Sunday, 21 October 2012

He is John Ashbery

He gets so worked up about what takes a long time to work out.
He walks off the stage when it gets dull.
He looks around for the record player.
He has put in at least ten thousand hours.
He sends a poem called 'The Prelude’ to a New York editor, with a covering note.
He remembers the road down to the beach in autumn.
He inspires people to send mail, sometimes more than once.
He inspires tributes.
He is an American poet.
He has been under an influence that he didn’t understand.
He has been under the influence.
He is an attraction, which wasn’t always the case.
He is an inspiration to many Australian poets.
He influences the writing of other poems.
He is addressed.
He is in some way neither in nor out of control.
He rarely stoops to et cetera.
He is previously published, which is an advantage.
He is in book form.
He gets the okay from his publisher.
He is possible.
He doesn’t worry about acknowledgments.
He is at this stage, though this will probably change, thinking of going for a walk.
He, though this will probably change, is besotted with Czech timing.
He, in midstream, will tell himself to shut up.
He will probably change, not always for the better.
He will ask for them to make decisions, and when.
He hasn’t made any decisions himself since waking up, or breakfast.
He asks for yet another extension.
He is still at the accumulation stage.
He says no with a certain finality.
He isn’t dead.
He’d like to finish the project while he’s alive.
He says yes and when he does you want to be ready.
He is thought to be a monolith.
He is available for engagements, enquiries through his agent on the website.
He went through a dark patch.
He has made some lulus.
He survived the bubble.
He prints on demand.
He avoids use of the word ‘therefore’ as much as possible.
He is resigned to the idea that there will be no payment.
He writes poems of grandeur, poems of limited scope, poems that peter out.
He keeps his contributor copies in a special place, hard to say why.
He will endeavour, again.
He provides a cheap alternative to the stuff with no commas.
He comes at a price, however.
He is pleased with the results of the installation soundtrack.
He feels free.
He wishes to pass this only example of its kind to the gods.
He has a strong visual connection.
He did concrete work but kept it in the file back home, where it remains.
He is welcome at the table.
He presents in black & white only.
He asks what format to send it in.
He thinks, why can’t they work that out themselves?
He sends texts.
He is as they say ahead of his time.
He laughs at the deadline.
He uses days like February 14th to get started.
He is especially interested in the trick questions.
He wrote a sestina about fog.
He wrote a pantoum about the Atlantic Ocean.
He sends as much as he likes to the cutting floor.
He would like at this stage to bury the hatchet.
He mumbles thanks.

Saturday, 13 October 2012


What is the comparative of prolific?

John Kinsella, in this latest extension of his “counter-pastoral” project (The Hierarchy of Sheep, Fremantle Arts Centre Press 1-86368-315-1 85pp) manages a tricky balancing act between the extreme givens of the bush and the fashions of art gallery and English Department. A belligerent posturing is implicit in Kinsella’s term, while there is only so far a poet can be anti-Georgics or extra-Georgics or post-Georgics before the game becomes exhausted or obvious. Nevertheless,  “counter-pastoral” is an extended essay that takes the Pastoral concerns and illusoriness of ancient and 18th century Europe and tests them against our own realities: environmental degradation, both random and systematic destruction of nature by humans, and a seeming indifference on the part of many Australians to do anything about these things. In the midst of this, at least one vital concern ties us to those earlier Augustan times: livability. At or just below the surface of Kinsella’s poetry run questions such as, what is it to live? how do we live well? how can we live with this? is this the best way to live?

