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 of "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 20th century would not exist without Auden. Disagree?