Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Why W. H. Auden?

Aiden Hatley: "MAD poster"

With Massey's own
Jack Ross
as the guest speaker
Wednesday 6th August, 1-2 pm
SC4 Massey Albany main campus

Next week I'm supposed to be leading a discussion with a group of students on this rather uncomfortably weighty topic. I find that what thoughts I do have on the subject all seem to have been expressed already - rather better - by W. H. Auden, possibly my favourite English-language poet of all time (invidious though it would be to have to make such a choice).

There is, for a start, his early poem "Missing" [From scars where kestrels hover] (1929), about those "Fighters for no-one's sake / Who died beyond the border":
Heroes are buried who
Did not believe in death,
And bravery is now
Not in the dying breath
But resisting the temptations
To skyline operations.
The poem concludes with the magnificent lines:
"Leave for Cape Wrath to-night,"
And the host after waiting
Must quench the lamps and pass
Alive into the house.
That image of the "host" passing "alive into the house" is very much Auden's idea of the thirties hero: someone who can resist all the "temptations" to the prestige of "skyline operations" but instead be content to remain alive as a witness.

It's a vision of the artist as ordinary citizen ("The poet is Mr. Everyman. He goes to work every day on the tram," as he told the young Stephen Spender at much the same time (as recorded in the latter's 1953 autobiography World Within World).

It recalls Milton's sonnet "On His Blindness" - "They also serve who only stand and wait" - but goes beyond that to reject the whole idea of the "test": the supreme ordeal (like the trenches of 1914-18, missed by a whisker by his whole generation) which proves you to be a man.

Cecil Beaton: W. H. Auden (1930)

But can the artist go beyond this role of witness and observer? Auden's poem "Spain 1937" would seem to imply as much:
The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.
Here what is stressed is the need for action:
"What's your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain."

Many have heard it on remote peninsulas,
On sleepy plains, in the aberrant fishermen's islands
Or the corrupt heart of the city.
Have heard and migrated like gulls or the seeds of a flower.

They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes. All presented their lives.
Spain is now symbolic of the choice, an invitation to the young of international brigades, who "clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch / Through the unjust lands."

Auden subsequently chose to repudiate this poem. He said of it, in fact, in the preface to Collected Shorter Poems (1966), of the lines "History to the defeated / May say alas but cannot help nor pardon", that "to say this is to equate goodness with success":
It would have been bad enough if I had ever held this wicked doctrine, but that I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective is quite inexcusable.
I don't know if he quite understood his own poem, though - or perhaps he feigned to misunderstand it in order to make a point. As I read it, at any rate, the poem is simply stating a fact about history: "Acts of injustice done / Between the rising and the setting sun / In history lie like bones, each one", as he remarked on another occasion. It isn't arguing that it is necessary to win in order to be right, but simply that those who die defeated (as the Spanish loyalists did, so many of them) cannot be helped by subsequent apologists or revisionists.

I can see that this is indeed an unpalatable "doctrine" for the later, Christian, Auden, but for the earlier Leftist, to whom History was itself a kind of deity, it added a necessary dose of cold reason.

This period culminates in Auden's "September 1, 1939," another of the poems excluded - much to his admirers' surprise - from Collected Shorter Poems:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
As he said much later, "All the attitudes I struck in the 1930s didn't save a single Jew." That, presumably, is one of the "clever hopes" expiring with the coming of war - along, perhaps, with the rest of the rabble-rousing rhetoric of "Spain 1937"?

The poem goes on with a kind of inexorable, nursery rhyme logic, to remind us that:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
Because, in the final analysis:
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
The poem ends with an impassioned cri de coeur:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
It's that last line that caused all the trouble. It was much praised and much quoted at the time, as it seemed to sum up the whole business - why we had to keep going, keep struggling, keep trying to "love one another." Auden complained later (somewhat pedantically, one might say) that we would die whether we loved one another or not, and he therefore revised the line to read "We must love one another and die" in subsequent collections. Even this was not enough, though, so later still the whole poem was excised.

I suppose he had a point. It is a nice, resonant line, but it doesn't really make sense when you think about it. It seems a shame to scrap the whole poem for that, though. There's an earlier stanza which runs through my head every time I think about the "compassion fatigue" so endemic to our times:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
"Lost in a haunted wood / Children afraid of the night / Who have never been happy or good" - that's us all right.

