats and Freud elegies, "In Sickness and in Health," "The Fall of Rome," "In Praise of Limestone," and "Under Sirius," to name some obvious choices, and culminates in the longer works The Sea and the Mirror, The Age of Anxiety, and The Shield of Achilles. This Auden had self-consciously moved on: from Freud and Marx to Kierkegaard and Neibur; from the literary swim of Oxford and London to the vast, encompassing anonymity of New York City. You mentioned New Year Letter, and I agree it's a good place to start.

New Year Letter is a long poem—eyeballing it, over a thousand lines, easy—in octosyllabic couplets, divided into three parts. It is addressed to a new friend, a German refugee living on Long Island named Elizabeth Mayer, an older woman whose company Auden is coming to realize he cherishes. The poem is about our inexorably divided self, an idea Auden was refining by reading (of course!) Montaigne and Lincoln. As Montaigne had put it: "We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe, we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn." Auden had expanded on this in reviewing a biography of Lincoln. "The one infallible symptom of greatness is the capacity for double focus. [Great men] know that all absolutes are heretical but that one can only act in a given circumstance by assuming one … "

The opening of the poem is instructive. The new year is a time for forward-looking reassessment—"All our reflections turn about/ A common meditative norm/ Retrenchment, Sacrifice, Reform"—especially in the new world, but this one finds Auden harkening back to the previous New Year, when he was still in Europe. " … round me, trembling in their beds,/ Or taut with apprehensive dreads,/ The sleepless guests of Europe lay/ Wishing their centuries away/ And the low mutter of their vows/ Went echoing through her haunted house,/ As on the verge of happening/ There crouched the presence of The Thing." The Thing—what is it? Sin, we discover as we move through the poem, by which Auden means something like: our tendency to morbid self-disowning and disorder. He also certainly has in mind the fascism that he recently fled. And, I'd like to argue, he is also thinking of our old friend Eliot. As Auden continues:

All formulas were tried to still
The scratching on the window-sill,
All bolts of custom made secure
Against the pressure of the door,
But up the staircase of events
Carrying his special instruments,
To every bedside all the same
The dreadful figure swiftly came.

How Eliotic, "the scratching on the window-sill," the little irritant that reinforces how trapped you are in your own human smallness, how uncomfortable you are (or ought to be) in your own human skin. And precisely the sort of snickering diminution New Year Letter will go on to protest against. I believe Auden is announcing, I refuse to extract even the thinnest gauze of self-importance or rhetorical urgency from the thing I hate, even by detesting it; because by drawing on its power, I only enhance its power. Instead, the poem is about the tentative little utopia that friendship can be, though Auden wants to work, and make us work, to arrive at that affirmation. And so the first part of the poem is about not surrendering to the "vast apocalyptic dream," and instead acknowledging that, even through our imperfection, we put forth order and calm, most commonly in works of art. There are extraordinary passages—they seem to bring together the urbanity of Dryden with the rinsing fire of Blake:

All the more honor to you then
If, weaker than some other men,
You had the courage that survives
Soiled, shabby, egotistical lives,
If poverty or ugliness
Ill-health or social unsuccess
Hunted you out of life to play
At living in another way …

And later:

Now large, magnificent and calm,
Your changeless presences disarm
The sullen generations, still
The fright and fidget of the will,
And to the growing and the weak
Your final transformations speak.

The second part details the machinations of the devil, though again, a devil of our own making, and a possible instrument of our own enlightenment. The poem ends joyously, and in a total repudiation of Europe, of fascism, of Eliot:

Convict our pride of its offense
In all things, even penitence,
Instruct us in the civil art
Of making from the muddled heart
A desert and a city where
The thoughts that have to labor there
May find locality and peace,
And pent-up feelings their release …

I suspect this is why Auden may have repudiated his earlier work. It drew too much on the specter of European collapse, and so took its self-importance from a way of thinking and feeling, about the miseries of history, that Auden wanted to transcend. New Year Letter affirms Auden as an honorary if still doubt-afflicted American—as at least a somewhat optimistic and forward-looking poet. Anyhow, I am out of time.


