Almost anybody else and I would not care. In fact I would probably be actively bitching right this minute about the ways in which academia spoils the joy in art, etc., and how complete, posthumous editions are all but invariably awful. Anybody else. But this is Auden.
More than a decade ago, Oxford University Press published a 4th edition of Jane Austen's Letters, "collected and edited" by one Dierdre Le Faye, bless 'er. It was an irresistibly plump new hardcover for forty five dollars and yes, I bit. And a mess of pottage it was. I own not one but two earlier versions of the lady's letters, in handsome old editions with few notes and lovely, wide, white margins. Seeing the Oxford I thought, "there must be more to this." There was not. Yes, there may have been a few discovered texts since my 1908 edition, but mostly what had accumulated to the actual letters was a vast coral of dead academic matter, a gray and gruesome lot of notes, variant readings, and guff. In said notes the reader was addressed alternately as a child of five or an assistant research librarian in the Vatican. Not sure which was less pleasant; being told Napoleon was a French general, or being told to "see prev. note pg. 63 re. 'pins.'" I put the book away from me as one would a blighted thing.
Around the same time, a vast committee of editorial savants at the University of California decided that the great Bernard DeVoto et al. were wrong. What had the biographers and historians been thinking, trying to bring shape and coherence to something that needed neither? This new generation of editors, raised on indigestible wads of critical theory, decided that the maundering haymow of manuscript autobiography left behind when Samuel Langhorne Clemens finally went the way of all flesh was actually a perfected piece of post-structural genius, a final full flowering of Twain's brain, requiring little more than the usual, heavy scholastic potting. And so the three gigantic volumes of Autobiography published between 2010 and 2015. It seems Twain was the American Pessoa. Again, despite my misgivings, from jump I got right with the program. I confess that it was not until the middle of Volume Two that I -- and a number of the most serious and influential critics in America -- finally gave it all up as a bad job. Volume Three we could not shift at the bookstore for love or money. Turns out the thing was a boondoggle of the first order, a bit of collegiate flimflam of a type usually reserved for uninterrupted droning in the classroom -- the kind of arguments made persuasive only by tenure and the surprising tenacity of mid-century French intellectual bullies. (I genuinely believe the benighted souls responsible for those three cement blocks of Twain must have talked themselves right into it; they believed their own grift. I do not remember a single instance in the supporting material that so much as winked at the windy old wonder that was lonely old Sam on his deathbed, or expressed the least doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing, repeating the same stories time and again or telling the same joke for the eleventy-seventh time.) Actually the thing had no more shape nor purpose than an old man's porch conversation and made the reader, me anyway, just as sad and eager to depart.
I could go on and will. The newest, complete editions of Larkin's poem? Of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry? Both were so crammed with variants and pointless verbiage as to basically double the poets' output while adding nothing to the value of their work, while explicitly contravening their wishes. Honestly, I am all for ignoring Henry James when he begs everyone o burn everything, but poetry is specifically about selection or it's just prose with a hitch in its giddy-up. It's like some demented dearie had collected all of discarded clay from the floor of Rodin's atelier, carefully annotated, logged, and preserved it, and then held an exhibition -- in a plane hanger. I understand better the academic urge to publish Emily Dickenson with all her dashes. That had to feel awfully clever at the time. But honestly, it was not as if in so doing the poet had been rescued from confusion and obscurity. Worth remembering that the importance of a great deal of academic labor would be better measured in the number of untenured associates and grad students employed -- even at slave wages -- than in any lasting contributions to the reading lives of the public. It's nice that your assistants Jesse and Leah could afford the "good" dry ramen for awhile, Professor. You're a prince among men. And may I just say that your cumbersome new edition may well have rescued Marianne Moore from her long-established popularity. I guess your work here on earth is done. Go with GodDamnIt.
The obvious justification of something like the Yale Boswell Editions, and the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson as well (Well done, Yale) is in preserving and restoring work we might otherwise never see or know the existence of, and in providing properly curated material for scholarship. Worthy worthies all. What the publisher also did however was make trade editions of the Boswell and a fairly new anthology -- the size of a small European car -- of the Johnson for the general public. Only a librarian or a fanatic (I blush) really needs a hardcover of Johnson's Sermons and Prayers. That bad example aside, smart retail choices can coexist with larger academic projects. I would note though that with the exception of the recent one volume Johnson, the distinction between academic and trade publishing has gone the way of indoor tobacco smoking and paper catalogs. It seems that if somebody bygawd did the bygawd research then there will be a bygawd trade edition too heavy to bygawd lift with one hand to please bygawd no one save the mother of the bygawd editor.
