W.H. Auden’s prose, and why art matters

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If you haven’t already read it, I recommend Michael Wood‘s “I Really Mean Like” in one of last summer’s issues of the London Review of Books. He discusses The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose Vol. IV, 1956-62, edited by Edward Mendelson.

From Wood’s review:

Marianne Moore says of poetry that she too dislikes it; Eliot tells us that it doesn’t matter; Auden says it makes nothing happen. In fact, none of these propositions represents anything like the whole story for any of these poets, but there’s an element of affectation here all the same, an unseemly wooing of the philistine. Neither Mallarmé nor Valéry ever expressed any interest in a muse who didn’t bother to read poetry – they knew that the world was already full of people saying that it didn’t matter, and saw no reason to join the chorus, even out of strategy.

I wonder if it’s the difference between the French and the English – it’s so easy to sound hysterical in English. In French and Italian,  it doesn’t seem to matter.  Perhaps they are hysterical all the time, so it doesn’t count.

I like this:

… when Auden wants to evoke ‘a parable of agape’, or ‘Holy Love’, he talks about Bertie Wooster’s relation to Jeeves. Bertie in his blithering is a comic model of humility, and his reward is Jeeves’s immaculate and unfailing allegiance. There is also an appealing moment when Auden, suggesting that popular art is dead and that ‘the only art today is “highbrow”,’ suddenly remembers he has to make an exception: ‘aside from a few comedians’. He says he learned long ago that ‘poetry does not have to be great or even serious to be good, and that one does not have to be ashamed of moods in which one feels no desire whatsoever to read The Divine Comedy.’

Forget it.

Note to self:  Go back to The Dyer’s Hand, although Auden makes one weep with envy, not least of all for his aphorisms, like this one:

We enjoy caricatures of our friends because we do not want to think of their changing, above all, of their dying; we enjoy caricatures of our enemies because we do not want to consider the possibility of their having a change of heart so that we would have to forgive them.

Or these: “he says that ‘every good poem is very nearly a Utopia,’ and ‘every beautiful poem presents an analogy to the forgiveness of sins.’ And again, shifting to music but not exactly leaving the other arts behind: ‘Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.’”

Can poetry matter?  Wood answers:  “Art can’t redeem the world, and that is why we must be modest about it. But it can show us what redemption would look like, and this is why it matters.”


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