Posts Tagged ‘W.H. Auden’

Morgan Meis doesn’t give a crap about COVID. And then takes on Auden’s (arguably) most famous line.

Friday, June 12th, 2020
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Morgan Meis, a contributor to The New Yorker, doesn’t want to hear what you have to say about coronavirus. (We wrote last week about his new book here.) His latest, “Assist One Another,” from Close Reading, the Slant Books blog:

“You may have noticed that there are a lot of writers writing a lot about the coronavirus. As every day passes, I want to read these pieces less and less. I don’t care about the subtleties of your daily experience under lockdown, Sensitive Writer Person. I don’t care about your analysis of how everything is going to change or about how everything is actually not really going to change, Journalist. I am indifferent as to your recommendations, Pundit. I give not a crap about your brilliant reading of Camus in light of COVID-19, Essayist. I’m in a boycott, a deep boycott. I will read nothing about coronavirus until 2030; this is my current and most solemn pledge.”

Then he breaks his word immediately by taking on the soggy thinking of Princeton’s Jan-Werner Müller, a political science prof, in a March 19 opinion The New York Times, who wrote, “But apart from sheer destruction, crises could lead to something more constructive: a commitment to mutual aid, a sense, to paraphrase W.H. Auden, that we must assist one another or die.”

That’s quite a drift from Auden’s original “we must love one another or die,” or the poet’s later correction, “we must love one another and die.”

He reconsidered…and rewrote.

“Müller, however, wasn’t especially comfortable with the word ‘love’ in that beyond-famous line by Auden, and decided that Auden’s point would be improved if he permitted himself some off-the-cuff paraphrasing and changed the word “love” to the word “assist.” Assist one another. People helping one another step down from the bus and whatnot, I suppose. A nice thing to do. I mean, I’m not sure anyone is really going to die if they don’t get some assistance with whatever task is at hand. We must assist one another getting our luggage into the overhead compartments—or die! We must pick up the pencil that someone in line at the DMV just dropped—or die! We must hold the door open at the supermarket. Or die!”

I disagree with the revision from Auden’s original, for reasons I’ve discussed here. Morgan favors the revision, “We must love one another and die.” But he has a lively riff on love I thought I’d share here:

“One loves because one loves. Love itself is the reward for love. Pain is also the reward. And suffering. And the gnawing ever-present, if generally repressed knowledge, that whatever and whoever one loves will ultimately die, be lost in the overwhelming flow of time, and that we too will die. The point of loving is to be exposed to all of this. The point of loving is to be raw to all that will never be controlled or understood or managed, but which must be what it is, and in so being, in being the utterly unaccountable reality that is so very real and true and beautiful and terrifying and insurmountable, in being in love with all of this we will somehow also be adequate to it, right there with the big swirling beautiful mess of the world, and only insofar as we allow ourselves to receive it, all of it. We must, in other words, love one another and die.”

Read the whole thing here. It’s short, and worth it.

“Eliot did not merely reflect his times, but showed a way out of them.”

Wednesday, June 10th, 2020
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A lot depends on “Four Quartets”

Does T.S. Eliot still matter, and matter in a big way? Novelist Douglas Murraargues just thats: “He is the modern poet whose lines come to mind most often. The one we reach for when we wish to find sense in things. And certainly the first non-scriptural place we call when we consider the purpose or end of life.”

It’s a bold claim, but I prefer bold claims to timid ones. I would take strong exception to some of his assertions, like this one: “W.H. Auden has perhaps three-quarters of his reputation still.” Also take issue (minorly) with his point that if English-speakers know Dante today, it’s probably because of Eliot. That certainly wasn’t the case for me. Dante is rather, well, basic.

But his central contention is interesting: “The more letters emerge, the clearer we see how Eliot did more than stare into, or balance over the abyss. The extremity of his knowledge of personal and cultural breakdown meant that he learned not just how a person or culture can be shattered, but how also they might be put back together.”

It may be why he wanted, as he wrote to his brother in 1930, he wanted “to leave as little biography as possible.” A fascinating excerpt the dense crowding of references that are an Eliot trademark:

Still fundamental…

In early Eliot this already seems to be more than a quirk, or mere attempt to jolt the reader. Already it seems something that is possible, though with no attempt to explain how that might be so. A reader might take this as simply one more demonstration of the breakdown of everything, so that characters even wander in and out of time, so much have things fallen apart. It is only once Eliot meditates on the nature of time in Four Quartets that he fully finds, and expands, a Christian metaphysics that justifies this early intuition of his about the potential recoverability of time: that all time might be eternally present, and redeemable.

