W. H. Auden at the 92nd Street Y
There must be sorrow if there can be love.
Ah, the fabled Sixties and Seventies! Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs! The glorious advent of Howling! Of Getting Stoned! The proliferation of Ginsbergian Exclamation Points!
To secure the status of their literary subversion, these revolutionary decades were obliged, like the cadres of every insurrection, to denigrate and despise, and sometimes to blow up, their immediate predecessor, the Fifties—the middling middle, the very navel, of the twentieth century. The Fifties, after all, were the Eisenhower years, stiff and small like Mamie’s bangs (and just as dated), dully mediocre, constrained, consumerist, car-finned, conformist, forgettable, and stale as modernism itself. Randall Jarrell, one of its leading poets and critics, named this midcentury epoch “the Age of Criticism”—and what, however he intended it, could suggest prosiness more? And what is prosiness if not the negation of the lively, the living, the lasting, the daring, the true and the new?
The reality was sublimely opposite. It was, in fact, the Age of Poetry, a pinnacle and an exaltation; there has not been another since. Its poets were more than luminaries—they were colossi, their very names were talismans, and they rose before us under a halo of brilliant lights like figures in a shrine. It was a kind of shrine: the grand oaken hall, the distant stage and its hallowed lectern, the enchanted voices with their variegated intonations, the rapt listeners scarcely breathing, the storied walls themselves in trance—this was the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in the heart of the twentieth century.
And bliss was it to be young and enraptured in the dusk of that cavernous arena, at $20 per season ticket! It was the Age of Poetry precisely because it was still the age of form, when form, even when abandoned, was there to be abandoned. (Wild child Allen Ginsberg knew and revered his progenitors, even as he tossed them to the winds.) And form, in those disparaged Fifties, meant difficulty in the doing; meant the hard practice of virtuosity; meant the plumbing of language for all its metamorphoses and undiscovered metrics; meant the heritage of knowledge; meant, in order to aspire to limitlessness, the pressure of limits—rhyme, even rhyme, a thing of wit and brio, never an archaism. Poetry then had not yet fallen into its present slough of trivia and loss of encompassment, the herding of random images of minuscule perspective leading to a pipsqueak epiphany, a delirium of incoherence delivered, monotone upon monotone, in the cacophony of a slam.
Instead, a procession of giants. Their names are lasting, their lines permanent, and their voices (fortunately) recorded—voices idiosyncratic, distinct, and so luxuriant in their unlikeness that it is an astonishment to see so many so large all alive at once. They have nothing in common but their dazzling mastery. And behold, on this selfsame platform, T. S. Eliot—a sacerdotal figure, the era’s reigning literary pope, fake-Brit sonorities reverberating like a cathedral organ, grim and tragic, and as funereal as a marble tomb. And then W. H. Auden, capaciously contrapuntal, though they lived in consonance, Eliot born in 1888, Auden in 1907, Eliot an American who chose England, Auden an Englishman turned American. They died eight years apart, and knew the same world, the same political dooms, and the same return to the metaphysics of Christianity. On that broad stage Auden seemed at the time a lesser god: only Eliot could fill, as he once did, a football stadium. The public Eliot was a venerated monument that loomed unforgivingly, while Auden, even in public, had an air of plainness. Auden’s reading was spoken; it had almost a casualness, a flatness, a matter-of-factness. He read poetry as if he were reading prose. He refused the vatic and the flamboyant. “I must try to eliminate from my own poetry false emotion, inflated rhetoric, empty sonorities,” he once wrote. And in an interview: “Poetry is not self-expression.” Eliot’s thundering fame has since shrunk to a period datum, or, as in The Four Quartets, a mystical haze. But Auden, the most copious poet in English of the last century, unequaled for variety and scope—drama, lyric, ballad, sonnet, libretto, villanelle, and more—is the touchstone for all serious poets writing now.
