Two weeks ago (in ‘A Confederacy of Poets in the Gewgaws’ – here) I threatened to do this. Well now I’ve done it…
It came as no great surprise – certainly to me – that W.H. Auden and I did not get on. I approached the slim anthology with all due reverence and read slowly and carefully, at times using my finger to trace the words in the hope that, like my six year old grandson, it would help me make sense of it all. It did not.
I started with the foreword, written by John Fuller, of whom I knew nothing other than what is written on the jacket. (I have since discovered that he is himself, a published poet and founder of a publishing house that was responsible for publishing some of Auden’s work. If he was a politician, he would have to lie to some committee or another to explain it.) He clearly loves Auden, but if I’m honest, it is unsurprising as they seem to have much in common: I found his introduction almost as impenetrable as the poetry that followed it. I know very little about Auden and most of what I do know, probably wrong. I believe that he was born in Britain and that he travelled to Spain in support of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, but he did not immerse himself in the unpleasantness quite as fully as his compatriot George Orwell, returning to the UK after seven weeks (six of them spent some distance away from the unpleasantness) before moving to the US, where he remained at a comfortable arm’s length throughout the Second World War. I am sure that he led a rich and colourful life, but that is the extent of my knowledge and I deliberately refrained from learning more, hoping that the poetry itself would tell me all that I needed to know. Well then…
As I always do with poetry, I read each poem twice: once to let the words in, once to let the meaning follow. On this occasion, the latter seldom occurred. The poems veer wildly between incomprehensible and infantile, with just a little bit of banal thrown in for good measure: Then I pulled on the hairy breeches / Smelling of peat from skua-breeding Harris / Caught round the waist with a calf-leather belt*. On occasions I was struck by Auden’s use of words – particularly words with which I am unfamiliar – and tried to understand why he used them, particularly as, more often than not, they seemed to clunk into place like a discordant voice in the Kremlin. Mostly they disrupted whatever ‘flow’ I could muster and I couldn’t help but think that they had not been used because they were apposite, but just because he knew them: See how clever I am, I bet you’ve had to look that word up. I would love to share some examples with you, but as I did not have the foresight to mark them during my first two readings and had no desire to spend precious time researching them, I would have to go searching for them again and, to be honest, I would probably sooner chew my own socks. I was most struck by this overt show of ‘cleverness’** in England to me is My Own Language which chugs along quite nicely, if unmemorably, rhyming and for the most part scanning quite nicely, until German words, then phrases and eventually whole sentences begin to arrive on the hidden whim of a crowbar and it all falls to pieces, toppling down on a cry of ‘But see how clever I am.’ Too late for me I’m afraid. I was bored on the first reading and irritated before the second.
Mostly, even when I have little or no idea of what the greater intellect is banging on about, I can enjoy the flow of the words. Not with Auden, unfortunately. I found that the deliberately (I presume) jarring nature of some of his lines – random words dropped into a line like hand-grenades – completely off-putting, particularly when allayed with a couplet that could have been written by a two year old cat and a rhyming dictionary. An example of an unsurpassed versatility? It appears to me, more like a man desperate to prove that he can get away with just about anything. Many of his poems appeared to be cut-outs (Bowie used this method to great effect with many of his lyrics) which is a great way of writing, but Auden seemed to miss one vital point – it is still intended to make some kind of sense, or at least to paint some kind of picture when it’s done. To me, these poems – particularly the prose-poem ‘Argument, part iii’ (I have no idea what happened to parts i and ii and, frankly, I’m not at all sure that I care) would have been best served by being left alone in the first place. Wherever it came from, it didn’t deserve it.
One thing that did strike me quite forcibly about some of Auden’s work is that it reads just as well if you do so from bottom to top. Try it with his poem ‘August 1968’. It is remarkable; it makes just as much sense backwards. If that was deliberate***, I take it all back. The man was some kind of genius.
I was always aware of the fact that I was reading an anthology which carried with it the possibility that I was missing out on the ‘good stuff’ – this one contains none of his ‘long poems’ thankfully – and that, therefore, I was not getting the full picture, but if this was Auden’s ‘Match of the Day’, I certainly had no desire to watch the full game. Maybe I do him a grave injustice. Will I read more to find out? Almost certainly not: I am sixty-two years of age and the world is full of chocolate, wine and peanuts…
*Getting Dressed – which is about getting dressed. I have searched for a deeper meaning but to no avail. If it exists, it must be down one of the lead mines that he apparently loved so much. I looked up Skua hoping for some insight. It is a seabird renowned for its prolific production of guano.
**Definitely not intelligence.