Selected Poems, Expanded Edition by W. H. Auden
“[N]ow, having dismissed your hired impersonators with verdicts ranging from the laudatory orchid to the disgusted and disgusting egg, you ask and, of course, notwithstanding the conscious fact of his irrevocable absence, you instinctively do ask for our so good, so great, so dead author to stand before the finally lowered curtain and take his shyly responsible bow for this, his latest, ripest production...”
-from The Sea and the Mirror
I’m not really qualified to “review” a new collection of W.H. Auden’s poems. This is because Auden is one of the hulking, lurking greats of the modern poetry canon. I’ve no solid context against which to judge a new selection -- witty additions and supplements in place, an introduction with the archivist-/curator-ish flair befitting a literary executor. I mean, really, who has a literary executor? The new selection, coinciding, by no accident, with what would be the giant’s 100th birthday, is more comprehensive and according to aforementioned executor, Edward Mendelson, pays more care to Auden’s whole-ness as a poet. Mendelson has been in charge, of course, of other collections. But this one marks the century and so attempts to right the wrongs that are inevitable any time any writer’s work is curated, especially post-mortem. At the very least, it attempts to complicate the texture of the work.
Auden was kind of a weirdo. Or, rather, his biography through the frames of controversy, misapprehension, and appropriation is hard to negotiate. Apparently -- and I am using here and throughout this review the following sources: www.poets.org, www.wikipedia.org, a February 2 editorial at www.telegraph.co.uk, and Mendelson’s warmly informative intro -- Auden’s work is typically loved in divisions. He has readers who respect the tone and British-ness of his earlier work. And, then, some readers who prefer what happened to his poetics after moving to the States. Then there are distinctions to be made according to Auden’s religious views in different moments of his young and adult life. Early on, as well, he more overtly mimicked the Modernists (Eliot and Pound, namely -- more giants). But then again, Mendelson stresses that Auden had none of the pretensions of the Modernists, once he came into his own voice more clearly. And then there is this other public radio, middle-mind sort of life given to some of Auden’s poems (one of which, “September 1, 1939” has been re-appropriated in several very crude ways and with which Auden himself had a very complicated relationship). In fact, Auden’s relationships with many of his poems are rather complicated affairs. Mendelson openly admits to publishing things Auden had come to repudiate. (Repudiate, yes, a strong word. But that’s exactly the kind of behind-the-scenes-drama that makes this new book a fun exploration.)
Another tricky thing about this Auden character is blatantly clear in the above list: Auden’s biography and body of work are so intimately bound that the distinctions in writing-eras tend to clasp hands stubbornly with the momentous events of his life. In a later poem (one of the very last in the new selection), Auden (as an old man) runs through his reading life like a timeline of tastes and beliefs. Though the poem is plain and its listing pattern completely transparent, it rings painfully true. In fact, our reading timelines are marks of our lives. In fact, our tastes often do indicate our beliefs. And, in fact, there is something horribly, dryly sorrowful about the passing of time. Especially when we can feel it passing over our own bodies and minds. But what makes Auden a particularly acute collector of memory here is that he also lines things up with major historical moments. He makes all of the world collide with his experience of it. Mendelson mentions that Auden understood what perhaps people like Franz Kafka and Pedro Almodovar (my comparisons) understand -- “His poems derive much of their unique emotional power from his realization that the only way to be universal is to be individual.” Certainly, Auden experienced life as an ongoing project in identity. He was leftist and, quite skillfully -- vocal. But his obsession with religious, or ethical, righteousness, with the terribleness of individual human existence against a backdrop of universal agony, with the role of the artist... these things are wonderfully complicated by Auden’s changing nations, his homosexuality (which manifested in several very long-term partnerships that he termed marriages), his apparent love of artistic collaboration, his belief that poetry came not from an inspired posturing but from a tinkering with mechanics, his reported chatty showmanship in large groups, his weeping (according to gossip) at the purchase of his first home, his sometimes “preachy-ness.” Auden was also himself a sort of timeline for the poetry-reading world. His modulations, subtle or otherwise, were noted by the public. He was a star.
But, obviously, all this stuff is coming from my cribbing in relation to the book. The book itself is serving as impetus for my curiosity. I’m sure that Auden devotees would noddingly approve of this. Of course. The centenary book brings Auden-mania to young readers who had previously only paid heed to Auden as a name. And though I don’t think Auden would much care for such a gesture, surely he would like that his life’s work (personal and creative, intended and incidental) dovetails so oddly and smoothly with the current state of things. Across the pond, Blair has announced that British troops will soon be leaving Iraq. Over here, the ethics of the role of the artist grows ever more complicated and flimsy with the pervasive disease of celebrity culture. War, religion, artist as reporter, personal responsibility, definitions of marriage, etc., etc. The mess of the world is as grotesque as ever. There are new versions of the tyrants that once unwittingly goaded Auden, courted his disgust. The new Auden selection, then, even in the worst circumstances, can be seen as a sort of handbook: a guide to the wondrous process of tinkering with self and with form in the context of thoughtful criticism.
“About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters: how well they understood/ Its human position; how it takes its place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along...”
Selected Poems, Expanded Edition by W. H. Auden