W.H. Auden is the best. His feline sense of humor and mid-century Greenwich Village/Brooklyn Heights cool are part of that (see below), but his value mostly consists in his poems. If you haven’t heard of or read him yet, no problem; you will probably like his poetry, because Auden actually wrote with his reader in mind, which means he thought about how to coherently convey human experience within a text. He assumed that a reader would appreciate a poem that is at least somewhat situationally intelligible (i.e. where you can tell what basic human action, occasion, or event is at stake); serious without being pedantic or humorless (even an honest master like T.S. Eliot is frequently guilty of the latter); and musically pleasurable—and this, the human delight in rhythmic sound, is the heart of Auden’s work. Rhyme and a beat are what you want, not traits to be rejected because, I don’t know, Difficulty is good or whatever. His work is comforting in a way that much modern poetry isn’t, though it would be hard to justify calling much of it “optimistic.”
Any poet who wants to have many readers must be entertaining, just like a novelist, although of course entertainment is a small part of a writer’s function. Auden’s entire corpus gets at what Dana Gioia gets at in his 1991 (and still pertinent) essay “Can Poetry Matter?” (Answer: qualified Yes, if poets bother to write sonically pleasurable things that lay readers can make intellectual sense of, and avoid the arcane density pimped by some MFA holders.) No emotionally healthy person willingly reads much of anything they don’t enjoy on a dopamine level. Outside of the fantasies of academia’s most pious residents, abstract appreciation never led anyone to finish a book.
Auden writes criticism with the same attitude. Like any effective teacher, he is into cool things and wants to tell you about them, though he doesn’t particularly care about their present cultural cachet. In the introduction to the book which provides the amazing cat picture below, Richard Howard reports that, in the poet’s words, “criticism should be a casual conversation.” It should be accessible, sharing the author’s knowledge instead of flaunting it. (If you want to read more about this, the poet James Fenton, whose witty, form-conscious work owes a lot to Auden’s example, lucidly underscores the connections between poetry and critical prose in “Blake Auden and James Auden,” a lecture reprinted in The Strength of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux published in 2001.)
In all of his essays, lectures, reviews, introductions, forewords, afterwords, jacket blurbs, and sundry ephemera, you see the same thing as in the verse: profoundly compassionate humanist thinking that delights in language and ranges in philosophical content from funny to sorrowful to resigned to ambivalent to defiant. Guy is a nonfiction sibling of Dickens and Foster Wallace, and a poetic ancestor of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010), a novel you should absolutely go find right now, because it is incredible. In the foreword to his own Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, Auden insists that “a dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained”; and then, lest he appear sanctimonious, he blasts himself for once “shamefully” espousing a “wicked doctrine” that “equate[s] goodness with success” (“History to the defeated / may say alas but cannot help nor pardon”) just because it sounded good.
Further, and lucky for us, a great deal of Auden’s conversation survives in the form of interviews (the Paris Review has a long one somewhere in their archives and in a paperback I’m not climbing into my attic to find) and recorded conversations like those comprised in Alan Jenkins’s Table Talk of W.H. Auden. Like Coleridge, Samuel Johnson (in Boswell’s Life of Johnson), and Orson Welles, Auden was a good talker. Even when he’s being flippant or getting bored with a topic, the man’s erudite intelligence is beguiling.
Perhaps more importantly, the cover of Table Talk is incredible. Try to stop looking.
You can’t, can you? I got it for $4 in Portland a few years ago because someone at Powell’s didn’t do their homework. Not that it is the kind of rare tome Johnny Depp pursues in that documentary The Ninth Gate, but I still saved at least fifteen dollars. The walls of my studio are a cultural lifeboat.
Here are some choice cuts. Keep in mind that despite being a gay cosmopolitan artist who hung out in Greenwich cafes and read Latin, Auden was also an Anglican Christian born in 1907, and he held some views that are now archaic, at least among coastal intellectuals.
On the replacement of public art with limbic pleasures:
Today , the great question seems to be, should one write poetry at all? During the thirties the question was, what kind of poetry should one write? Should one write for the masses, for instance? But there was never any doubt whether or not one ought to write. The great question now is, what would give one pleasure? Ought one to write poetry, or fuck? (page 50)
On modern poetry:
I shouldn’t let anyone under 25 read Whitman, and Hart Crane is dangerous for the young. (57)
I think that Coriolanus is the most boring of Shakespeare’s heroes. Macbeth is pretty dull too. I’m extremely fond of The Winter’s Tale. Cordelia is really a silly little bitch. There are so many “No”-girls in Shakespeare’s last plays. He must have acquired a special actress who could play that sort of role. (55)
Reminding us that Oscar Wilde kind of sucks:
Wilde, after all, is important not as a writer—he couldn’t write at all—but as a behaver. Still he did say some very acute things.