I'll conclude with some lines from another one of those magisterial poems from the end of the 1930s, elegies for a dying age, poems that speak to us now with an ever more urgent voice - "In Memory of W. B. Yeats":
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
It's interesting how often this poem is - not so much misquoted, as misunderstood. People recall that half-line "poetry makes nothing happen," and see that as an expression of quietism or defeatism in the face of the (so-called) "real world" of executives and their ilk. But if you read on, that's not at all the end of the matter. On the contrary, the "poetry" that Auden imagines so triumphantly in this poem "survives, / A way of happening, a mouth." Poetry may make nothing happen, but that's because it is, in itself, a way of happening - in the valley of its making, those "Raw towns that we believe and die in," it has its own healing power to offer.

The poem's splendidly resonant conclusion therefore expands on these earlier lines, rather than contradicting them:
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
Auden won't let us get away with the excuse that poetry is impotent to affect our lives: "With your unconstraining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice" is the task of every poet, in his view.

It's not that he's naive about the difficulty of the task: "In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise" was written by one who foresaw the perils of consumerist vacuity and the "airtight cages" of poverty which could be established so easily alongside the palatial dwellings of those of us who call ourselves "free."

W. H. Auden (Christmas, 2011)

Did Auden ever resolve these balances? No, of course not. But the various positions he occupied at different times are well worth reconsidering now, when we face a world which more and more resembles that of the 1930s. I think he knew we would, and that's why he outlined the task of poetry (and art in general) with such precision and care:
I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love
as he said in "The Letter," the first poem preserved in his final collected edition. "Let your last thinks be thanks," says one of the last.

W. H. Auden: Spain (1937)

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973)


  1. Auden, W. H. Poems. 1930. London: Faber, 1948.

  2. Auden, W. H. The Orators: An English Study. 1932. London: Faber, 1966.

  3. Auden, W. H. Look, Stranger! 1936. London: Faber, 1946.

  4. Auden, W. H. Look, Stranger! 1936. London: Faber, 2001.

  5. Auden, W. H. Another Time. London: Faber, 1940.

  6. Auden, W. H. Some Poems. 1940. London: Faber, 1941.

  7. Auden, W. H. New Year Letter. 1941. London: Faber, 1965.

  8. Auden, W. H. For the Time Being. 1945. London: Faber, 1953.

  9. Auden, W. H. The Collected Poetry. New York: Random House, 1945.

  10. Auden, W. H. The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue. 1948. London: Faber, 1956.

  11. Auden, W. H. Collected Shorter Poems, 1930-1944. 1950. London: Faber, 1959.

  12. Auden, W. H. Nones. 1952. London: Faber, 1953.

  13. Auden, W. H. The Shield of Achilles. London: Faber, 1955.

  14. Auden, W. H. A Selection by the Author. 1958. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

  15. Auden, W. H. Homage to Clio. London: Faber, 1960.

  16. Auden, W. H. About the House. London: Faber, 1966.

  17. Auden, W. H. Collected Shorter Poems: 1927-1957. 1966. London: Faber, 1975.

  18. Auden, W. H. Collected Longer Poems. 1968. London: Faber, 1977.

  19. Auden, W. H. Selected Poems. 1968. London: Faber, 1972.

  20. Auden, W. H. City without Walls and Other Poems. 1969. London: Faber, 1970.

  21. Auden, W. H. Academic Graffiti. Illustrated by Fillipo Sanjust. London: Faber, 1971.

  22. Auden, W. H. Epistle to a Godson & Other Poems. 1972. London: Faber, 1973.

  23. Auden, W. H. Thank You, Fog: Last Poems. London: Faber, 1974.

  24. Auden, W. H. Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 1976.

  25. Auden, W. H. Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. 1976. London: Faber, 1991.

  26. Auden, W. H. Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. 1976. Rev. ed. 1991. London: Faber, 1994.

  27. Auden, W. H. The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939. Ed. Edward Mendelson. 1977. London: Faber, 1986.

  28. Auden, W. H. The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 1977.

  29. [McDiarmid, Lucy S. “W. H. Auden’s ‘In the Year of My Youth …’” Review of English Studies, 29 (115) (1978): 267-312.]