From: Aidan Wasley
Subject: The Poet of Work

Hi Meghan and Steve,

At the risk of being pegged as an academic Auden shill, I'm always happy to talk about this amazing, challenging, maddening, endearing, crucial poet, and I'm delighted to be toasting his birthday with such enthusiastic Auden readers.

Meghan, you mention Auden's poetic appearance in Four Weddings. On the cover of my Vintage paperback edition of Auden's Collected , a 900-page doorstop of a book I bought as a grad student back in the mid-'90s, is a little red promotional sticker reading: "Includes the poem featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral ." You have to admire the marketing chutzpah there, and I have amused imaginings of romantic-comedy fans riffling through this mammoth volume in search of that nougaty chunk of filmic sentiment (the poem's on page 141, simply titled "IX" in a sequence of "Twelve Songs") and stumbling instead across some of the more freakishly alienating poems in the book—for instance, the late one that begins, "Steatopygous, sow-dugged/ and owl-headed,/ To Whom—Whom else?—the first innocent blood was formally shed/ by chinned mammal that hard times/ had turned carnivore." Meghan, you ask which Auden I like most. I'm not sure I can choose just one among the myriad Audens out there. But I will say that I get a big kick out of the Auden whose serious playfulness and love of language for its own sake allows him to begin a poem with the word steatopygous (it means having protuberant buttocks, in case you were wondering).

But there's a weightier point here, too, about how poetry gets marketed in our moment, as well as about how Auden himself resists the efforts of readers to delimit him or publishers to comfortably sell him as, for instance, the poet who will "Tell Me the Truth About Love"; that was the title of a pamphlet of Auden poems that was to be found by the cash registers of every Barnes & Noble after Four Weddings. The poet who makes me go to his beloved OED to find out what those obscure, toothsome words mean is the same poet who demanded that the poems in his first Collected Poetry in 1945 be printed alphabetically according to the first word of each poem rather than chronologically, so as to frustrate readers' preconceived notions about him. "I wanted to test the reader who believes that my earliest poems are the best," he said of this famously confounding editorial decision. "Make him read a poem and then guess its date."

Now, we could see this as a species of the curiously intense orneriness that you talked about, Meghan, on display in his notorious disavowals of some of his most well-known poems. But maybe we could see it as something else, something that gets to a really interesting point you made, Steve. In talking about the via negativa o f "New Year Letter," its mode of affirmation by denial, you suggest that Auden wants to make his reader work . This seems to me right and really important. Auden is, in every way, a poet of work. In his life, he saw himself as a working professional, keeping strict business hours and paying his way with the profits from his poetic labor. In his poems, too, the idea of making his readers pay their own way seems to me crucial to how they function, and can perhaps point to some of their enduring power.

Feeling the force of your lament that Auden is woefully underrepresented on syllabi and in classrooms, Steve, I'll take perhaps the one Auden poem that everybody knows, "Musee des Beaux Arts," and try to talk a little more about Auden's idea of poetic work. I love teaching this poem, not because it's necessarily my favorite, but because of how students respond to it. One of the clear moral lessons of that poem is a very melancholy one, suggesting that there's very little we as individuals can do to make anything happen in the big terrible world of human suffering (and, at the time the poem was written in 1938, of impending and unstoppable war). The best we can do is keep our heads down and our shoulders to the plow (which is what the farmer is doing in the Breughel painting the poems describes), because if we paid attention to all the suffering around us we'd go mad. Which is indeed how lots of students (and occasionally myself) read it: It gives us a kind of relief to see the world as so overpoweringly awful that we can be excused from any effort at trying to change it.

But the poem also exerts a strange kind of counter tug that inevitably someone in the classroom responds to. It asks us to rebel against this apparently cleareyed and unsentimental diagnosis of the inescapable "human position" of suffering. And this rebellion is further stirred by the imperious lecturing tone the poem affects ("About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters … "), prompting some readers to say, "Screw that pompous bastard! I'm not going to be like that 'expensive delicate ship,' calmly indifferent to the suffering of the person right next to me. I'm going to do something . Even if I know I can't stop a war, or wipe out human pain, if I were on that ship I would at least try to save the life of this boy who has plunged into the sea right in front of me!" Which is, I'd argue, precisely what the poem wants to do to you: force you to work to make an interpretive choice that is also a kind of moral choice. Your reading of the poem brings with it a moral choice in the real world. You can keep your head down in the interests of your own sanity, or you can go out into the world and do something , however small. The poem gives you options, but the choice, the hard intellectual and moral work, is yours alone.

