Auden at 100

The Idealistic Love Poet
New books dissected over email.
March 2 2007 4:52 PM

Auden at 100

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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'stransformation 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").

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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." Butthere are at least two observations to makeabout 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 principal 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 TheDivine 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 lacrimaererum 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 20th-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

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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