Posts Tagged ‘Louis MacNeice’

Auden in the footlights: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead”

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012
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Julian Fleisher as George Davis, Kristen Sieh as Carson McCullers, Stephanie Hayes as Erika Mann, and Erik Lochtefeld as W.H. Auden (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I’m a fan of New York City’s Public Theater, so I was especially cheered to read about its new world première musical February House this month.  How could one not be chuffed about a play that focuses on W.H. Audens house at 7 Middagh Street, and the miscellany of writers, composers, and artists it attracted for housemates?

I read about the production not in a New York paper – at least not initially – but rather in Jim Holt‘s charming post in the London Review of Books blog:

As a young man

Besides Auden, who lived on the top floor, the tenants were Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and – most improbably of all – Gypsy Rose Lee, who at the time was busy writing a mystery called The G-String Murders. Other occasional residents included Paul and Jane Bowles, Louis MacNeice, Richard Wright (who lived with his wife and child in the basement), and Golo Mann (who holed up in the attic). It was Anaïs Nin, a frequent visitor, who named it ‘February House’, because so many of the residents, including Auden, had birthdays in February. … Other than that, however, they seem to have had little in common except a commitment to their art and to not ever being bored. Cocaine is snorted in “February House”; bedbugs are extravagantly shuddered over; a good deal of whiskey is poured.

The LRB piece dwells on Auden’s mysterious connection with the number 7 and his grubby living habits throughout his life.  In a later residence, writes Holt, “So squalid was everything in the dusty, cold and bottle-strewn loft that [Igor] Stravinsky later told Edmund Wilson that Auden was ‘the dirtiest man I have ever liked’.”

Wish I could be in New York City to see the production (music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane, based on a book by Seth Bockley.) I’ll have to settle for Dwight Garner‘s description in the New York Times:

They had both.

Sparks fly early and often. When Auden pretentiously blurts to McCullers that “I am a thinking-sensation artist in the Jungian sense, whereas you are clearly a feeling-intuitive type,” she takes out a flask, eyeballs him as if were a space alien, and says: “Uh huh. Gin?”

Auden seemed to enjoy McCullers’s impudence. He is, after all, the man who said, “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”

Auden and McCullers are a pure and defiant literary odd couple. Both stoke your imagination in February House, in part because of their youth, in part because both wrestle with where their obligations to art end and their obligations to politics begin. They are increasingly obsessed with what Lionel Trilling, in “The Liberal Imagination,” called “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.”

One quibble though, the NYT piece refers to “something once said about Pauline Kael and The New Yorker magazine: She gave it sex, and it gave her class.” The comment (as his hyperlink hints) was said about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (using him and he rather than it) – and it was famously said by Katherine Hepburn.

His closing quote, however, is undisputed Auden: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.”

Robinson Jeffers gets his due.

Thursday, December 8th, 2011
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My friend and sometime-editor Terry Hummer triumphantly posted on Facebook that he had managed to buy four Robinson Jeffers stamps on ebay, after the first sale was cancelled because the seller was “out of stock.”

Perhaps it’s a good sign that there’s a demand for Jeffers – even if only in stamp form. Few American poets have undergone quite so much disparagement and neglect (I wrote about that here).  Like Walt Whitman, however, Jeffers always had his fans.  As I wrote a few years ago:

“Unlike most contemporary American poetry, his legacy has been kept alive by individuals who love his work, not by academia’s class-assignment sales. Such luminaries as Stanford’s late Yvor Winters, who in 1947 declared Jeffers’s work ‘unmastered and self-inflicted hysteria,’ effectively banned him from the curriculum.”

Thoughts of Jeffers and the U.S. postal service turned me weighty tome that arrived in my mailbox a few days ago – the 1,100 page second volume of Jeffers’ letters (covering 1931 to 1939), and newly published by Stanford University Press.

I wrote about the earlier volume of letters here, which included the years of his courtship and marriage to Una Kuster.

“I’ll say he’s the most important poet of the 20th century, but nobody’s buying that yet,” said James Karman, editor of the projected 3-volume series. “No one in the 20th century came near to what he was trying to do. The sheer scope of his endeavor is unrivaled. There’s nothing like it in American literature in the 20th century.”

According to Tim Hunt, editor of Stanford University Press’ five-volume Collected Poetry, Jeffers is “the least understood of the major American poets from the first half of the 20th century.”

The volumes include a substantial number of letters from Una Jeffers, as well as her husband. You can get a good feel for both the Jeffers in even their most casual notes.  Here’s her Christmas thank-you to Bennett Cerf in January 1938:

Now thanks very much for the two Christmas {books} I’ve just finished the Iceland book [that is, W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice‘s Letters from Iceland] tonight & O but its clever! & its packed full of information too   I never expected to like Auden as well as I do this very moment!  As for the New Yorker – I must confess I stand alone almost in not being its enthusiastic reader. It is funny – but so all alike & always taking people down is so easy & in the end so humiliating to every human. & bathtubs & fat ladies bulging out of their lacey lingerie, & over-fed dogs & betrayed & betraying businessmen husbands are tiring to keep one’s mind on.

But I suspect that I make myself disliked by carping at the New Yorker.

Here’s his 1933 letter to a Mr. Pumphrey from the Jeffers’ legendary home, Tor House in Carmel (definitely worth a visit if you haven’t been there):

Thank you sincerely for your letter; but I have not time to copy the verses. You lose nothing by that, for my handwriting – you see – is neither beautiful nor easy to read.

And I am sorry not to be able to answer your question. One can say that Mount Everest is higher than Mont Blanc, but there is no way to measure poetry. I cannot even tell whom I prefer to read – sometimes Yeats, sometimes some other.

The publisher’s website promises “a full account of the 1938 crisis at Mabel Dodge Luhan‘s home in Taos, New Mexico that nearly destroyed their marriage.”  A crisis that has not disturbed my sleep to date.  Can’t wait.

Postscript:  I  had thought the Jeffers stamp was a new issue.  Silly me.  Terry corrected me quickly.  It came out in the 1970s.  The new ones for 2012 are described here.

Postscript on 12/9:  I got a note from David Rothman, president of the Robinson Jeffers Association: “I don’t know if you’ve seen our website, at www.robinsonjeffersassociation.org – it’s quite thorough and you might enjoy it. Also, I wrote a review of the first volume of the Letters that you can see here, if you’re curious: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/sewanee_review/summary/v119/119.1.rothman.html.”

By the by, if you live in the area and haven’t been to see Jeffers’s Tor House in Carmel … well, you must.  You really must.  The poet learned stonecutting so he could build it himself.  It is a peculiar kind of Pacific perfection.