A lead to this condition of anxiety within nature is presented in the opening poem, ‘Adaptation’:

The chemical body
shielded by foliage
plays havoc with the seasonal
turnaround, the adaptational
quirks of vampire finches
on a small island
of the Galapagos

Charles Darwin’s inheritance informs the syntactic shifts, permeates the general contents and dominates the meaning. Pastoral is asking for it and Kinsella has merciless fun borrowing its antique gambits for own his purposes. Gambling with gambolling, one might say. Indeed, it could be said, what else would you expect! Kinsella cuts clear beyond irony in his use of pastoral antecedents which are phony or unsatisfactory models. His phrase “the grim idyll of the interior” is an adequate indicator of this poetry’s preoccupations; it also exposes a dilemma at the heart of Kinsella’s work. After all, an idyll that is grim is still an idyll. The most intensely descriptive and relentless passages usually deal with violence in nature and human ingenuity at stuffing things up. This poet’s absorption with grimness can  be read as a late romantic fascination rather than genuine disturbance or horror. Consider the poem title ‘Cut in Half by a Sheet of Corrugated Iron Ripped from a Shed by a Strong Wind’, with its offhand final remark; “...didn’t know what hit him.”

Intended or not, the result is a rich evocation of death within nature, with no escape. The drive of the language, its sense of inevitability, can be seriously at odds with the political moral that is the unwritten centre of the poem. One is reminded of Philip Hodgins’ dire dictum that all poetry is about death. Determined field notes on the actions of nature (“where THE LAND does its urge thing”) use a language that talks over the top of itself, frantic to include the full catastrophe. Nature is the reality that is more prolific. Just as the poems burst forth with recognizable natural achievements, so also they contain the signs of their own transience and decay. Over and over Kinsella displays these changes. Intrinsic to the poems’ success is the acknowledgement of what any “success” in nature inevitably implies; it is quickly observable how often words like ‘falling’ and ‘failing’ show up in the rearguard actions of his poetry.

Before such reality, the cultural world of cities looks uncertain and insubstantial. The future is very uncertain when it’s a grim idyll. Inside dangerous nature we come face to face with humans. Kinsella’s world is populated with wife-beaters, drug-crazed country hoons, corrupt politicians, business sharks, hardened farmers, mindless hedonists, bigots and low life. Sometimes they are portrayed satirically to the point of uncomfortable farce (e.g. ‘Killing the World’), other times with a keen eye to their cruelty, shallowness or, just occasionally, achieved self-awareness. In such company it is a relief to meet Mikhail Bakhtin, Kevin Hart or some other conveyor of civilization, their names prefacing the poems or laced through the lines via the preferred Kinsella strategy of exposing his sources in the art itself. Who Kinsella feels more comfortable amongst remains an open question.

So where do we locate the salve to this callousness of conditions and events? We are led  to the conclusion that heartlessness and random destruction might well be the main themes, means and ends to the situations he depicts. Clues elsewhere in the work to possible solutions, visions or even just escapes from this inevitability, are not so readily identifiable. Nearly every poem has what was referred to earlier as one kind or other of political moral as its unstated centre of gravity. Poetic alliances between the aesthetic and the political can leave the reader with divided allegiances. The superb presentation of, say, collapsed land or some unlikeable hothead, is a valuable asset, while the futility the poems engender before such facts leave one exasperated. A powerful evocation of crisis is nevertheless achieved, the possibility of positive change left hanging. “...Progress a lie, we are / encircled and never/ get free however the day / strains and fails...” (‘Parallels’) The extent of our tolerance and awareness, social questions that reach down into our own  personal well-being - what can be described broadly as livability - are the wellspring that saves Kinsella’s work from indulgence, indifference or some form of ethical despair. This same value of livability gives meaningful purpose to an existence and a world that would otherwise be little more than unavoidable torture.

That said, there is much to enjoy in Kinsella’s varied display. A subversive humour is evident from the outset in the very title of the book, for what creatures are less hierarchical than those woolly-heads that follow one another into the wrong corner of the paddock? It’s the humans who invent the jokes; Dolly the clone is close by in his ovine sequence. We also later learn that it is tame lambs that are lowest in the hierarchy, being the first to get killed. Kinsella shares Hodgins’ laconic bush wit in the two-line poem ‘Rainwater Tank’:

Half full in winter
Half empty in summer
raising the question, why laconicism, that specialty of Australian speech, has not been cultivated more as a form. There’s a lot of it around. Mind you, once cultivated, is it still laconicism?