And then there is Edward Mendelson, bless him. Picture an academic gentleman of advancing years. What was doubtless once a crown of auburn curls is now more a tiara worn well back behind large ears. The face is weighty rather than handsome, serious but smiling in more than one photo. To show himself at ease he has occasionally been photographed without a tie. As far back as the mid-seventies he was already editing the standard collections of W. H. Auden's work, and writing two of the only sensible volumes of critical biography we've yet to see on the other greatest English language poet of the 20th Century. (In my experience who you pick for that top spot depends on where you were educated and when. I was told it was Thomas Stearns Eliot, and then later I was told it was William Butler Yeats. All I am willing to say on the subject is it that I'm all for Auden. Also? All three of the old boys apparently used their middle names and all were likewise found of their initials. I just think that's mid-century cool in a way the rest of us will never be. Really the whole idea of top dog in literature would now seem to be old fashioned in the very worst way, so maybe it's just as well we drop the business here.) Had Edward Mendelson done nothing but edit those Collected Poems and written nothing else but Early Auden, I would be deeply grateful. Those two books gave me my understanding of Auden as someone more than the other, less attractive fellow in Isherwood's memoirs, etc. Like many another, I am a grateful gay child of Kander & Ebb and came to Berlin and Weimar by way of their Cabaret. Thence to Isherwood proper, fiction and memoirs and later still fabulous diaries, and from him to Wystan Hugh Auden, Isherwood's buddy, fellow traveler and gay exile in America. I met the poet through Isherwood then, but Mendelson's Auden was how I got to know him. In many ways then Auden was my first serious modern poet. Maybe it was the cigarette-ash and the carpet slippers and the German "trade" (meaning hot and buyable German boy company) that drew me in, but Professor Mendelson showed me why this queen mattered and to an extent, taught me how to read him. Forever grateful.
But wait, there's more. For the better part of fifty years now, Edward Mendelson has done more than any other individual to honor the memory of Wystan Hugh Auden, in word and deed.* The Princeton edition of The Complete Works of W. H. Auden has been and continues a work of monumental scholarship and perfect good taste, and all of it under the eye of Edward Mendelson. Again the question arises if anyone other than a biographer needed six large volumes of the poet's prose -- (YES?!) -- but anyone picking up any of those six volumes would be rewarded with a rich and varied lot of genuinely interesting travel, criticism, gossip, poetics, essays, journalism, and other otherwise unknown stuff. A remarkable lot of it still worth reading. Some of it may have held up about as poorly as Yeats' A Vision, but that is for critics and future generations to decide. It is a remarkable achievement, that collected prose, in part because it respects wherever possible the author's arrangements and intentions. Here's that whole book, as the author intended. Here's what the poet was writing for money then. Here's what he was thinking about on paper in 1968. (All his life Auden chased, exhausted, and then abandoned opinions and philosophies like a crazy lady hunting feral cats, convinced that the next will be perfectly lovely. As with so many of his generation, Auden was convinced that somewhere someone had actually written Edward Casaubon's Key to All Mythologies and it worked. Unlike Isherwood and Huxley, Auden never found his guru. But even when Auden was silly though, unlike Yeats, Auden was interesting.)
I am eternally grateful just for the fascinating lyrics Auden produced for the creative team behind what would become The Man of La Mancha. What an interesting idea that was! Never happened as Auden understood the book and the team decided the show was actually going to make pretty much the exact opposite point, but I would never have known about the whole business or read those lines but for Princeton edition.
