W.H. Auden in film, a remembered poem, and a forgotten murder

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The Making of the film "U S" – triumph and tragedy rolled into one

Some time ago we wrote about W.H. Auden on stage, in a new Broadway musical.  But how many know of his work on film?

David Collard writes in England’s Literary Reviewabout Auden’s lifelong fascination with film.  For six months from 1935 to 1936, Auden worked for the General Post Office Film Unit (GPO), which included the time that it produced  Night Mail, the Citizen Kane, Coal FaceNegroes (released as God’s Chillun), and The Way to the Sea – “all four films featuring brilliant modernist scores by the young Benjamin Britten,” according to Collard. “No artists of comparable stature had collaborated so closely since 1691, when John Dryden and Henry Purcell worked together on the ‘dramatick opera’ King Arthur.”

From "Runner"

Collard also writes that GPO, “despite its prosaic-sounding title, was for five years the most exciting, innovative and progressive cultural project in Britain, staffed by a dazzling cohort of international talents. In a short-lived flurry of commitment to the cause, Auden also lectured on film, wrote reviews, provided subtitle renderings of Russian peasant folk songs for Dziga Vertov‘s Three Songs of Lenin, and collaborated on various other projects, even appearing in front of the camera (disguised as a department store Father Christmas in Evelyn Spice‘s spirited Calendar of the Year).”

But all was not well:

Naturally insubordinate, however, Auden soon began to question what he saw as the compromise and hypocrisy implicit in a state-sponsored organisation that purported to criticise the state’s shortcomings. He resigned from the Unit following publication of a Listener article in which he attacked the documentary movement, before Night Mail became the Unit’s one great critical and popular success. The film has since tended to overshadow his other documentary achievements.

His favorite films...

Auden later seemed indifferent to films.  During a talk at Cambridge, his student host Paul McQuail recalled, “We sat and talked for an hour in a relaxed way, much of it about films: Auden’s most memorable remark, though we didn’t know how to take it, was that the films he liked most were the ones where animals talk with human voices. He mentioned Francis the Talking Mule as an example.”

The story has a happy ending, and then a sad one.  Auden returned to films with 1962′s  Runner, where he wrote a “verse commentary” for the documentary about the young Canadian distance runner Bruce Kidd.  A few years later, he participated in U S, a film about the U.S. and, well, us. It begins with breathtaking clouds and panoramic vistas, but didn’t pull back from the plight of Native Americans, slaves imported from West Africa, and America’s underclass.  The last caused problems.

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From what Collard has cited, it appears that celluloid did not elicit Auden’s best poetic efforts.  I should know.  The rhythms of Auden are in my blood, thanks to Joseph Brodsky, who made us memorize hundreds of lines of poetry, many of them Wystan’s. It was not a popular activity then, and even less now.

So I was intrigued to learn that I have unexpected company as I champion the loving labor of memorization.  Over at poetryfoundation.org, Josh Warn (any relation to the ezine’s founding editor Emily Warn?) recalled reciting Auden’s “Shield of Achilles” while dragging welding cables on a construction site, as a response to his companion wittily recounting Eminem’s rap lyrics.  Wrote Warn,  “the poem’s sixty-seven lines you restrain yourself from the familiar flurries of contemporary mediaspeak and follow phrasings that come from a deeper place.”  On the whole, it sounds more like he was showing off, especially since the floor grinders began whirring away and drowned out both of them.

He writes: “A good solid poem in your cortex can be almost like ballast in a ship’s hold. If turbulent mental activity surges, speaking a poem to oneself can be a way to even out the waves. I first learned this through my practice of memorizing Psalms. But even nominally secular poems recited aloud soothe, and not merely by providing a distraction from disturbing matters, but by the steady rhythm of their sound, and their effects on the breath.”

Beyond that, “The intense familiarity of a work known by heart allows happy moments of sensing the poem as a whole and in details. This pleasure is not simply the kick of solving a puzzle, nor my ironworker affinity for structure. There is also pleasure in sounds and rhythms, even the mouth pleasure of ‘unintelligible multitude’ [from Auden's "Shield of Achilles"]. But at its best the experience of a good poem has to do with trying to apprehend a deeply known truth that another person could communicate only with a precise set of words.”

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O'Connor

Ison

Auden’s film U S , on America ended the American way, with a murder. While filming in Appalachian Kentucky, Scottish-Canadian documentary filmmaker Hugh O’Connor was shot dead by a local landlord, Hobart Ison, who was infuriated by the filmmakers on his property, and enraged at the media images that he felt exploited and stigmatized Appalachia during Lyndon Johnson‘s War on Poverty.  Some of the jurors agreed.

“Following a hung jury at the end of his first trial, Ison pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten years and paroled after just one.”


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