There is a practical consequence of this view of time, and a practical utility which follows on from it that I have often seen in readers of Eliot. First-time readers, especially of his early work, often feel battered by the number of references packed into “The Waste Land” in particular. It is possible that—like the third movement of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia—this could all be seen as a skilful waste-tip of a culture: what has been left over after everything has come apart. But Eliot does not just present the jumble, he causes the reader to dig and wish to know more. He invites—in fact shows—people how to take things from the ruins. …

While other artists showed how culture could be either shown off, strewn about or destroyed utterly, Eliot demonstrated how it could be reclaimed. He showed how the remnants could become seedlings and sprout again, in another time or place. While repeatedly proving that he had a great artist’s ability to innovate, he also performed that second function of the great artist and demonstrated how culture can be transmitted. He didn’t just show the fire; he showed his readers how things could be saved from it.

He concludes that “through the course of his poetic career Eliot did not merely reflect his times, but showed a way out of them. Indeed a way out of all time.”

Read the whole thing over at the U.K.’s Standpoint here.

Hannah Arendt remembers W.H. Auden: “an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love”

Friday, December 7th, 2018
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The one thing he knew well…

I was unaware the philosopher Hannah Arendt knew the poet W.H. Auden, and I certainly didn’t know that she had left a memoir of the poet. She did, and The New Yorker, which first published the piece in 1975, has republished it here. It’s a gem. A must-read. 

A few excerpts:

I met Auden late in his life and mine—at an age when the easy, knowledgeable intimacy of friendships formed in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with another. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends. Moreover, there was a reserve in him that discouraged familiarity—not that I tested it, ever. I rather gladly respected it as the necessary secretiveness of the great poet, one who must have taught himself early not to talk in prose, loosely and at random, of things that he knew how to say much more satisfactorily in the condensed concentration of poetry. Reticence may be the déformation professionnelle of the poet. In Auden’s case, this seemed all the more likely because much of his work, in utter simplicity, arose out of the spoken word, out of idioms of everyday language—like “Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm.” This kind of perfection is very rare; we find it in some of the greatest of Goethe’s poems, and it must exist in most of Pushkin’s works, because their hallmark is that they are untranslatable.

***

If you listened to him, nothing could seem more deceptive than this appearance. Time and again, when, to all appearances, he could not cope anymore, when his slum apartment was so cold that the plumbing no longer functioned and he had to use the toilet in the liquor store at the corner, when his suit (no one could convince him that a man needed at least two suits, so that one could go to the cleaner, or two pairs of shoes, so that one pair could be repaired: a subject of an endless ongoing debate between us throughout the years) was covered with spots or worn so thin that his trousers would suddenly split from top to bottom—in brief, whenever disaster hit before your very eyes, he would begin to more or less intone an utterly idiosyncratic version of “Count your blessings.” Since he never talked nonsense or said something obviously silly—and since I always remained aware that this was the voice of a very great poet—it took me years to realize that in his case it was not appearance that was deceptive, and that it was fatally wrong to ascribe what I saw of his way of life to the harmless eccentricity of a typical English gentleman.

***

The sad wisdom of remembrance…

Now, with the sad wisdom of remembrance, I see him as having been an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love, among which the infuriating substitution of admiration for love must surely have loomed large. And beneath these emotions there must have been from the beginning a certain animal tristesse that no reason and no faith could overcome:

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.

***

It seems, of course, very unlikely that young Auden, when he decided that he was going to be a great poet, knew the price he would have to pay, and I think it entirely possible that in the end—when not the intensity of his feelings and not the gift of transforming them into praise but the sheer physical strength of the heart to bear them and live with them gradually faded away—he considered the price too high. We, in any event—his audience, readers and listeners—can only be grateful that he paid his price up to the last penny for the everlasting glory of the English language. And his friends may find some consolation in his beautiful joke beyond the grave—that for more than one reason, as Spender said, “his wise unconscious self chose a good day for dying.” The wisdom to know “when to live and when to die” is not given to mortals, but Wystan, one would like to think, may have received it as the supreme reward that the cruel gods of poetry bestowed on the most obedient of their servants.