It seems to me that's what Auden is talking about in the complex distinction he famously draws in his elegy for Yeats (the first poem he writes after his arrival in New York) between the apparently contradictory assertions, made within a few lines of one another, that "Poetry makes nothing happen" but is, nonetheless, "a way of happening, a mouth." The poetry Auden had spent much of the 1930s trying to write couldn't stop a war, but, he suggests, perhaps "it survives" and, in a kind of idealized vision of engaged citizenship, its exercise of moral and intellectual dialectic can help send the individual reader back out into the world to act justly to his neighbor. I wonder, does this claim for poetry's moral power hold up, or is Auden's hopeful vision of art's civic role in helping to build the "Just City" (as he calls it in "New Year Letter," following Plato) something we've left behind along with his unfiltered Chesterfields?

This question is related to another one you raise, Steve, that I'd love for us to talk more about. Namely, Auden's vexed relation to Americanness. It was no coincidence, it seems to me, that this redefinition of poetry's place in the world developed as Auden was moving to, and settling in, America. As the self-designated shill, I'd like to make the argument for reading Auden, not as a posh-accented import but as an essential, and essentially American, poet. To kick off the big discussion that I think Auden's American career raises—a discussion about his influence on the shape of postwar American poetry in general—I'll throw down this gauntlet: American poetry as we know it in the second half of the 20 th century would not exist without Auden. Disagree?


From: Meghan O'Rourke
Subject: What Auden Gave Up

Steve, Aidan—

The question of Auden's Americanness is interesting, but I'm going to defer that to focus for a moment on the substance of Auden, and, for the sake of argument, to foment some disagreement. Both you and Steve have made excellent cases for Auden's strengths—cases with which I do agree—but perhaps have skimmed over his limitations. Namely, on the level of language, what Auden does can be unsatisfying. He's a poet whose work can seem strangely indifferent to the range of sensations that poetry, uniquely, can capture. The reason for this is one we've touched on. Auden himself spent a lot of time puzzling over the two possible functions of poetry: First, its power of unconscious incantation, its manner of eliciting deeply human apprehensions that can't be captured in prose; second, its role as social wisdom and political argument.

The two needn't be exclusive, but when Auden got interested in his essayistic message, he sometimes skimped on the meter and the rhyme and mystery of the first—in many of his expository poems, there's no shimmer, as there often is in Milton's, as there surely was in Shakespeare's. Auden relied on language as a transparent screen when he wanted to write a poem that made a broader point. And here is where—this may be the poet in me speaking more than the critic—I stumble up against the great mystery of Auden: how a poet with such a tremendous lyric gift—what Anna Akhmatova called "lyrical wealth"—could have been content to let it molder while he wrote lines like: "For every day they die/ among us, those who were doing us some good,/ who knew it was never enough but/ hoped to improve a little by living." No wonder Bloom apparently dismissed him as "paraphraseable" and Jarrell felt betrayed! The lines are dull. They may say something that is not dull, but as poetry, they are flat.

Obviously, the larger significance of Auden's work is more complex than whether a few lines snap, crackle, and pop, and Aidan, I wholeheartedly second your beautiful reading of how "Musée Des Beaux Arts" engages us in textual work as a path to life-work. But I think there is a deeper issue here, one that may even connect us back to the issue of Americannness. In my experience of Auden as a reader , I find that when Auden turns toward rational language—in an effort to steer us toward top-of-the-head decisions—he imposes his will on his poems in a fashion that often swerves away from a level of sublimity, a level of unconscious vision, a level of illogical logic that is inherent in language.

Highly skilled, Auden could, as Seamus Heaney once put it, subjugate "all the traditional poetic means to his own purposes." Yet, odd though this may sound, the origins of great poetry, I think—and especially great American poetry—have less to do with subjugation than with submission , and I don't find a lot of submission in Auden. By submission, I mean that there is a profound tension in the American poets I love best, Whitman and Dickinson, and on through Stevens, Frost, and Bishop, between the forces of order (embodied by art, and those who create it) and the forces of chaos (the world, that which is the material for creation). In all these poets, there is a profound recognition—and even exultation in—the idea that to be an artist is a little like that American pastime, bronc riding: You'll get bucked off the poem and lose yourself, and that's the point.