Kinsella’s clear talent for borrowing voices is most explicit in his loving mimicry of John Forbes’ delivery in poems dedicated to that poet:

The interior fights back
like the inoculated rabbit
in the Flinders Ranges
as you watch an adult movie
just to find that it doesn’t
do the trick, despite a view
from the hotel window
out over the sweeping coast,
and summer fashions
in the bar that might be
pure Sydney.

In fact, Kinsella’s sheer diversity of voices and prosodic skills are a treat. There is no let-up. Here as elsewhere we can enjoy for its own sake a masterful use of the colloquial, as in his short play written entirely in hilariously convincing rhyming couplets:

Well, I’d like to get some shooting in,
I’ve had enough of this fucking wheat bin.

His exuberant interplay of scientific and artworld language, literary reference and jargon keep us ever on the alert, and even more so his sudden compression of a philosophy or a state of being into a few words as, for example, where he ends an unsettling coverage of a Perth sunset with the line: “Darkness intensifies, forcing biographies.”

This review first appeared in the Australian Book Review in 2001

A Local Habitation

A Local Habitation: Poems and Homilies, by Peter Steele. Edited by Sean Burke. Newman College. $39.95 hb, 168 pp, 9780734041708

Once in a seminar long ago I heard Peter Steele quote one of the more disagreeable opinions of Winston Churchill, noting that Churchill was allowed to say such things ‘because he was Churchill.’ This Churchillian self-definition, or certitude, or authority, or prowess, animates much of Peter Steele’s writings: Steele says this because he is Steele. Nor does he need to be disagreeable to do so.

Importantly in the context, we need to balance this with another quote he used once in lectures, this time from the mouth of Benito Mussolini: ‘I have extinguished in myself all egoisms!’ Steele assumed, correctly, that his students would grasp the ludicrous pomposity of Il Duce, someone somewhat lacking in self-awareness. A second message though was that the ego is loose in the world, not least amongst writers, and what shall be done with it?  One answer is literature.

‘For the canting psychopath flaunting a lousy haircut, / books in flames were just a beginning,’ he writes of another person from that era, thereby finding good reason to persist with literature, for all its egoisms:

                                  And if,
As we know, most of us, courtesy of the pages
       Retrieved from rags or the skins of beasts
Or sodden or beaten reeds, the hectoring killer,
       has comrades of a kind, the soul
hangs at times between hope and despair, language
       bringing its wounded self before us
to say that words are mummery in the face
       of the sword and the drone: and yet, and yet
            we know and they do not.

(‘Reveries in Lygon Street’)

A child of the Second World War was brought up to remember his debts. These agreeable pages are full of what Steele knows, put out there that we might catch on.

Debt is frequently the secret behind a poem. The primary sequence of poems here are sonnets based on Gospel verses, kind of little miracle plays that capture drama and signal beatitude. For those who are seasoned in the tough terms of these texts, Steele rewards with new angles. He is never more a companion than when pointing us down some road less travelled.  He concludes a poem about the Passion, which he has the audacity to call ‘moron time’, with a scene of domestic harmony: ‘Inside, the governor’s reasoning with his wife: / Dreams, as he knows, have nothing to do with life.’ But for those who are young to this sort of thing, Steele gives something new out of something old. For example, in ‘Taste’

His mother’s wisdom was to praise their food,
That benediction from the hand of God,
And so he found the coriander good
And blessed the little broad beans in the pod.

It is said of Peter Porter, that he never went to university, but gave everything he had back to it. Conversely, Steele used the university to give everything he could back to the world. This collegial behaviour is testament to the knowledge that one of the successful outcomes of a good education is an awareness of debt. Fortunately this means there is plenty of fun in this collection. He opens a poem to Porter with the line, ‘It’s florets of thought that take the palm’ and in an alphabet poem exclaims, ‘O, as we say, for a few olives more / To oil us and spoil us and open the door.’

Newman College is the name of the local habitation of the title. It is the residential college in Melbourne maintained by the Society of Jesus and the presiding genius of the book. The debt is mutual. We have many stylish photographs of the Griffins’ edifices, but more meaningfully, pictures of the residents: intelligent young women and wideawake young men, able scholars and wizened Jesuits. For this is his creative retreat, complete with its new library, one of those ‘inns for the mind on pilgrimage.’

