Impressive research, sloppy readings.

by onepuzzledspecies

I have just received Aidan Wasley’s The Age of Auden: Postwar Poetry and the American Scene (2011) in the mail, and it’s proving to be a rewarding read so far.

The beautiful drawing on the cover is by Don Bachardy

The beautiful drawing on the cover is by Don Bachardy

Wasley’s volume is eloquent, informative and (unlike this review) blessedly short: At just above 200 reasonably accessible pages, you can read it in a day if you have a day to spare.

Auden’s later poetry is sometimes described as the American Auden, with reference to his permanent “exile” in the U.S. from his 1939 emigration onwards. In this book, Wasley investigates the “American” part of this phrase: How did Auden see America, how did he attempt to find his “American voice”, how did he position himself in relation to American literary history? And most importantly, how did he influence the next generation(s) of American writers?

Wasley has carried out extensive archival work in unpublished letters and manuscripts in preparation for this book, spending time in the Isherwood archives in the Huntington Library in California as well as consulting the Berg Collection in NY and manuscript archives at Stanford and Harvard. (According to himself he wrote much of the book during a year’s residency at the James Merrill House in Connecticut – according to the JMH web pages, that would have been in 1999-2000: It sure takes time to publish a properly researched book!)

If I was slightly skeptical to certain aspects of the book’s introduction – more on that in a bit – Wasley had me hooked from the third page of the first chapter, where he reveals the author of a profusely enthusiastic review, which is cited at length, of Auden’s For the Time Being: Allen Ginsberg! Yes, you heard me. In 1946, 19-year-old Allen Ginsberg writes a gushing review of Auden, the highly formalistic and, at the time, recently self-proclaimed “theologically conservative” Englishman, and of a Christmas Oratorio, at that, and I quote: “A definitive review of For the Time Being is impossible; it is the kind of book that reviews the reviewer: it is too intelligent in thought and perfected in technique to allow immediate formal judgment. A full appreciation, exegesis and criticism must be left to the literary studies which will come.” (Ginsberg, cited in Wasley: 34.) That Ginsberg once accompanied Auden back home on the subway after a lecture in hopes of being “seduced” (with no success), I had heard of, but that Ginsberg should actually have liked Auden’s poetry comes as somewhat of a surprise.

To be serious: Wasley argues convincingly for Auden’s immense and influential role for the post-war generation of American writers, whether as an idol, source of inspiration, mentor, helper and host, or as an antagonist and target of scorn.  Whereas the generation immediately succeeding the “Auden generation” of the 1930s had an often more strained relationship with Auden’s heritage, the younger authors, counting such figures as Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and Adrienne Rich, tended to like him (or at the very least find him a worthy target of repudiation, as in the case of Robert Creeley):

“Auden’s influence was formative and widespread for a startlingly diverse range of poets whose work would go on to define what we talk about when we talk about contemporary American poetry.”

What did this influence consist of? To pick out a few of Wasley’s arguments: Auden’s use and adaption of various literary forms and styles associated with other poets – at which he was a virtuoso and a magpie – provided a model of “poetic relations” to younger poets; a way of engaging with influential predecessors. Another and more important reason had to do with identity, and the ways in which Auden’s “undogmatically didactic” style and emphasis on individual struggle, aloneness and responsibility embodied a critique of nationalism and other “essentialist” narratives. “The poetry Auden wrote in the shadow of the global catastrophe of World War II offered a new vision of how to write poetry in a world where the idea of nationalism itself had been proven, conclusively it seemed, morally, politically and artistically bankrupt.” Instead, Wasley argues, Auden “offered a model in whom his successors could find their own distinctive and divergent identities usefully reflected.” Part of his importance as a model of “divergent identities” undoubtedly came from his status as an openly gay public figure, something Wasley includes interesting discussions of at various points throughout the book.

Thirdly, Wasley emphasizes Auden’s “practical omnipresence in the lives, educations, and careers of countless poets.” In his various roles as friend, mentor, teacher, host and lecturer, in addition to his institutional influence (for instance as editor, judge on prize-awarding juries or writer of introductions and forewords), he became a personal presence in the lives of many writers:

“Auden wrote Guggenheim recommendations for [Louise] Bogan, served on prize committees with [Amy] Lowell, and was the best man at [Theodore] Roethke’s wedding and loaned him his Ischia retreat for his honeymoon. For the younger generation of O’Hara and Ginsberg, he was a canonized icon, an enthusiastic teacher, and an institutionally powerful figure in their early careers.”

Wasley’s overall discussion of Auden’s American role is both engaging and interesting, and includes plenty of fresh details that will intrigue new and old readers alike.

I do find, however, certain parts of his readings of Auden’s poetry problematic, not to say sloppy, as when he uses the following excerpt from New Year Letter as an illustration of Auden’s views on love:

O when will men show common sense,

And throw away intelligence,

That killjoy which discriminates,

Recover what appreciates,

The deep unsnobbish instinct which

Alone can make relation rich,

Upon the Beischlaf of the blood,

Establish a real neighbourhood,

Where art and industry and moeurs

Are governed by an ordre du coeur?

The problem is that these words, in Auden’s poem, are spoken by the Devil, and represents one pole of a dualistic conception of human life that Auden violently opposed. A bit further down in the same passage, the Devil’s tactic is revealed in the following lines: “The False Association is / A favourite strategy of his: / Induce men to associate / Truth with a lie, then demonstrate / The lie and they will, in truth’s name, / Treat babe and bath-water the same.” In other words, “throwing away intelligence” is openly equaled with throwing the baby out with the bath-water. The fact that Wasley goes on to discuss this passage at length without once showing any awareness of this makes me wonder if he’s read the poem at all. The fact that he uses the Devil’s words to illustrate Auden’s views on poetry as a whole – “It responds to disharmony and conflict not by resigning itself to the impossibility of resolution, but with a passionate, humane embrace…etc” – is rather unfortunate.

Wasley also goes astray when he chooses to explain the relation between Auden’s “artistic aspirations” and “the realm of politics and the real world” in the following words: “Just as a poem holds meanings in opposition, encouraging an interpretive effort toward resolution, so too does the diversity in unity of democracy demand a constructive choice between contending perspectives…The ideal function of American democracy is, for Auden, an analogue to the dialectical process of poetry.”

While this quote fits into what is otherwise a fairly reasonable argument, the fact still remains that Auden continuously and explicitly, especially from the late 1930’s and onwards, warned against the use of art, poetry included, as a model for politics. The temptation to approach political processes with aesthetic tools is associated with totalitarianism, the “artist” as politician is seen as a dictator. Wasley’s comparison of a poem and a democracy, placed in a discussion of Auden’s views on politics, goes completely against the grain of Auden’s stated views on politics from the 1940s and after. This might seem trivial to some, but to me it signals an ignorance of major elements of Auden’s “Later” or “American” worldview, which is problematic for a book that is advertised and blurbed as “extensively researched,” based on “major archival work,” etc. Wasley’s book contributes to the scholarly as well as the general discourse about Auden’s poetry, and in the scholarly context at least, misrepresentations such as the ones discussed above should be fair game for criticism.

To summarize: Wasley’s investigation of Auden’s influence on contemporary American poets is valuable, informative, and speaks of thorough and insightful research. The discussion of how “America mattered to Auden’s ideas about culture and poetry,” as one blurb phrases it, is interesting and enlightening as well. Regarding particular interpretations of Auden’s poetry, and his presentation of Auden’s general views on politics and art, I would say: Enjoy, but take it with a pinch of salt!