"America is I and you"
Now in place of the one stout volume of Poems there are two. At the back of the second there Appendices interesting -- Auden's Choices for Anthologies -- and others necessary but less interesting like the list of his publications. And then there are 386 pages of very good textural notes. As the above may have suggested, I an not always keen for long chapters of notes. With a writer of Auden's erudition and long history, these can actually help. More than any or all of the supplemental stuff though, what we have in the two big books of Poems now is the published poet whole. You may not need him so. You may prefer a meaty paperback (Mendelson has already made that book for you) or even a slimmer Selected Poems (Mendelson's done that one too.) Again, I don't know that anybody other than serious scholars needed these books, but what a joy to have them!
There are poets in the reading of whom we may be said to never be done; Horace, Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson. Others we come to the end of and start again with better understanding each time like Dante or Milton. Of the three surviving Big Boys of English Modernism, Eliot, Yeats, and Auden, there can be a sense of having done and dusted each as their major poems are ticked off the list in school. There was a time when it seemed all literate persons went slouching toward the Wasteland through to September 1, 1939, etc. Eliot, more than the other two, survived at least as well as a critic as he did a poet. Yeats' mysticism appealed to hippies and his patriotism secured him an unlikely niche come St. Patty's Day in America. Auden had a poem in a movie in the nineties, but otherwise he remains the queer fellow who survived to what seemed at the time a rather disreputable old age -- though he was all of sixty-six when he died! Yeats, the most senior chronologically, lived to only seventy-four. Eliot was the longest lived at seventy-seven, but Auden survived not only him, but to a degree his own modernism. Another ten years and he might have joined his old friend Isherwood in the new gay pantheon/parade. Instead, the late Auden came too early and seemed to stuffy buggers in 1973 embarrassingly light and or light in the loafers, aka too queer and too funny to be wholly respectable. Alas the poet oroved also too venerable (and English) to ever really be hip. He would have enjoyed a bit of attention from the shirtless boys with dirty feet (rather his type, once upon an earlier time.)
Recently a friend sent me an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg's memories of Auden. Unsurprisingly, Ginsberg sounds an absolute ass; insisting on playing his squeezebox and "singing" sutras at Auden instead of sitting still for a nice cuppa and a bit of a chinwag about cute boys and cock and maybe even poetry. (Was there ever such a gang of noisy, self-centered junkies, drunks, and hallucinatory blabberguts as The Beats?! Jeezuz. They make the Romantics sound laid-back and humble.) Poor Auden might as well have been visited by a talking dog for all he might have made of the great American moon-calf. The rather unintended poignancy of the anecdote reminded me of yet another displacement that may keep Auden out of the main of things American. He is terribly, terribly English. True, he moved to the US in 1939, became a dual citizen in 1946, and until the end of his life spent at least half the year in New York, a city he loved very much more than London, or even ultimately Oxford. He loved America and Americans. He married an American -- although they couldn't call it that at the time. Despite this he remained rather stubbornly English, in his speech, his manner, his class, conversation, and his taste in everything but cigarettes, boys, and democracy. Notwithstanding all his youthful dislike of his hidebound homeland, she remained very much the motherland. St. Louie Mo's own Thomas Stearns Eliot of course went the other direction, straight to London and promptly became more of an Englishman than any of the royal Georges who were, after all, just so many bug-eyed Krauts. Eliot, like Henry James before him, can be claimed and often is by the Brits as he did all his best work there and in Saville Row bespoke suits. But neither Britain nor America has ever really claimed Auden as entirely their own. The English of his time hated him as a pacifist who skipped the Atlantic just before the War, and America outside of Manhattan just never made much of such a queer fella. Really, queers with plumy accents only made sense in America when they were playing villains in Bible movies. ("... Starring dreamy Jeffrey Hunter as Our Savior, and featuring acclaimed poet, Wystan Hugh Auden as King Herod Antipasta!") Nabokov probably made more sense to his fellow Americans than did the shy, ginger giant from Oxbridge. At least Vladimir liked girls.
To me, the later Auden is only possible because of America. Here it was he found lasting if not uncomplicated love. He needed America to relax a bit, and to write as simply as he sometimes later chose to do in poems like the lovely "Walks" from Homage to Clio, and more famously "Lullaby" from Thank You, Fog and Other Poems. That's my guess. Auden in America? Took his shoes off and metaphorically never really put them on again.
But is Auden American? How is that to be decided if not by him? (His complete edition and greatest editor certainly are, American. That says something in favor of our claim, does it not? If only that we had the institutional dough to do it.) Was Auden American though, and when? He certainly seemed to think he was. Is he now taught as an American poet? Which sadly leads me to ask is Auden still taught?** Don't know.