The majority of the book contains one of the most under-published, if not precisely neglected, literary forms in Australian writing and I don’t mean poetry, but the sermon. This is curious when you consider that a goodly proportion of the population listen to them every week. Homilies are one of the oldest forms in English, predating the novel, and Steele understands the measure of time. He is studiously normative in his use of Gospel, reminding us that in the Infancy Narratives ‘the surprise starts when … people realize that the shepherds are not there with a yarn: they are there with a revelation.’ (Notice too the quizzical use of the word ‘yarn’ in that sentence.)

Everyone has their favourite preacher, someone with whom they feel spoken to, and it is easy to see why Steele is a favourite with many. He takes a common idea and puts it to the test. He homes down to his own short sayings. ‘Life’s retort against death is birth.’ ‘Whoever or whatever commands our time, does in effect command us.’ ‘God not only broke the mould when he made each one of us: he broke the palette.’ ‘What’s not to like about rainbows?’

Of course, the homily is made for community, not just the ideal reader. Erudition plays second fiddle to clear message. Obscurity in a homily is as unacceptable as posturing or a grand leap. How blessed is Steele to have a bright congregation, ready for his gravitas and levitas.

Debt has been another way of explaining what is meant by that unpopular idea, sin. It means we owe things to others – an apology, a recognition, an introduction – and see others’ debts more quickly than we want to know our own. The homilist stands midway between the personal reparation that begins the Mass and the shared meal that is its purpose. Steele’s homilies frequently enact in words this liturgical movement, opening with recognition of the broken world and our own brokenness and proceeding at the conclusion toward an affirmation of the eucharistic act. It is a tidy device, evidence of long experience in that deliberative space. Good homilies move in the present, whatever they may memorialise or foreshadow. There are things here the reader will return to.

W. H. Auden enjoyed quoting this Jamaican riddle: ‘And smart as little Tommie be, one man kill the whole world – Mr. Debt.’ Despite the abundant praise of life and place and person, even because of it, this book has a certain elegiac air. Its existence is a reminder that seventy is a good biblical number.  But repeatedly, sometimes extravagantly, Steele is trying to show in this book what can be done in a short space. Another of his near-idols, Jonathan Swift, held the view that all people are either fools or knaves. Swift felt it important that he be remembered as a fool, not a knave, and it must be observed how often in Steele’s poetry and homilies he turns good-humouredly, perhaps wisely, to forms of human folly. In the opening poem he even seems to identify directly with ‘the christian fool … charged as ever / with making out the vestiges of glory.’ This is a self-reckoning at some fair distance from the knavish world leaders of his infancy.

Friday, 5 October 2012

God is your Next-Door Neighbour

The mesmerising, magniloquent poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke continues to exert its almost religious influence over readers. Rilke makes an entire world of meaning out of a personal vision, using religious language and images.

The very valuable and, in my view, main achievement of this book (In the company of Rilke : why a 20th-century visionary poet speaks so eloquently to 21st-century readers yearning for inwardness, beauty & spiritual connection, Stephanie Dowrick, Allen & Unwin, 2009, ISBN 978-1-74237-180-1, RRP) is its description and commendation of the reading of poetry as a satisfying and necessary practice, available to anyone. Stephanie Dowrick identifies Rilke as gifted with ‘negative capability’. I know of several interpretations of what Keats meant by ‘negative capability’, and Dowrick herself definitely fits one of them: the ability to objectify in words her own experiences. In this case, Dowrick’s experience of reading poetry.

Poetry, its intimacy, its immediacy and intensity, its “irrational truths”, are encountered, examined and praised. Dowrick is also good on translation and what languages owe to one another, that translation is a serious reciprocal arrangement. This takes on special force in her discussion of Rilke’s use of Das Offene, where she argues persuasively for the English word Open. Das Offene can mean the spaciousness of landscapes, but also the space or inner-world, the silent communal space that courses through all beings. His poems dwell on the inwardness of the soul, the inwardness that narrative and psychology cannot categorise.

In ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ Rilke famously exclaims. “You must change your life.” This is a fundamental challenge of the spiritual life and Dowrick, who has made it her career business to teach spiritual lessons, sees that “to change one’s life (one’s vision of life and therefore one’s living of it) is not a choice; it has become inevitable.”

She shows how “Rilke achieves a reaarangement of our usual concepts and limitations using a writing register that is far more often sensual and emotional than it is abstract.” Granted, Dowrick does not use his poetry as ‘scripture’, but her sustained seriousness can sometimes be too reverent. Though she acknowledges that the poet was himself open to irreverent treatment, when she quotes Auden’s brilliant depiction of Rilke as “The Santa Claus of Solitude”, we are left with the sense that Stephanie is not amused.

Rilke demands primarily an intuitive response: our responses force consciousness of our own inner world.

You darkness that I come from,
I love you more than the fire
that rings the world,
because it shines
only for a single orbit,
and of this creature knows nothing at all.

But the darkness holds everything together:
forms and flames, animals and myself,
all thrown together,
humans and powers –

and it could be that a great strength
moves all about me where I am.

I believe in nights.

Rilke is concentrated on God; Dowrick is fascinated with Rilke’s God. Like Meister Eckhart and other mystical writers before and since, Rilke finds new ways of talking about God.

You, Neighbour God, whom I often
rouse with loud knocks in the long nights,

I do this because I rarely hear you breathing,
and know: You are in the great room, alone.

And when you need something, no one’s there,
no one to bring drink to your outstretched hand.

The surprise of finding that God is your next-door neighbour, and that he needs you as much as you need him, is one reason why we go back to Rilke. Dowrick proceeds: “Rilke’s ‘God’ is … a vulnerable neighbour one moment, like a ‘clump of a hundred roots’ the next; ‘an ancient work of art’, then a much-needed ‘hand’, a cathedral, a dreamer. Absent here, breath-close there; as often in darkness as in light.” There is a need for popular conversations about God, however there is something frustratingly safe and certain in Dowrick’s theology that cannot go unmentioned. She persistently glosses over the problem of evil and suffering. And during discussion of Rilke’s idea that an artist’s “responsibility” is to create God, she makes the alarming assertion that “non-artists need religion; ‘God’ needs artists.” This exclusive view of God in relation to humans needs to be tested further by Dowrick, being an open invitation to all sorts of delusory behaviour. I would begin with the simple claim that artists and non-artists all need God, without distinction.

All said, this is a generous, purposive book that inspires as well as informs, showing how Rilke can “shift one’s boundaries and expectations about what writing can achieve” and even open “the exhilarating prospect of what reading, as much as writing, may be for.” Peter Steele said somewhere that, “the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina is precious indeed. There is also such a thing as lectio humana – a steeping of the soul in another soul, mediated by means of words in all their fragility and vitality.” This book is an example of lectio humana, where Stephanie Dowrick shows how poetry can be read, and how a poet like Rilke can be interpreted, with a resultant deepening of our lived experience and understanding.

First published in Eureka Street in 2009

Invisible yet Enduring Lilacs

Train overshoots Platform Three at Macleod Railway Station

To enter into the written world of Gerald Murnane is to see and hear methodical, tested sentences that take us into unpredictable places. Methodical but managed sentences, tested but spontaneous sentences that emulate the logic and illogic of the moving mind. Methodical and unrepetitious, for they act like lines of poetry, mood and meaning changing even when the same words are used.

These essays, fugitive or eremitical take your pick, have appeared over the past twenty years. (Gerald Murnane, Invisible yet enduring lilacs, Giramondo, $24.95, 225 p, 1-920882-09-X) They further accentuate the reader’s reliance on the imagination of Gerald Murnane. “I imagined that the house itself had been shipped many years before from Britain,” he writes. Most writers assume that their imagination is solidly before us in the work, but for Murnane his images are as essential and sensible as any reality he is constructing. Images are a first premise.

