Friday, February 02, 2007

WH Auden: Bye, then

Further to the WH Auden debate taking place on the Susan Hill and Grumpyoldbookman blogs - in reaction to Duncan Fallowell's complaint in The First Post that there's no new critical book from Auden's publisher Faber to mark the centenary of the poet's birth (Feb 21, 1907) - Duncan sends me this amusing follow-up note:

"I sent the Auden page to a friend of mine who teaches English at a Californian university, asking him if the USA was celebrating the centenary in any way - as you know Auden went to live there in 1939 and became a US citizen. My friend replied (ironically) - 'Of course they aren't doing anything. Who'd want to celebrate a commie faggot yellow-belly?'"

Click this link to read his Auden piece.


nsfl said...

I loathe 911 conspiracies and so-called coincidences(eg you can see Mohammed Atta's profile on a dollar bill if you squint and fold it 17 times) but Auden's poem 1 September 1939 is almost prescient about events in the same city 62 years and 10 days later.

How can anyone not warm to someone who described his heavily lined face as like "a wedding cake left out in the rain"?

Anonymous said...

Yes but what about all those pissing in the sink stories...bit harder to warm to those...

Ms Baroque said...

Anonymous, there are a lot of stories about you.

Auden was arguably England's greatest poet of the twentieth century, as Duncan Fallowell says. (Mme A, he is becoming like the special guest star of your blog! I love his blurb in the side bar. So true, so true...) Where was I, Auden, well I agree it is shocking. Susan Hill thinks the difference is that Betjeman had a daughter to campaign for the recognition her father deserved, whereas Auden's reputation must ride on the coattails of fortune. But I really did think we understood his importance. I can't think what Faber are doing. And where are the TV programmes about thirties poetry, the Spanish Civil War, MacSpaunday? It'd make a great documentary - and it's also MacNeice's centenary, of course. (Anybody see Daisy Goodwin's bodice-ripping Byron? I'm thinking something more serious than that.)

Auden's achievement is something we still haven't got to grips with. He's austere, uncompromising, cuts the reader no slack. But he can be very funny.

nsfl, that poem was great long before 9/11 came along. It may be a terrific coincidence, but it will be one every time there's a presentiment of war in New York City.* My favourite thing about it is Auden's attitude towards it: he came to despise it as a dishonest piece of work. The famous line, "We must love one another or die" he later changed to "We must love one another and die", saying that that was more like the truth - and then he didn't include it in his own selection of his work, he repudiated it.

I disagree with his assessment; I think they're both true.

Duncan, are you reading this? I've noticed in fact that every time Auden makes a statement I pretty much disagree with it. His criticism drives me nuts. I can't even say why, it's just like he's out of touch with the actual world. But I know other people who say they revere his criticism but can't read his "sloppy" poetry. And when I read Alan Ansen's wonderful, obsessive book "The Table Talk of WH Auden," of course I was fascinated, of course I was amused - but the man struck me as a bit of a monster. Of course that was later, the seventies. Any ideas, any thoughts?

*I'm working on a (non-blogging) piece about MacNeice's "Autumn journal," which is also sounding pretty damn relevant at the moment. I think our War on Terror era feels a little the same as the time immediately before the War.

Dahlia said...

Auden was a Pisces and they often get a bum - by which I mean dud or rotten, no low-level pun please - deal.
I agree Auden shouldn't be overlooked. However, I'd contest that Robert Graves may be the greatest 20th century British poet (but then someone will tell me he's Majorcan or Irish or something).
Pisceans often to believe six impossible things before breakfast, tend to say things that are both true and untrue, and are also good at believing opposing things are true. Auden said 'poets never changed the world', etc etc.
I feel nsfl is also a poet (?and journalist?) and Madame Arcati is of course truly a poet in her soul
although perhaps not a practising one on paper.

Gerontius said...

Not that one wishes to start a tedious debate here on the subject of "England's greatest poet of the 20th century", but really - Auden? Graves??? Without even breaking sweat over the issue of whether Eliot is America or England's greatest - have we forgotten about Larkin?

Arcati said...

Yeats does it for me even if he was Irish ... global warming has made a nonsense of his titchy poem The Wheel ...

Through winter-time we call on spring,
And through the spring on summer call,
And when abounding hedges ring
Declare that winter's best of all;
And after that there's nothing good
Because the spring-time has not come ---
Nor know that what disturbs our blood
Is but our longing for the tomb.

Susan Hill said...

Why does this have to be a competition. This is the problem with so many English lit folk.. everything has to be competitive - Auden is greater than Larkin/Hughes was the greater than ....
Is Manchester United far far greater than Arsenal ? Of COURSE. Now that is something to be competitive about. Trivial stuff. Auden/Eliot/Yeats/Graves/Larkin/Hughes were all great poets. End of.

Dahlia said...

Oh well, each to their own, and we're allowed our favourites/opinions, aren't we?
Or, as Mrs Merton, aka Caroline Aherne would say, 'Let's have a HEATED DEBATE!'.
And talking of girls (of any age) who are poets in their souls, nobody's mentioned any favourite women poets(?).

Anonymous said...

I repeat - Auden was the greatest English poet of the twentieth century. No everything is mere opinion. There is such a thing as quality.

DRF said...

That last one was from Duncan Fallowell who has yet to get his hands fully round these attachments.

Dahlia said...

drf says 'Auden was the greatest English poet of the 20th century' - cast in stone, eh?
I think it's the same as saying 1 litre of Country Life organic milk is nicer than 1 litre of Tesco organic milk - priced about 2p cheaper I believe, in their usual mean way, to undercut real people probably.
The superiority of Country Life is only according to SOME people's (and my own) taste buds.

drf said...

Oh dear - I'm talking about intellectual capacity, range, depth, significance - not brands of milk.

Anonymous said...

Don't knock milk!

drf said...

I'm not knockingmilk. But poetry and milk are not interchangeable. One goes in the mouth, the other goes in the mind. A large raspberry for whoever can work out which goes where.

drf said...

By the way, Ms Baroque, I was reading that and I love your blog too. I used to go to the Haggerston Baths, a very baroque edifice over your way. It's been mothballed by the Council. Are you campaigning to have it opened again? Best, Duncan