I certainly hope he's still taught. Rather hope they all are, the three great dead white dudes of the English modern. Meanwhile I can't answer any of those questions I just asked. I mean, I'm genuinely curious, but not so curious as to do the necessary research 'cause that is not my bailiwick. I'm just a guy who sells books and buys too many books and who now owns The Complete Princeton Auden. Now as a bookseller I can tell you that Eliot still sells pretty well, and not just that idiot cat book. Auden does too. Yeats not so much now, which seems to me both sad and odd. Of the three I should have thought Yeats wrote the poetry that speaks to the widest audience, addressing the most readers, and was most recognizably THE Poet down to his recorded readings, his velvet jackets and floppy ties. Am I wrong? Has Yeats faded? Neither Eliot nor Auden had politics the way Yeats did -- not just convictions but active party politics -- which ought to endear him to the young. He was in the contemporary sense the most "engaged." Both of the other boys had opinions political and otherwise, often as not diametrically opposed to one another, a fact perhaps best explained not by their actual politics as by only Auden having any empathy. Tom was rather a cold fish, no? Moreover, nearly the whole of Auden's philosophy outside his aesthetics and the whole of his religion was by the end best summarized as empathy, though he always did like a pretty priest in fancy dress.
-- And that's exactly the sort of dizzy talk about poets I had hoped to avoid! The only thing worse is talking without expertise about music. I do that too. We all do it, or so I like to think by way of excusing myself. If I had to pick a topic about which I am perhaps least qualified to describe, it might well be the religious and political convictions of early modernist English poets. Worse, I could be describing poetic forms I only vaguely grasp because my friend Richard, himself a poet, repeatedly explained them to me down the years.
The fact is, I have never been entirely comfortable talking poetry because I am neither a poet nor a scholar. Yes I read poetry. Nope, don't talk about it much. Mine is a very modern problem. Our ancestors, the literate ones anyway -- of whom I probably have fewer than you might assume -- had no problem with poetry. They had opinions about poetry the same way they had opinions about prose, or potato salad, foreigners, farming, the gold standard, politics, and pie-contests. Not a one of them would have hesitated to write a poem here and there for purposes of courting or for a contest in the newspaper and the like. The ones who went to school long enough probably memorized a bit of Shakespeare, say "The Quality of Mercy," and could recite "The Ballad of Barbara Fritchie" for 4th of July picnic at the Grange Hall. If my immediate ancestors had a favorite poet it would probably have been James Whitcombe Riley. Perhaps the brightest of my folk, all women -- there was a one room school teacher or two -- might have known at least a few lines by James Russell Lowell and or Elizabeth Barrett Browning (poets with three names again! Did you notice? Did not plan this. Might be onto something there.) There was a time in this country when pretty much everyone read Mrs. Browning even if they'd never read a word written by her husband. (Can't imagine why but Robert was in his day nearly as confusing to some folks as say Louis Zukofsky is to me now.)
I always take at least one book of poetry with me when I go home to Pennsylvania to see the beloved elderly mother. I take lots of books as I'm unlikely to find many new ones once I'm out there. I take books for the airports, books for sitting on the porch when the passing traffic is loud. I take poetry to read before bed, usually nice, fat, paperback anthologies, best for dipping at random. One year I read my way straight through Shakespeare's Sonnets for what I'm pretty sure was the first time. A few years ago though I took an old paperback of Eliot's Four Quartets and surprised myself by enjoying it thoroughly. Could not have told you how many years it had been since I had last read Eliot let alone those poems. I mention this because reading, even rereading Eliot (Auden, Yeats) does not of itself feel enough to then write, however casually about Eliot's poetry, or Yeats', or Auden's. I am not unaware of at least the most common of educational and cultural commonalities of the English poets between say Shakespeare and Houseman, but there's only so much one can do with a high school education, a smattering of Latin, and a tattered copy of Edith Hamilton's Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Still, as a reader, I'm game at least and until. The Eliot was surprisingly straight forward mostly, and the computer in my pocket makes difficult vocabulary so much simpler now. I actually think that I am happier now to try such things than I was when I was young and much more concerned with being stupid or being seen to be. Now? Why not? Then there's John Ashberry, and Don Mee Choi, and the afore mentioned Louis Zukofsky. Well I did try, honest. But writing about all of this, even the easier ones? That is something I've left to the professionals. Better they should explain even my enthusiasms to me.