In the foreground is Murnane the writer, Murnane as a person in the act of writing, Murnane thinking about writing, writing down what he thinks while writing. Some of us will be familiar with his first person singular, its gambits and explorations. These essays share this trait to the point of intimacy. They provide insight into processes by which this personality has come to write such fiction. As he says, “I began to see that I was already well qualified to write about a young man who looked for strangeness beyond what seemed ordinary.” It is a described world that some find only idiosyncratic, but for others is entrancing, mobile, and particular.

Central concerns come into relief. One is the irretrievable past, to be salvaged in those fickle devices, words. Be it about Murnane’s father, a girl living in Hungary years ago, or even his own former selves, writing is bound with inexpressible loss. No wonder his favourite novelist is Marcel Proust. Try to trace the meaning of his intricate prose and invisible conjunctions and we find the trick of memory, the construction of a poetically effective entity, the connections between loss and discovery. Self is decisive. A favourite quote is from Rilke: “a world floating like an island in the ocean of the self.” His inner life of images leads to “a place in mind where I see together things that I might have expected to lie for ever apart.” This place, grasslands in an imagined America or Victorian Western District, is a merging of memories into what could be called sacred scenes in his life, that produce visions of peace. His replacement Catholicism shows its face. In the title essay, for example, grief, conflict and challenge are reconciled as Murnane draws together images of his father’s death with his first reading of ‘Combray’.

We find how vital Murnane’s family life is to the novels. This book is a primer for the real work of reading Murnane and is pleasurable at that level whether or not we are Murnane buffs. Relatives are referred to regularly in the context of formative experiences. This biographical information deepens our insight into the emotions that are their real themes: birth, courtship, paternity, death. Outward concerns circle around the divulging of a secret, shown in extremis in the death of Murnane’s younger brother in ‘Stream System’.

A unique gift can be blessing and hindrance. Murnane’s trust in his own voice and style gives us some superlative writings. At the same time, our involvement depends greatly on our following this very singular and authoritative voice wherever it goes. Our pleasure, our attention, and our patience are founded in our trust in the voice.

Likewise, his strong card, the use of the image, can also be a limitation. “What I call true fiction is fiction written by men and women not to tell the stories of their lives but to describe the images in their minds.” This is a penetrating, viable thesis about the sources of creativity, but it can quickly become doctrine and cannot fully explain the diversity of fiction. Also, though a useful guide into Murnane, who uses images as the pre-eminent form to achieve a special vision, this is true for Murnane precisely because it is his own artistic discovery, the genesis of his particular art.

What are these ‘grasslands’ that rise up between him and the place he thinks of? Is everything over there beyond reach? Is a childhood lived in Bendigo and Warrnambool likely to evoke such personal isolation? Are the ‘grasslands’ a protective zone between him and the world outside? The ‘grasslands’ of Murnane’s imagination are a plain and fertile place where both he and his readers may begin to explore the activities of inner imagination. Such a venture is worth our effort and these essays, evocative, entertaining and deeply felt, are a perfect introduction to places we arrive at as if for the first time.

Written in Macleod, December 2005

Otherwise than I had supposed it

When some cheese-headed ladder-climber reads
     A poem of mine from the rostrum,
Don’t listen. That girl in her jersey and beads,
     Second row from the front, has the original nostrum

I blundered through nine hundred parties and ninety-eight pubs
     In search of. The words are a totem
Erected long after for scholars and yobs
     Who’d make, if they could, a bicycle-seat of my scrotum.

(‘To Any Young Man who Hears my Verses Read in a Lecture Room’)

The person James Baxter has to thank for saving this gem from oblivion is a Wellington lecturer. Such a paradox would not have been lost on a poet who spent his life at war with the powers of this world and who made his own rough peace with them, when he could. Baxter wrote much scurrilous verse about universities while relying on their patronage. He bent Catholic dogma inside out while running a commune with church blessing. He attacked bourgeois mores in book after book, depending on that same bourgeoisie for sales. Yeats was a distinct early influence and Baxter would have known that ‘we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’ Baxter’s wife, the poet Jacqueline Sturm, probably got closest in her poem ‘Coming Home’: ‘That tormented paradoxical man / Father of my children / Convinced me we belonged together / But then moved on.’