Read the whole thing here.

Martin Amis: “I think you have to be suspicious of any instant cult book.”

Monday, June 25th, 2018
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A talker (Photo courtesy Knopf)

My goodness. Does this man ever have a bad interview? Like him or hate him, agree with him or not, Martin Amis is always fascinating, incisive, opinionated, controversial. The current Q&A at The Los Angeles Review of Books is proof.

“Despite the variety of subjects, the guiding theme of most of these pieces is the impact of time on talent and the rarity of a long, multichaptered literary career,” said interviewer Scott Timberg.

The Book Haven was greedy and wanted to quote everything, but we calmed down and settled for two excerpts. The first discusses poet Philip Larkin‘s appeal for novelists. A timely topic, because Stanford’s Another Look book club recently featured Larkin’s little-known novel, A Girl in Winter:

Timberg: You have a great line on Larkin in one of your essays, where you say he’s not exactly a poet’s poet — he’s too widely embraced for that — but a novelist’s poet. Tell me what you mean by that.

Martin Amis: Well, it was suggested to me by the poet-novelist Nick Laird. We were talking about Zadie [Smith, Laird’s wife] loving Larkin, and Nick said, “All novelists love Larkin.” That resonated for me, and when I came to write that piece I saw just how true it was — that he belongs with the novelists rather than the other poets. “A poet’s poet” is usually very much in danger of being precious, or exquisitely technical. Larkin is technically amazing, but he doesn’t draw attention to it. It’s his character observation and phrase-making that put him in the camp of the novelists, I think.

A grasp of ordinary people

There’s something oddly visual about Larkin too, for someone who squinted his life away through thick glasses. I feel like I can see those poems, the curtains parting and the little village and the ships on the dock.

Yes — and very thickly peopled. He has a grasp of ordinary character — which is very hard to get. The strangeness of ordinary people.

That may be why people who don’t read a lot of poetry respond to Larkin, if they read him at all. It’s like Auden. You might not understand everything in those guys’ work, but you get something out of it if you try.

Yes — though Auden is a lot more difficult. And a greater poet, I think, in the end. But — yes — Larkin doesn’t need much interpretation from critics in the way other poets do.

The authors you write about in your book are mostly novelists. Do you read much poetry, contemporary or otherwise?

Yeah, I do. It’s much harder to read poetry when you’re living in a city, in the accelerated atmosphere of history moving at a new rate. Which we all experience up to a point. What poetry does is stop the clock, and examine certain epiphanies, certain revelations — and life might be moving too swiftly for that.

He reads “The Greats.”

But I still do read, not so much contemporaries, as the canon. I was reading Milton yesterday, and last week Shakespeare — it’s the basic greats that I read.

It’s amazing how much poetry dropped out of the literary conversation in the States over the last few decades. It’s not gone entirely, but it doesn’t show up very much. I find British and Irish people, especially those born in the 1940s and ’50s, much more engaged with verse. It’s really changed over time.

It really has, and also the huge figures are no longer there, in poetry. Lowell, Seamus Heaney was one of the last. And I’m convinced, for that reason, that we live in the age of acceleration. Novels have evolved to deal with that, as the novel is able to do — just by moving a bit faster. Not being so speculative, digressive, intellectual. But poetry moves at its own pace, I think — and you can’t speed that up.

***

Your book is about the effect of time on talent — you take the long view on Nabokov and others. Each career is different, but did you perceive any patterns in the way these things go? Bellow, Nabokov, Roth — they all had robust careers. But we could contrast those with shorter or less successful ones — Joseph Heller, maybe, or Alex Chilton. Musicians, artists, writers who seemed exciting at first, but didn’t really keep up.

Indefatigable Nabokov

You get a sense reading a novel sometimes that this novelist has a big tank. A huge reserve. And some people don’t — and they exhaust it quite quickly. You can watch that process in any artist, I think. They arrive fresh, and then they use up, sometimes, their originality, and then are reduced to rephrasing that. You only see it fully when they’re coming to the end of their careers; then you can assess the size of that tank.

But you do go from saying hi, when you arrive on the scene, to saying bye, making your exit. Medical science has given us the spectacle of the doddering novelist. As I say in the first of the Nabokov essays, all of the great novelists are dead by the time they reach my age [68]. It’s a completely new phenomenon, and it’s a dubious blessing. Novelists probably do go on longer than they ought to, now.