And more: he is the necessary antithesis of Eliot: how clearly, two or three generations on, we can feel this! When the Twin Towers were felled by jihadist terror, and the world of American self-confidence ended not with a whimper but with a civilization-shattering bang, it was not “The Waste Land” that was invoked to toll the bell of mourning. Not “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down … shantih shantih shantih,” that melancholic jigsaw of allusions, but the hard mundane despairing concrete presentness of Auden’s “September 1, 1939”:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odor of death
Offends the September night.
Here there are no symbols, no arcane “objective correlative.” Invasion and war, violence and dread, horizon and olfactory nerve, place and time—the kernel of the hour, its history and politics—are intimately knotted in these plainspoken lines, open and direct and quick with fury. And never portentous in the way of a shrouded haruspex.
Elsewhere, Auden’s dry satiric voice can seize boisterously and shamelessly on the vernacular, capsizing the lyrical with a trickster’s parodic quip:
Goddess of bossy underlings, Normality!
What murders are committed in thy name!
Totalitarian is thy state Reality,
Reeking of antiseptics and the shame
Of faces that all look and feel the same.
Thy Muse is one unknown to classic histories,
The topping figure of the hockey mistress.
(From “Letter to Lord Byron”)
Though it may require a British staccato to rhyme “mistress” with “histories,” the syncopated excitement of such a mélange of constructs, balanced by modulating couplets and quatrains, is Auden’s signature; or call it the audaciously conflicting cadences of his breathing. His politics is metaphysics, his metaphysics is history, his history is humanity adrift in a labyrinth of its own making. In his heroic abundance he will catch hold of any form—or invent a new one—to assess, judge, condemn, praise, ruminate, fulminate, love; and once, in the name of literature, forgive:
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
(From “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”)
No thought or feeling or concept eludes Auden: death, dream, doubt, loss, beauty, sex, love, fear, appetite, flight, wrath, hope, yearning, refuge, bliss, catastrophe, homage, savagery, pity, heritage, exile, nightmare—every motion, motive, and emotion of the range and plethora of human endurance. In one of his most impassioned elegies, addressed in supplication to the spirit of Henry James—“O stern proconsul of intractable provinces, / O poet of the difficult, dear addicted artist”—he contemplates the flooding in of all that the world contains or intimates, its “hinted significant forms”:
As I stand awake on our solar fabric,
That primary machine, the earth, which gendarmes, banks,
And aspirin pre-suppose,
On which the clumsy and sad may all sit down, and any who will
Say their a-ha to the beautiful, the common locus
Of the master and the rose.
Our theatre, scaffold, and erotic city
And all the infirm species and partners in the act
Of encroachment bodies crave
Though solitude in death is de rigueur for their flesh
And the self-denying hermit flies as it approaches
Like the carnivore to a cave.
That its plural numbers may unite in meaning,
Its vulgar tongues unravel the knotted mass
Of the improperly conjunct,
Open my eyes to all its hinted significant forms,
Sharpen my ears to detect amid its brilliant uproar
The low thud of the defunct.
All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers living and dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives; because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling; make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.
These are verses that can be understood, beyond the literary invocation that is their conceit, as philosophical advocacy, or even as a kind of crooked incantation, forsaking easy eloquence. They decline to chant or sing, and never has rhyme been so inconspicuous, while at the same time insinuating its sly and stealthy beat. Auden is a poet—no, the poet—of unembarrassed intellect. Ideas are his emotions, emotions are his ideas. His successors and inheritors can be named in an uncommonly short list—contemporary poets for whom the lyrical ear and the all-seeing eye and the mind in fever are entwined with the breath and bread of the world; and to whom history, that multitudinous ghost, is no stranger.
Perhaps there is no extant recording of Auden reading “At the Grave of Henry James” on the august stage of the 92nd Street Y half a century ago. Or perhaps there is. Still, whatever it was that we anointed listeners were once blessed to hear, the timbre and the rasp, and the Hurrah and the Alas, of the poet’s voice can be found again in these plain lines:
… Only the past
Is present, no one about but the dead as,
Equipped with a few inherited odds and ends,
One after another we are
Fired into life to seek the unseen target where all
Our equivocal judgments are judged and resolved in
One whole Alas or Hurrah.