  30. Auden, W. H. Selected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 1979.

  31. Auden, W. H. Selected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. 1979. London: Faber, 1982.

  32. Auden, W. H. Selected Poems: Expanded Edition. Ed. Edward Mendelson. 1979. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

  33. Auden, W. H. The Platonic Blow and My Epitaph. Washington, D.C.: Orchises Press, 1985.

  34. Auden, W. H. Juvenilia: Poems 1922-1928. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. London: Faber, 1994.

  35. Auden, W. H. Juvenilia: Poems 1922-1928. Expanded Paperback Edition. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. 1994. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003.

  36. Auden, W. H. As I Walked Out One Evening: Songs, Ballads, Lullabies, Limericks, and Other Light Verse. Ed. Edward Mendelson. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

  37. Plays:

  38. Auden, W. H. The Dance of Death. 1933. London: Faber, 1941.

  39. Auden, W. H. & Christopher Isherwood. The Dog Beneath the Skin, or Where is Francis? 1935. London: Faber, 1968.

  40. Auden, W. H. & Christopher Isherwood. The Ascent of F6 & On the Frontier. 1958. London: Faber, 1972.

  41. Auden, W. H. Paul Bunyan: The Libretto of the Operetta by Benjamin Britten. 1976. Essay by Donald Mitchell. London: Faber, 1988.

  42. Auden, W. H., & Christopher Isherwood. Plays and Other Dramatic Writings: 1928-1938. Ed. Edward Mendelson. The Complete Works of W. H. Auden. London: Faber, 1988.

  43. Auden, W. H., & Chester Kallman. Libretti and Other Dramatic Writings: 1939-1973. Ed. Edward Mendelson. The Complete Works of W. H. Auden. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1993.

  44. Prose:

  45. Auden, W. H., & Louis MacNeice. Letters from Iceland. London: Faber, 1937.

  46. Auden, W. H. & Christopher Isherwood. Journey to a War. 1939. Rev. ed. 1973. London: Faber, 1986.

  47. Auden, W. H. The Enchaféd Flood, or The Romantic Iconography of the Sea. London: Faber, 1951.

  48. Auden, W. H. The Enchaféd Flood, or The Romantic Iconography of the Sea. 1951. London: Faber, 1985.

  49. Auden, W. H. The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. 1963. London: Faber, 1964.

  50. Auden, W. H. The Dyer’s Hand & Other Essays. 1963. London: Faber, 1975.

  51. Auden, W. H. Secondary Worlds: The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, Delivered at Eliot College in the University of Kent at Canterbury, October, 1967. London: Faber, 1968.

  52. Auden, W. H. Secondary Worlds: The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures. 1968. London: Faber, 1984.

  53. Auden, W. H. Forewords and Afterwords. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 1973.

  54. Auden, W. H. Forewords & Afterwords. Ed. Edward Mendelson. 1973. London: Faber, 1979.

  55. Auden, W. H. Prose and Travel Books in Verse and Prose. Volume 1: 1926-1938. The Complete Works of W. H. Auden. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 1996.

  56. Auden, W. H. Prose. Volume 2: 1939-1948. The Complete Works of W. H. Auden. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.

  57. Auden, W. H. Prose. Volume 3: 1949-1955. The Complete Works of W. H. Auden. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008.

  58. Auden, W. H. Prose. Volume 4: 1956-1962. The Complete Works of W. H. Auden. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010.

  59. Edited & Translated:

  60. Auden, W. H. & John Garrett, ed. The Poet’s Tongue: An Anthology. 1935. London: Bell, 1952.

  61. Auden, W. H., ed. The Oxford Book of Light Verse. 1938. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

  62. Auden, W. H. & Norman Holmes Pearson, ed. The Portable Romantic Poets. 1950. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1978.

  63. Auden, W. H. & Norman Holmes Pearson, ed. Poets of the English Language. 5 vols. 1952. London: Heron Books, n.d.

  64. Auden, W. H., Chester Kallman & Noah Greenberg, ed. An Elizabethan Song Book: Lute Songs, Madrigals and Rounds. 1957. London: Faber, 1972.

  65. Auden, W. H., ed. The Faber Book of Modern American Verse. London: Faber, 1961.

  66. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Italian Journey: 1786-1788. Trans. W. H. Auden & Elizabeth Mayer. London: Wm Collins, Sons and Co., Ltd., 1962.