And yet this isn't right, is it? Can any of my three Dead White Men have meant to be the subject only of serious -- that is to say academic -- study? Even with Eliot I can't credit that. Did any poet ever really write to be read only in a classroom? (And how dreadful if one did, or does.)
I've read a fair bit of modern philosophy, believe it or not, and the better part of that by some genuinely deep and or dense writers. I can't say that I feel confident recommending Peter Sloterdijk's Spheres to somebody in the bookstore, or explaining Jurgen Habermas ' communicative action to a guy in a bar. Couldn't if I tried, actually. Again, glad I did what I've done in the way of reading such weighty books, but not confident, as I might be with Hume or Locke, in chatting about what I've read. Why? Well, it's two things really: lack of education and vocabulary, and well, the First World War.
That first bit is self-evident. I ain't educated much. I do however have friends now with all that stuff; advanced degrees, conversation full of spondaic this and an anadiplosis there and here a bit 'o the old anaphora. (All those "ands" by the bye? Polysyndeton. Any of those last three would be a good drag name at a MLA talent show. Yours for the taking. My gift.) I do indeed now know actual professors. For instance, I recently spent a very happy hour listening to a podcast in which a new friend and former academic had a chat with another of the same brilliant sort all about a single poem by a poet I very much love, Cowper. By the end I was dizzy with admiration. I could never do such a thing! Even if I wanted to, and I don't, and even if I studied as they did for years and learned the trick of such things, I would never. Should I try I'd feel like a dancing bear; the whole charm of it would be in seeing me up on my hindlegs, ass out, pretending to be something I clearly am not.
All I really do is read for pleasure (and a bit extra for Book Club.) I am not unlike a minor Austen sister, though I do work for wages to avoid genuine if genteel poverty.
And then there's the war. The Great War is rather a line (trench?) in the literary earth, ain't it? Before that horrific event, most writers at least in English would have probably described their reader as -- them, or someone very like, or perhaps a young lady whose blushes were to be avoided, or a clever youth, or a literate shopkeeper, or the rising working class, or any of the other obvious populations known to open books unassigned nor mandated by God. Not every writer was ever for every reader, but the more generally the merrier. And then bombs were dropped on the lot of what was or is or ought to be and distrust of the obvious and the easy, and thinking and feeling persons in the arts generally threw baby and bathwater, Bible and Greeks, sentiment and sense, right out and good riddance to false rubbish. Before anyone gets squeamish in anticipation of some curmudgeonly rant or neo-conservative lament for the good olde days of English literature, let me just say that nostalgia is poison and much of what modernism blew up was deserving of the dynamite. More, I would not know how to read without its influence in everything I know now as art. It was a good thing.
It did however put the common reader (me) on unsteady ground in so far as it valued individuality and innovation sometimes over sense, and music over meaning, and various other rejiggerings of the status quo that have left a poor redneck boy unsure of much he might not entirely understand and no, I am not good with that. A symptom of a simple mind perhaps, or just an ancestral peasant suspicion of having things put over on me, but there's only so much sense I can bring myself to do without when reading. (Actually, acting classes rather weirdly helped. During my very brief college career, I was a theater major. I remember the insight, small as it may be, that Gertrude Stein writes punctuation, that James Joyce writes aloud, and that Ezra Pound was a ham. Also? The novels of Virginia Woolf remind me more than anything of ill-considered, over-long audition monologues to which shy, bright girls were drawn. At a certain point one just wants that to be over.)
One lesson learned from The Moderns? I need not read, know, understand, or love everything. There is not in fact a list of required reading. And so away with Icelandic sagas and the Vorticists and William bloody Gaddis! Thomas Pynchon be damned and Hanya Yanagihara can get stuffed. Done. Just me, mind. You be you.