On nineteenth-century English verse, which had its share of musically gorgeous fools and self-important nobs (that would be Shelley). This being Auden, he manages to bring sex into it:
Swinburne does what Shelley wants to do more successfully than Shelley. He lives entirely in a world of words, whereas some reality is always present in Shelley. I don’t think [Robert] Browning was very good in bed. His wife probably didn’t care for him very much. He snored and had fantasies about twelve-year-old girls. (97)
On how Americans often misprize British writers:
Samuel Johnson is a person not much appreciated in the United States. And the people who do like him are either like Yvor Winters [note: wonderful poet, aesthetically very conservative], or nasty types of Anglophiles who think they have to be rude and are usually Republicans. But Johnson was a great melancholic romantic and he wrote some exceedingly acute things. (18)
His qualified taste for pop culture:
Don Quixote is the only really Christian myth. You find a trace of it in L’il Abner in the Daily Mirror. Abner’s always trying to do someone a good turn, and it never works out. Superman and Little Orphan Annie ought to be on the Index. Henry Miller, certainly. Yes, Thomas Wolfe . . . [original ellipse] and Carl Sandburg—the prose is all right, but not the poetry. (59)
On the use of student evaluations of professors, and the narcissism of young Americans:
I’m really terribly annoyed over this teacher rating business. It’s democracy in the wrong place. It assumes that everyone’s opinion is as good as everyone else’s, which is simply not true. The result is that the teacher is encouraged to clown—to be an entertainer. But the teacher must know when he should be boring—something necessary for students sometimes. (57)
But they [undergraduates] begin with the idea that they are the important ones to be pleased—not taught—and that their untutored reactions should be the final judgement on their instructor. They’re so disobedient because that’s the way they’ve been brought up. (85)
Two for the ladies!
There are two things I don’t like. To see women drinking hard liquor and to see them standing at bars without escorts. Women should drink port with lemon. (39)
I don’t like it when women are nasty. Women are really supposed to be much nicer than men. That’s what they’re here for. Women shouldn’t be talked to on intellectual subjects because if they like you, they’ll agree without having any real opinions of their own. Oh, they are fun to talk gossip with. A few have real minds, but they usually make one feel uncomfortable. (66)
And for the men:
[. . .] America is really a very queer country. . . . All American writing [he singles out Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise] gives the impression that Americans really don’t care for girls at all. What the American male really wants is two things: he wants to be blown by a stranger while reading a newspaper and he wants to be fucked by his buddy when he’s drunk. (80-81)
Finally, the secret lives of cats:
Some Siamese cats are impossible because they keep continually crying. I’d rather have a tom. You know, they have a rugged time of it trying to service so many ladies. A friend’s was looking seedy. When he called the vet, the vet just laughed and said the cat would be fine once the rutting season was over. Cats will not let you work. They keep jumping all over you, try to attract your attention and just make a nuisance of themselves. (67)
But I believe we started out talking about poetry. So, to spruce up your weekend, here is “A Walk After Dark” (1948), whose rhymes and jaunty meter enhance, rather than reduce, its depth:
A cloudless night like this
Can set the spirit soaring:
After a tiring day
The clockwork spectacle is
Impressive in a slightly boring
It soothed adolescence a lot
To meet so shamelesss a stare;
The things I did could not
Be so shocking as they said
If that would still be there
After the shocked were dead
Now, unready to die
Bur already at the stage
When one starts to resent the young,
I am glad those points in the sky
May also be counted among
The creatures of middle-age.
It’s cosier thinking of night
As more an Old People’s Home
Than a shed for a faultless machine,
That the red pre-Cambrian light
Is gone like Imperial Rome
Or myself at seventeen.
Yet however much we may like
The stoic manner in which
The classical authors wrote,
Only the young and rich
Have the nerve or the figure to strike
The lacrimae rerum note.
For the present stalks abroad
Like the past and its wronged again
Whimper and are ignored,
And the truth cannot be hid;
Somebody chose their pain,
What needn’t have happened did.
Occuring this very night
By no established rule,
Some event may already have hurled
Its first little No at the right
Of the laws we accept to school
Our post-diluvian world:
But the stars burn on overhead,
Unconscious of final ends,
As I walk home to bed,
Asking what judgment waits
My person, all my friends,
And these United States.