  67. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Italian Journey. Trans. W. H. Auden & Elizabeth Mayer. 1962. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

  68. Auden, W. H., ed. A Choice of de la Mare’s Verse. London: Faber, 1963.

  69. Auden, W. H. & Louis Kronenberger, ed. The Faber Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection. 1964. London: Faber, 1965.

  70. Auden, W. H. & Louis Kronenberger, ed. The Faber Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection. 1964. London: Faber, 1974.

  71. Hammarskjöld, Dag. Markings. 1963. Trans. W. H. Auden & Leif Sjöberg. 1964. London: Faber, 1975.

  72. Auden, W. H., ed. Nineteenth-Century Minor Poets. Notes by George R. Creeger. London: Faber, 1967.

  73. Auden, W. H. & Paul B. Taylor, trans. The Elder Edda: a Selection. Introduction by Peter H. Salus. 1969. London: Faber, 1973.

  74. Auden, W. H. A Certain World: A Commonplace Book. 1970. London: Faber, 1971.

  75. Auden, W. H., ed. A Choice of Dryden’s Verse. London: Faber, 1973.

  76. Auden, W. H., ed. George Herbert. Poet to Poet. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

  77. Lagerkvist, Pär. Evening Land / Aftonland: bi-lingual edition. 1953. Trans. W. H. Auden & Leif Sjöberg. 1975. London: Souvenir Press, 1977.

  78. Auden, W. H. & Paul B. Taylor, trans. Norse Poems. 1981. London: Faber, 1983.

  79. Secondary:

  80. Ansen, Alan. The Table Talk of W. H. Auden. Ed. Nicholas Jenkins. 1990. London: Faber, 1991.

  81. Auden, W. H. ‘The Map of all My Youth:’ Early Works, Friends & Influences. Auden Studies 1. Ed. Katherine Bucknell & Nicholas Jenkins. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

  82. Auden, W. H. ‘The Language of Learning and the Language of Love:’ Uncollected Writings, New Interpretations. Auden Studies 2. Ed. Katherine Bucknell & Nicholas Jenkins. London: Oxford, 1994.

  83. Carpenter, Humphrey. W. H. Auden: A Biography. 1981. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1983.

  84. Everett, Barbara. Auden. 1964. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1969.

  85. Farnan, Dorothy J. Auden in Love. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

  86. Haffenden, John, ed. W. H. Auden: The Critical Heritage. The Critical Heritage Series. Ed. B. C. Southam. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.

  87. I Believe: Nineteen Personal Philosophies. By W. H. Auden, Pearl Buck, Albert Einstein, Havelock Ellis, E. M. Forster, J. B. S. Haldane, Julian Huxley, Harold J. Laski, Lin Yutang, Thomas Mann, Jacques Maritain, Jules Romains, Bertrand Russell, John Strachey, James Thurber, H. W. Van loon, Beatrice Webb, H. G. Wells & Rebecca West. 1940. London: Unwin Books, 1962.

  88. Mendelson, Edward. Early Auden. 1981. London: Faber, 1999.

  89. Mendelson, Edward. Later Auden. 1999. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

  90. Mortimer, Raymond, ed. The Seven Deadly Sins. By Angus Wilson, Edith Sitwell, Cyril Connolly, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Sykes & W. H. Auden. London: Sunday Times Publications, Inc. 1962.

  91. Osborne, Charles. W. H. Auden: The Life of a Poet. 1979. London: Papermac, 1982.

  92. Rowse, A. L. The Poet Auden: A Personal Memoir. London: Methuen, 1987.

  93. Smith, Stan. W. H. Auden. Rereading Literature. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.

  94. Spears, Monroe, K. ed. Auden: A Collection of Critical Essays. Twentieth Century Views. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.

  95. Spender, Stephen, ed. W. H. Auden: A Tribute. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1975.

W. H. Auden: Collected Shorter Poems (1966)


Richard said...

That poem 'The Letter' was one that haunted me as a teenage from the mid sixties. I concur on this: Auden is great for the attempt to reconcile these 'dark issues'. He also tries to tackle it in 'The Orators'. Yeats seems to simply, or perhaps not simply: but he rejects any solution as in his poem 'The Vision' which moves away from the human so to speak.

But "Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry..." and poetry "survives in the valley of its making". Yes, he could never resolve the contradictions. And nor should he: Eliot was always contradiction. It was a kind of musical/emotional logic - which Auden attains at his best (even in 'Spain'). His nursery rhyme morality of 'social-political logic' is just right. He had already revised 'the necessary murder' before Orwell wrote his criticism of that line: but that O had fought in Spain is no excuse: Auden was simply a great poet and Orwell's critique is naive. But Auden knew that every statement implies a contradiction.