Philip Roth has done the dignified thing, just quit. I know others who’ve done that. It seems to me that rather than gouging out another not-very-original book, you should just step aside.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell, but sometimes it’s harder. If we were reading, back in the 1960s, Goodbye, Columbus alongside Catch-22, would we have been able to tell which of the careers would last six decades and which would peak right out of the gate?

Catch-22? Embarrassing.

It’s hard to predict. But again, you do get an idea of the size of the reserves. Writers who start late sometimes go on longer, because the tank stays full longer.

My father and I used to disagree about Catch-22. He thought it was crap. He used to say of me that I was a leaf in the wind of trend and fashion.

Every father says that about his son!

I think you have to be suspicious of any instant cult book. See how it does a couple of generations on.

I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed — I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing — I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think.

Read the whole thing here

Biographers! Bah! Robert Conquest and W.H. Auden on “shilling lives”

Thursday, May 24th, 2018
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Daunting

Elizabeth Conquest, a.k.a. “Liddie”, was surprised to hear that somewhere in my garage I had squirreled away W.H. Auden’s course syllabus – a copy, of course, from the Rackham archives of the University of Michigan. But then all the extant copies of the syllabus are copies of some kind. Probably mimeograph, in that era. Somewhere I have a xerox of that mimeo copy, or perhaps a xerox of the original typescript that Auden submitted when he was the resident poet at the university in 1941-42. It’s daunting, to say the least. Check it out here.

Liddie is the widow of the groundbreaking historian of the Stalinist era, Robert Conquest. He was also an important English postwar poet, and an influential figure of the “Movement” poets. She is the editor of The Complete Poems of Robert Conquest, to be published in Spring 2019 by Waywiser Press and is currently editing The Selected Letters of Robert Conquest. She is also editing Two Muses, her husband’s memoirs.

“Cracking the Books with Wystan” stirred her memories. Wrote Liddie: “Bob was, as a budding poet, much influenced by Auden—his earliest poetry notebook (1934-35) has many Auden quotations scribbled all over the inside covers, and bits here and there elsewhere.”

Liddie remembers

She sent me a paragraph from Bob’s unpublished memoir, Two Muses. In it, he reflects on the introduction of the 1956 New Lines anthology that launched the Movement poets:

In the preface I stressed the formal side because, after all, it was really Auden who brought back the formality that had been destroyed by Pound and others.  (A lot of the best of Auden’s poetry has a sort of hard surface which rejects the reader—and the later stuff about Nones and Lakes and such is unreadable—but there is a certain amount of energetic unpretentious stuff, and also some other odds and ends of lyrics etc., which come off pretty well.)  I think his original impact was from his a) self confidence, b) “new” preaching of not too homiletic a nature, c) not being unreadably modernist, yet able to claim the advantages of the latest thing.  Also the other purveyors were either worse (Spender) or less in the then groove (MacNeice).  I didn’t take to Auden at first reading (when I was c. 14), finding it cold, but gradually fell for the vigour and skill—not the lowest poetical virtues—and also, I suppose, the (then) mythopoeic effect—as in part of The Orators.

(Well, this reader rather likes “Nones” and in fact all of Auden’s “Horae Canonicae.” But as my brother always said, that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.)

Bob Conquest at his desk (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Liddie added, “Bob thought Charles Osborne’s biography was disgraceful, and shortly after it was published in 1979, wrote this sonnet, which appeared first in (I think) the TLS.

“One thing that impressed me about Bob is how everything he ever read remained lodged in that big head of his, to be effortlessly produced when needed.  I wonder how many readers of ‘Second Death’ ever notice the aptness of echoing Auden’s sonnet on biography in this criticism of Osborne, and in the same verse form.”

That is, Auden’s poem “Who’s Who” uses the same sonnet form established by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey: iambic pentameter with abab cdcd efef gg.

Here’s Bob Conquest’s reaction to Auden’s biographer:

.

                    Second Death

A ten-pound Life will give you every fact
– Facts that he’d hoped his friends would not rehearse
To an intent posterity which lacked
Nothing of moment, since it had his verse.

Or so he thought. But now we come to read
What his more honest prudence had held in:
Tasteless compulsion into trivial deed,
A squalor more outrageous than the sin,

Piss on that grave where lies the weakly carnal? . . .
– Hopeless repentance had washed clean his name,
His virtue’s strength insistent on a shame

Past all the brief bravados full and final.
Without excuses now, to the Eternal,
He makes the small, true offering of his fame.