The fact is, Britain has a stronger tradition in the didactic mode, and America has less of one. So, in this sense, Auden doesn't seem a thoroughly American poet to me at all. (Indeed, tellingly, he once said he considered it impossible to have a visionary intuition of love toward a person of a different class, which I imagine is easier to believe if you are British than American; and it meant that in order to pursue his exploration of democratic love, he felt he had to eschew the visionary and the sublime.) Consider the end of "New Year Letter," which you pulled out, Steve, as a joyous repudiation of fascism and Eliot:

Convict our pride of its offense
In all things, even penitence,
Instruct us in the civil art
Of making from the muddled heart
A desert and a city where
The thoughts that have to labor there
May find locality and peace,
And pent-up feelings their release …

Whatever is here, the poem gives us no feeling of how the "pent-up feelings" will find "their release." Everything is told, not shown; indeed, many of Auden's poems are forced to rely on single-word repetition for intensification, since other means of creating intensity (mystery, illogic, disjunction) have been eschewed: "O look, look in the mirror,/ O look in your distress"; "Dance, dance, for the figure is easy,/ the tune is catching and will not stop."

While I eagerly grant the poetic intelligence and skill of "rhetorical" Auden, I find myself lamenting, as Seamus Heaney did in a brilliant essay called "Sounding Auden," the passing of "the element of the uncanny." I like best the poems where "the strange" is mixed in with the poetic will—where Auden opened up some dusty corner of his mind for a second. Take, for example,"The Fall of Rome" (though we could also look at "In Transit" or "In Praise of Limestone"):

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

I adore this poem for several reasons—yes, it is a brilliant indictment of postwar bourgeois solipsism (and another snarl at Eliot's Modernism), but what makes it is the fabulous inventiveness of its swerves: the way the syntax and strong enjambment shape the music of the poem, tilting it here into the march-measure of bureaucratese, and there back again to the private language of the poet; the way the intonations of earlier days are suggestive of the plagues of the moment, but are never offered as a pure one-to-one correspondence. This is not just allegory, but incantation, and it becomes incantation through the operation of language, the small surprise of "In a lonely field the rain/Lashes an abandoned train." The poem may crest toward peroration, but those muscle-bound Marines refuse to let matters get too literal, and a delicate, ironic note of empathy is struck over the next two stanzas. The big surprise is that fabulous last stanza, which contains, at last, a lyrical moment that works mysteriously to complicate the social wisdom of the poem. You may be able to paraphrase the fourth stanza, but not the sixth. And, tellingly: This is a poem that an American poet (were he or she talented enough) could write today.

Well, I've run out of both room and time. I think Auden is not an "American" poet but an anomaly, someone who broke with the past of English poetry in ways that opened up a crucial path forward; who came to America and was able to influence a generation of writers largely because he wasn't so American that they had to wrestle overmuch with defining themselves in opposition to him. But I'm eager to know what you two make of this: Do you agree with any of it? And does Auden's religion play into his choices in ways we ought to discuss?


From: Stephen Metcalf
To: Meghan O'Rourke and Aidan Wasley
Subject: Did Auden's Talent Outstrip His Genius?

Meghan and Aidan,

Aidan—you sly devil. Would American poetry have been what it was without Auden, the transplanted Brit? The answer is: No, on two accounts. First, without Auden there could be no James Merrill, Auden's most obvious heir as a great and lightsome technician, as a master of The Tradition, and as a semi-closeted gay man (and native-born American, son of old Charlie Merrill himself). But another of Auden's legacies is less often discussed. From 1951 to 1959 Auden awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize, a critical career-maker given each year to an American poet under 40. His chosen recipients were: Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, Edgar Bogardus, Daniel Hoffman, John Ashbery, James Wright, John Hollander, and William Dickey. I can only say, having now re-read this list— holy shit.