That 'poetry makes nothing happen' has been misunderstood as has William Carlos Williams 'No ideas but in things.' Williams included that in a book where he also talks about imagination and much else (he also wrote a kind of surrealist prose work). These things are sometimes taken unreflectingly out of context. But his "all he has is a word" to "undo the folded lie" and that implies that potent of the poetic.

Auden's poetry is constantly thinking.

This is very informative re Auden and the times.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Those Yeats poems "Easter 1916" and "Meditations in Time of Civil War" are another endless point of return, though, I would say. Auden was obsessed by Yeats -- drawn by the sheer power of his language, repelled by the apparent ease with which he negotiated his role as poet and spokesperson for Ireland.

Yeats's choices have not grown less interesting over time, though, unlike (I would say) Eliot's -- who was Auden's other great influence in the 30s. All that Anglo-catholic maundering just sounds a bit childish now, I think.

Richard said...

That (re Yeats) is, I would argue, is because of the strange (and ingenious) nature of Yeat's system which (most people) cant make head nor tail of: but as well as having a structure (just as Eliot had his - perhaps equally eccentric it seems nowadays) based on Royalty in politics, his religion (as you say), his obsession that civilization (for him it is almost an inhuman concept, he's not really interested in the First World War as he writes The Waste Land, nor was the Second World War really the deal, they are as Cynthia Ozick speculates, really energised by his personal relationships (breakown, his first wife, his psych-spiritual [existential?] concerns. I think, given his use of the 'objective correlative' (I disagree with Ozick on this part of an essay she wrote about him, as I think that that technique is what makes Eliot's poems so great for me): so I feel, that real as his religion and his beliefs were (as I am sure Pound really believed in a way that the Greek gods were 'real' (they were to him, as was I think, the 'simultaneity of History' - some of that must have affected Eliot), as Yeats convinced himself of his system of historical gyres etc): I think that Eliot's poetry still stands up as it is closer to say Mallarme or Baudelaire of course with some of La Forgue's satire [who else ever began a poem with 'Polyphiloprogenitive'?] and his sensitivity-intensity means that he (like Yeats,whose 'system' almost no one who reads him takes much interest in, but it acted as a kind of total frame for him, as one thinks of Eliots bones that sing in the desert, his yellow smog or fog, even 'the Jew' is important (so many connotations, remember he wrote most of that stuff before WW2): so his poetry is poetry, in essence, it transforms or transcends.

But I see Auden wrestling with his soul: I think that Yeats, as he was in a place where his 'patrician' views were offset by his closeness (e.g. to those who were killed by the British in 1916 or to news or experience of violence and 'drunken soldiery' of all kinds, and turmoil): I mean wherever he was, Joyce stayed well clear of Ireland for good reasons as far as he was concerned, I mean he was afraid of thunder and dogs!
Auden at least WENT to Spain, if he didn't do much there.

But for me, Eliot, Auden, Yeats are the main movers in England. Soon the great German, and other European writers would be faced with the terrible dilemmas of Nazism which by and large they couldn't be "forgetful" of.

But I dont feel Eliot is ever childish, it is just that now we feel it is (almost) a game called art. But by continuing to write, there is affirmation, as Auden implies in his great poem about Yeats.

When I was at University (1990s) the Modernists were: Frost, Yeats, Marianne Moore, (and I suppose Stein by extension as well as Bishop), William Carlos Williams (to counter Pope Eliot!)...but no Auden or Eliot! But that was a starting point I suppose.

Auden's later 'Thank You Fog' is still great or good poetry but not for me as intense as The Letter etc or Yeat's great poems. I still cannot free myself from Eliot's voice however.

If you want a touch of almost mad reality take a pew at say Keith Douglas (or the earlier WWI poets) or Richard Taylor's 'The Secret of Being Unpopular' where the old mad man of Panmure resorts to invoking Auden:

Is it blamable on the bloody big biblical Big Bang? “What was the matter with the matter?”