Haven’t read the original? Here’s Auden’s sonnet “Who’s Who”:

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day …

(I have Liddie’s permission to reprint “Second Death,” but I don’t have the permission of the Auden Estate for “Who’s Who,” so the rest is here.)

“This is the hardest class you will ever take,” the kids were told. And the course filled up within minutes.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018
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Auden knew what he was doing.

Kids are lazy little buggers who opt for easy courses, right?

Wrong.

Some time ago I wrote about W.H. Auden‘s syllabus during his time at the University of Michigan in the 1940s, a copy of which had been sitting in my files for decades. I can’t remember how I found it in the archives of the Rackham Graduate School, but occasionally I would run across it again, take it out, and stare at it, as at a marvel.

The reading list for his course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” included: The Divine Comedy in full, four works by Shakespeare, Pascal’s Pensées, Horace’s odes, Volpone, Racine, Kierkegaard’s Fear and TremblingMoby-DickThe Brothers KaramazovFaust, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka, Rilke, T.S. Eliot. Also, nine operas. (Auden loved opera – and assigned three of Wagner‘s Teutonic masterpieces.) That’s more than 6,000 pages total. For a single course.

At the University of Oklahoma, three brave men – Kyle Harper, a classicist and the university’s provost; the historian Wilfred McClay; and David Anderson, a professor of English – decided to team-teach a year-long course, modifying Auden’s syllabus a little – to include, for example, Milton.

“This is the hardest class you will ever take.”

The result, according to Mark Bauerlein writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

When enrollment opened last semester, the unexpected happened. The course filled up within minutes. Harper had already warned his students, “This is the hardest class you will ever take.” The syllabus was posted online in advance, so that students knew exactly what they were getting into. The course meets a general-education requirement at Oklahoma, but so do many other courses with half the workload. To accommodate the unexpected demand, the class was expanded from 22 to 30 students, the maximum number that the assigned classroom could hold.

I sat in on a class in October. McClay lectured on Inferno. The atmosphere was genial but focused. You can tell after five minutes whether a class has an esprit de corps — no sullen faces, no eyes drifting to windows and cellphones, even the bad jokes get a laugh. McClay slid from Augustine to Bonaventura to Jesus, Jonah, Exodus, and the prodigal son before taking up Paolo and Francesca, and then the suicides, sodomites, murderers, and frauds in Dante’s torture zones.

The historian was game.

After class, about half of the students and I headed over to the dining room at Dunham College, one of Oklahoma’s graceful new residential colleges, for lunch. There, without the professors present, I asked the key question: Why did they sign up for Western-civ boot camp?

One fellow grumbled that he had to do three times as much work as he did in his other classes. The rest nodded. But you could hear in his words the self-respect that comes from doing more work than the norm, from climbing the highest hill while your peers dog it. Another student said that the page-count of the syllabus had flattered her, that it showed the professors respected her enough to demand that she take on a heavy load of historic literature.

The English prof was game, too.

“This is what I came to college for,” another said. One more chimed in, “This class is changing my life.”

They acknowledged, too, the distinctiveness of the works they read, one student calling them a “foundation” for things they study elsewhere. They admired the professors, to be sure, but the real draw was the material. When I asked what they would change about the course, they went straight to the books: add The Iliad and some of the Bible.

Read the whole thing here.

A postscript of 4/14 from John Murphy of the University of Virginia: “On my way out the door of higher ed and toward opportunities, both teaching and otherwise, elsewhere, one of my thoughts – in line with the program described here – is one way to revive the humanities might be to make the whole enterprise an honors curriculum or honors college within larger institutions. That would allow for a recuperation of the rigorous and seriousness that has long been lost within college and university humanities courses and it would also raise the value of a humanities degree as a credential. The implicit message would be “real college for real students” and it would be mark of distinction to have taken the more difficult and selective course of study, even if you went on to purse a “practical” career after that. It would be a sign to “practical” employers that a graduate had really hit the books during college and not taken the easy way out. Young people will work very, very, very hard at things that ultimately don’t matter as much as curricular education – i.e. athletics. So maybe foregrounding the aspect of difficulty might tap some kind of competitive spirit. ‘Auden College: No Pain, No Gain.'”