Meghan, your reading of "The Fall of Rome" is lovely and deft. I would add: Isn't it odd that this wasn't the poem the liberal artsies seized upon after 9/11? I mean, "Outlaws fill the mountain caves"? Hello? "Fantastic grow the evening gowns"? The final stanza has always been a corker for me, in that way you indicate: It brings something very real and terrifying up only to half-consciousness, where it most retains its power to terrify. So what about those reindeer? "Altogether elsewhere, vast/ Herds of reindeer move across/ Miles and miles of golden moss,/ Silently and very fast." Rome is rotting from within, but its powers of disruption are centrifugal, and so vast that even at a seemingly unconnected periphery, there is evidence of panic and flight. This is the poem we ought to be reading now as the Imperium of Overconsumption begins to unbalance every last ecosystem.

Meghan, you've also given me an opening: I will now admit I find Auden admirable but unsatisfying. I have the same experience with him every time. I return thinking, "Now I am ready!" and leave appropriately dazzled but also exhausted. As Edward Mendelson, his literary executor and chief American proponent, writes in his introduction to the new Collected , "Auden wrote stirring ballads, satiric couplets, gnomic riddles, comic songs, meditations on landscape and history, an expressionistic charade, a Christmas Oratorio, a baroque eclogue in a wartime bar, ironic prayers, political squibs, limericks, haiku, prose poems, sonnets … " In reply to this enumeration of poetic superpowers, I would ask: Yes, but did he ever write a poem as good as Yeats' "Prayer For My Daughter" or Frost's "To Earthward"? "The Fall of Rome"; "September 1 st , 1939." The answer may well be: Yes. But I've noticed that admiring criticism of Auden often recites a set of qualities about Auden , as if poems were most importantly evidence of one man's superiority—in Auden's case, superior wit, inventiveness, gusto, discrimination.

For all his exceptional mastery, though, and as with a lot of early bloomers, Auden allowed his talent to skip off ahead of his genius. He wrote too fluently and too much. Many great poets write painstakingly and rarely—Bishop and Larkin come to mind—and compared with them, Auden was a graphomaniac. When reading even his best short poems, I feel an impulse to move on, to keep snacking, and I suspect this must be an echo of his habits of composition. His fluency is tied to a certain coolness, his coolness is tied to a preference for surface feelings of attraction and repulsion, for the glance of appraisal through a Chesterfield haze. This remoteness takes precedence over and above, say, one's own confusion, lust, joy, loathing, self-abnegation, or experience of loss. I want to be clear—most great poetry, maybe all of it, chastens us against feeling cheaply, and acts to contain and refine emotions. But the original emotion being recollected tranquilly in a poem can be intense, and with Auden one doesn't feel that it was. His famous poetic virtues, his stunning erudition and technical control, only point up his froideur . To read him in bulk is to feel, in the end, vaguely shown up.

Auden recognized this tendency in himself. He ends "At The Grave of Henry James"

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and all writers, living or dead:
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling …

And he had Prospero, in "The Sea and the Mirror," say

Can I learn to suffer without saying
Something ironic or funny
About suffering?

I suppose I distrust Auden. He makes one case with his utter brilliance— I am the artist, the Great Exception! —and quite another with his Christian didacticism. As he once put it, "The only serious possession of men is not their gifts, but what they all possess equally, independent of fortune, namely their will, in other words, their love, and the only serious matter is what they love, themselves, or God, or their neighbor … " So is the ability to fashion haiku, sonnet, charade, and eclogue an unserious possession?

Well, the metaphysics of the over-gifted aside, here is what I love about Auden. He came here and saw postwar America for what it was: both a large, evolving bureaucratic state, managerially devoted to maximizing production and consumption; and a place that nonetheless allowed people a certain beneficent freedom to be themselves, to carve out their own little polis from their intimacies. As he once wrote, "Our only choice lies between an external and false necessity passively accepted and an internal necessity consciously decided, but that is the difference between slavery and freedom." Auden was no Horkheimer, but he did see that America had severely conformist tendencies that had to be stayed by the eccentricities of a self-consciously high art. For that he remains a hero.