'It’s like this. I’ll put Bach and Pergolesi at one end and such as Sid Vicious and Stockhausen at the other, with a dash of Jazz and some Charles Ives,
or even Stevens in the Nigger Graveyard, not to mention poor old Pound…and
Charles Bernstein’s ‘Pounding Fascism’. It’s all in the mixmess. Auden was the man for this sort of thing. Lately I’ve been reading, post Ashbery and Berryman, Carol Ann Duffy, and bits of others, including the Manhire of children dying…'

Richard said...

Eliot's choices, yes perhaps, but not his poetry.

(Eliot like a kind of High Priest of lit. whereas Auden and Yeats are still wrestling with their art etc and cant avoid 'politics' or (more or less) the real, however defined...

It sounds as though it will be an interesting discussion as long as the students are actually interested in poetry etc not like some who are simply riding through on the way to a law degree or something...not that it's not good they have SOME exposure to lit., but you surely want the more focused more literarily focused strudents?

Richard said...

Jack, sorry to hog the comments. but what did mad Nijinsky write about Diagelief. He was paranoic? I recall something of that.

Auden had a wide learning, and was proficient also in all the poetic forms.

I can concur re Eliot but I do give the thumbs up to Auden, Yeats and Pound.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

To be honest, I don't really know what mad Nijinsky wrote about Diaghilev. I presume (in context) he accused him of wanting "not universal love, but to be loved alone."

I have read Nijinksy's diary, but it was a long time ago, and I never found the precise passage Auden had in mind (since then there's been a new, fuller translation of it).

I like the way you sneak in Pound there at the end -- that's a whole different story! Certainly in political terms, at any rate. While I think there's much to be said for the questions Pound asked, the answers he found (in the 30s and 40s) were rather less satisfactory -- or that's what I think, anyway.

Richard said...

You probably have this, i.e. John Fuller's book about Auden's poems.
On p. 259 in my Thames & Hudson edition:

For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

[Already the poem raises complex social, political, cultural issues and echoes 'The Fall' concept or 'reality', for I think Auden was aware of the impossibility of certainty in these ideas of right and wrong...(my comment)]

'Auden borrowed these last two lines from Nijinsky: "Some politicians are hypocrites like Diaghilev, who does not want universal love, but to be loved alone. I want universal love.' (The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, 1937, p.44). The immediate evidence of this 'error' could be traced ub theory by psychoanalytic investigations of Hitler's earliest experiences ('what occured at Linz,/ what huge imago made/A psychopathic god') of by a historical study of German nationalsim ('the whole offence/From Luther until now/That has driven a culture mad'), but there is a simpler answerm with a strongly Christian flavour: 'Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.')...[Fuller suggests he is in this poem not only suggesting the 'cause' is Hitler's early life but the enlightenment, Lutherism, Descartes (I think Auden misunderstands the latter) etc (Auden suggests as much somewhere)...[As a poem or poem sequence this is indeed great poetry though, for sure.]' (Fuller.)

But, in fact, I once read a book by an OSS Psychoanalyst who analysed Hitler. But I think that Auden is cutting into the core of the whole thing: we can talk about say, all the wonderful things about the first world war, the dubious heroics, but what caused it? How did / does it all arise? Why might the 'necessary murder' be necessary? Was (as I semi-satirically suggest - Hitler's mother to blame for it all? Poor woman. 'Poor man.' in my 'The Secret of Being Unpopular').

So: in simple turns evil was done to Hitler and say John Gray. We need to know more about such people. Hence perhaps Joyce Carol Oates attempt in her novel about a serial killer (from his point of view 'he read Wittgenstein'!!), and so on.

Richard said...

Yes I agree re Pound. His Cantos is so vast.

I think a good take on that though is via Charles Bernstein's 'A Poetic' which has an essay (Bernstein makes his 'prose' essays sometimes into a kind of poem form.) called 'Pounding Fascism' which I think, especially as he is Jewish-American, is to the point: that Pound in his poetics was innovative, using fragmentation and simulaneity of time thru history, the sudden (beautiful poetic) revelation arising from all the dry politics etc...but at the same time his move towards fascism is in part due to his great embrace of the opposite: somewhat The Great Tradition which contradicts that process...but I read that some time ago. I think it might be interesting for some students, or others to read.

We haven't dragged Celan or WCW's into it all yet! I'm still mulling over, struggling with Celan...what about Geoffrey Hill.

Possibly old fussy Harold Bloom has a few things to say on the issue, as I know Sontag does (I dont know if she wrote on poetry though)....