Which is not to say grown people of thirty five should still be reading novels with magical sixteen year old protagonists (so creepy) or that video games are just as good as the Louvre or that regular people shouldn't read Fielding' Tom Jones because the author uses "eleemosynary" in the first sentence. Don't be so damned childish, people. Art is more than the familiar hum of contented expectations. Try, you lazy bastards. You might learn something. You might change. You might be moved or even made better.
I went to an exhibition of Rothko once and was struck by the size of the things, and the heat, and the quiet. No intention on my part to like, just to look. And at the end, I wept. Still have no idea why or how that happened. (True, I'm an easy weeper, but yeah.) I didn't have to study Rothko or painting. I just went and in the end was glad of it.
Call it, The Philistine Takes It In.
Now with Auden, I almost never have a sense of the man talking intentionally over my head. If something proves obscure, and it often can, I look to the structure of the thing to tell me what I'm looking at. Failing that, and having always tried the line aloud, I will take recourse to my phone. And if some of what he wrote is not within my ken, there is still much to love, much that is moving, earnest, handsomely said. He has ideas I like and opinions I may seemingly never understand, but he is engaged with me and I with him and I have always a strong sense that he is glad to tell, not just to perform. Perhaps I'm wrong, but he seems to like us, whatever he thinks of the times, war, horror, love.
One of the delights of late Auden specially is that he was genuinely funny. Say that of another major 20th century poet in English. Who would it be? Marianne Moore? Bishop is a beauty, but not funny. Larkin? None's a patch on Wystan. Eliot makes me smile pretty broadly now and again as it turns out, but I can't even picture the man laughing, let alone The Poet, not out-loud like some vulgar person. Don't remember Yeats ever resulting in a grin, come to that. But Auden, every bit as serious and sophisticated as the other two and still he would do:
When the young Kant
Was told to kiss his aunt,
He obeyed the Categorical Must
But only just.
He wrote clerihews! He celebrated and introduced collections of light verse including dear Phyllis McGinley. He loved Edward Lear. Auden drank and smoked and told dirty stories at cocktail parties and flirted hopelessly with undergraduate athletes and gossiped and joked and laughed aloud. He also was dear to E. M. Forster and kind to young people and to Edith Sitwell which wasn't always easy. Thom Gunn admired him and Stravinsky adored him. Auden was out before that was something to be and catty as he could be, he was fundamentally kind.
Now none of that has much of anything to do directly with his major work as a poet, but it endears him to me none the less and as a common reader, that is allowed. And perhaps it has more to do with what made him a major poet than dominant criticism will admit. Poetry is felt if it is read right, at least by me. Art is not the technical means by which it is made or if it is I needn't know how to have it speak to me.
And neither need you necessarily, my darlings. If your only way to enjoy magic is to learn the trick, go on and pay a magician to teach you. (Actually, I loath magic, but obviously I needed the example just here. In reality the last magic I liked was watching the late, great Ricky Jay manipulate a deck of cards, and that I liked as much for the patter as the tricks. He wrote a good book about Learned Pigs too.) Read Auden -- and Eliot, and Yeats, and Bishop, and Moore. Read Terrance Hayes and Eileen Myles. Read poetry and by people unlike ourselves and like. Read Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker. Read people who are smarter than one's self, or simply better at poetry. No permission required.
Read Auden. Eventually, you may also need all ten volumes from Princeton, or not. Up to you. I can however recommend the monumental, darling. well worth it if I were asked.
*The professor also has an inexplicable fondness for the work of the supremely dreary Thomas Pynchon. This is like learning that Julia Child secretly liked not something perfectly understandable like ballpark franks or sloppy joes -- pretty sure she'd eat either with pleasure -- but rather had a pronounced fondness for edible gelatin-balloons and tomato foam and smoke infused appetizers made from a single frozen pea. Ick.
**I understand from an academic friend that that horndog Yeats is finally "problematic" which is both perfectly just and frankly disappointing. He was rather, wasn't he? Just, disappointing, problematic, etc. Bless 'im. I understand if he might now seem more trouble than he's worth, but the answer is that he's still worth more than the troubles he made or the mess. Have you read The Lake Isle at Innisfree? Easter, 1916? A Prayer for My Daughter? Mustn't let those go. The loss would be insurmountable, and I don't say that as easily as you might think. Must everyone read Yeats? I don't know, but pray do.