I'll conclude by saying that I am not religious (yet), but that the closest I come is to Auden's religion, which as he put it was "Liturgically, Anglo Catholic, but hopefully not too spikey," and theologically Augustinian with heavy shades of Kierkegaard. Auden lost his faith in the '20s, but in the series of conversions he made around the composition of "New Year Letter"—from Brit to American, principally—he regained it, and in 1940 returned to the Church. From his poetry I take the following, though I may not be right: Auden believed that each of us, as a fallible human being, as a consciousness encased in flesh, recapitulates the story of Christ, of God made man. In other words, the central fact of the New Testament is its absurdity, that the infinite would trammel itself in space and time, and this absurdity is its claim to universality. We come to God only by acknowledging our fallen-ness, and so move toward the good: toward order, repose, and, ultimately, love. Here, centrally, is why Auden is not a Romantic; it is through conscious artifice and reflection and self-control that experience becomes art, and only through avowal, over and against baser inclinations, that love becomes meaningfully human. Or as he put it in "In Sickness and In Health," one of my favorite Auden poems:

Rejoice, dear love, in Love's peremptory word;
All chance, all love, all logic, you and I,
Exist by grace of the Absurd,
And without conscious artifice we die:
So, lest we manufacture in our flesh
The lie of our divinity afresh,
Describe round our chaotic malice now,
The arbitrary circle of a vow.


From: Aidan Wasley
To: Meghan O'Rourke and Stephen Metcalf
Subject: The Idealistic Love Poet

Hi Steve and Meghan,

Emily Dickinson said she knew she'd read a real poem when it felt like the top of her head had been taken off. And you both aren't alone in your sense that sometimes the experience of reading Auden, especially the later Auden, can feel more like an academic seminar than an encounter with the brain-blowing sublime. Auden was a grand systematizer and analyst: There's an amazing document, a page of notes from one of his many stints as lecturer-for-hire in the 1940s on college campuses across the country, where he charts the origins and interconnections of pretty much all of Western thought and literature on a single sheet of paper. This is the Auden who—in his self-appointed role as a kind of headmaster-in-chief—tells the Harvard class of 1946, on a campus full of ex-soldiers back in school on the G.I. Bill, to "Read The New Yorker , trust in God;/ And take short views." And this is the Auden—who proudly claimed to have written a poem in every single poetic form in existence—that so frustrated Jarrell; in one of his many impassioned takedowns of the later poetry, he lamented Auden's transformation into "a rhetoric mill grinding away at the bottom of Limbo" (to which Auden, ever the diagnostician, is reported to have replied: "Jarrell is in love with me").

Part of the frustration, as you say, Meghan, is in the knowledge that Auden's often-flat later idiom is the result of conscious choice , rather than incapacity. After all, we know what soaring heights he's capable of from poems like your favorite, "The Fall of Rome," and a short and strange later one I love (that has happily been added to the new, updated Selected ) called "The Song," which embodies a bird-poet, watching its own reflection as it flickers across the surface of a lake and "Climbing to song it hopes to make amends/ For whiteness drabbed for glory said away." But there are at least two observations to make about this general refusal to be high-flown.

First, there's something about Auden's relation to poetic language and its seductions that reminds me of Dante, which might not be a coincidence, since Dante is one of three principle presiding influences who get name-checked toward the beginning of "New Year Letter." (The other two, interestingly, are Blake and Rimbaud, famous emblems of grand refusal.) One of the fascinating tensions in Dante is to watch him struggle with the temptation to strut his spectacular poetic stuff while believing that such vanity, and the possibility of leading the faithful astray through beautiful, false language, could get him sent to the same flame-licked Inferno as the sinners he's writing about. Dante often seems to indulge guiltily in that temptation, at least in the first part of The Divine Comedy ;there is, I think, a similar soul-staking gravity in Auden's belief in his responsibility to take the power of language with the seriousness of an ascetic grappling with his darkest desires. Which points, perhaps, to another meaning of that iconic line: "Poetry makes nothing happen." And thank God, Auden seems to suggest, since he and the world had seen to their infinite grief what happens when people succumb to the dark power of false but persuasive speech—think Nuremberg, 1934. Language is a complex, dangerous thing. Auden is using asbestos gloves with it to keep himself, and us, from being burned.

My other response to the justified complaint that Auden seems to lack what he calls in one poem "the lacrimae rerum note" is perhaps a more personal, subjective one. When I read Auden, and even the late rhetoric-grinding poems, I can't help but hear in the ghostly background the song of the lover in "As I Walked Out One Evening." The voice sings in fantastical terms of a love that will last "Till China and Africa meet/ And the river jumps over the mountain/And the salmon sing in the street," to which comes in reply the somber, gonging wisdom of the city's clocks: "O let not time deceive you,/ You cannot conquer time." I see Auden from early to late as that eternally idealistic love poet who knows that human love is a doomed and fleeting thing (his own love life was a nightmare of disappointment) and is struggling to live with, and make sense of, that cruelest of existential jokes. James Merrill once described all of Auden's poems as having been written on paper on which the tears had just dried, and that seems to be a beautiful way of thinking about Auden's relation to the world of feeling. After great pain a formal feeling comes, as Dickinson also tells us.

Which brings me back, if only indirectly and briefly, to consider that question of Auden's relation to the American poetic tradition of Dickinson and Whitman, and to try to gingerly pick up my own thrown gauntlet. One clear fact of Auden's significance to American poetry is, as you both suggest, his remarkable influence on the careers of so many of the poets we think of as central to what we mean when we talk about American poetry in the second half of the 20 th -century. You're right, Steve, that is one heck of a talent-spotting batting average in his tenure as Yale Younger Poets judge. (And behind that roster was an almost-tie between Ashbery and Frank O'Hara—Auden had solicited manuscripts from both of them when the submissions he'd been asked to judge proved underwhelming, and he ended up choosing, with difficulty, one of these best friends over the other.)

The list of younger American poets with important poetic and biographical debts to Auden is huge and fascinatingly diverse; it can include, just to name a couple more, Sylvia Plath, Richard Howard, Robert Hayden, James Schuyler, Maxine Kumin, and Richard Wilbur. Even poets we might think of as inhabiting different planets from Auden, like Allen Ginsberg, actually have curiously deep connections to him. Auden was an early idol of Ginsberg's; while a student at Columbia, Ginsberg wrote adulatory reviews of Auden's formal mastery, and there's a hilarious story about Ginsberg, flush with the triumph of Howl , tracking Auden down on his vacation to have it out with him about the importance of Whitman (whom Auden actually deeply admired). When a drunk Auden rebuffed him, Ginsberg stalked off in bardic dudgeon, calling Auden and his drinking companions "a bunch of shits" and vowing to overthrow "the republic of poetry" that Auden dominated. Even poets who hated what he seemed to represent, like Robert Creeley and—not long after Auden's condescending and sexist introduction to her Yale Younger Poets book—Adrienne Rich, found Auden useful, if only to positively define themselves against.

And maybe that's the final point, both about Auden's historical role in shaping recent American poetry and about his continuing value and place in our time. Auden was, and is, useful . And this is maybe also where the question with which we began, the many faces of Auden, comes to seem his essential strength. We can see in him, as so many of the poets after him did, what we need to see in him in order to help us find our own different ways. He's like a big, unshiny toolbox that we can rummage around in to find just what we need to do our individual work. The words of the dead man are modified in the guts of the living. He contains multitudes. And what could be more Whitmanic, and American, than that?

Cheers, and thanks,


Aidan, you ask whether American poetry in the second half of the 20 th century could exist as we know it without Auden, and my response has to be no: To take but one example, John Ashbery—who went on to be the next dominant force in American poetry—famously said that in the 1940s Auden "was the modern poet," presumably he said this both because he had had his eyes opened by Auden's style of ironic detachment and because in practical terms Auden had mentored a host of young poets from his house on St. Mark's Place in New York, where he created a salon (or a playroom?) over which he presided as a messy and quick-witted monarch. (Legend has it that a young poet once walked into Auden's apartment and nervously asked Ashbery what he should say to him; Ashbery responded, "You should thank him for being alive.") But it's kind of a trick question, isn't it? It doesn't necessarily mean that Auden is the most American of poets.

(Stephen Metcalf is Slate 's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate 's literary editor.
Aidan Wasley teaches modern poetry at the University of Georgia and is the author of Auden and American Poetry, due out next year.)


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