That the poet owns to being some one who blundered is just one of his irritating, seductive traits. Baxter was a man who made a public stance of his strengths and weaknesses. Bill Manhire’s early impression was of ‘an enchanter figure’ who ‘lived and played the part.’ This self-mythologisation is an inheritance that New Zealanders continue to wrestle with. Do we want it or don’t we? What does it say about us that this is our voice? Only this year yet another dramatic theatre piece about the man toured the country, an amalgam of readings and music, entitled simply Baxter. This certainty/uncertainty about his place in the national life may explain the silence that has surrounded him over the past twenty years and may be good reason for having an essential text for teaching purposes to help new readers find ready access. If nothing else, this New Selected (James K. Baxter. New Selected Poems Edited by Paul Millar OUP, A$36.95 NZ$42.95, 294 pp, 0 19 558429 5) satisfies that need, one not so well-served by the mammoth Collected Poems of 1980.

Arranged in two sections that might loosely be headed canonical and extra-canonical, this selection delineates maturity and mastery. Early indebtedness to MacNeice and Dylan Thomas (‘To wave and bird I open wide / The bible of my rimrock days, / To salt-grey ngaio boughs that cross / The forehead of the west’) is superseded by a linguistic richness and strength drawing on English sources from all periods. More important still is the felicitous detail (often enough, happily infelicitous) that can only be explained as pure Baxter. Take ‘Wellington’, for example, from 1962:

Otherwise than I had supposed it - ‘A grey town’, they said;

But I found instead a grid of coffee bars
On which the young, my friends, bake bread
Out of invisible stones. The hills too are young,
Bush triangles in their groins. But the old notice a black noose hung
Between monotonous pavements and the inexplicable stars.

Like others caught up in the confession mania of the Sixties, much of Baxter’s meaning depends on biography. For those who came in late the editor supplies a useful plot outline, but after that it gets hairy. The poetry expresses the progress: mother nature’s son, heroic boozer, womanising Jeremiah, barefoot holy man. By the time of the great journal cycles, e.g. ‘Pig Island Letters’ and ‘Jerusalem Sonnets’, Baxter has not only perfected the forms till they are seamless, he has moved beyond their strictures. Not imitation but transformation. The fire in the belly takes precedence over style wars. This is the acid test for readers of Baxter, this mass of original cycles, by turns profound and controlled, indulgent and sloppy. The one weakness with the selection is the break-up of the cycles, leaving the novice with insufficient clue to their direction or true magnitude. The republication of ‘Autumn Testament’ (OUP, 1997) is a good sign that could be repeated with other of his long poems.

A problem for Baxter is that he is surrounded by the egregious language of superlatives: ‘foremost’, ‘major’, ‘unparalleled’. Superlatives do not help us to explain the amazing amount of overindulgence, as well as rambling flatness, in his work. Hearing the voice is one of our best aids to picking emphases and in some Baxter one feels that only the man and the occasion made these words cohere. The poetry is infamously various in style and standard, though even the bad has the allure that comes from an original position expressed fairly and passionately.

Neither do superlatives assist someone to reach a poet whose credal statements include, ‘...I was a New Zealander / And therefore Man Alone.’ Especially at the end of his short life, Baxter’s central subjects of poverty and humility are compromised by such big talk, especially considering his evident belief that the virtues could be exemplified through the poetry. Baxter’s expectations were very different from his eulogists; he constantly twists away from any received idea about his role. Also, this established image of the non-conformist actually distracts us from much important questions about how New Zealand produced such a literary figure. What do we make of Baxter’s identification with the prophetic tradition of Te Whiti? And with the pacifism of his own parents? What kind of Catholicism did he preach? And was it more than identification with yet another minority culture within New Zealand? How much calculation was there in his different martyr positions? How many audiences was he addressing? Baxter is anything but ‘Man Alone’ and his motivations for the sake of his people carry more weight than critical boosts. His poetry continues to open up these and other questions.

A final, very good, reason for having some Baxter at home becomes apparent when reading the recent spate of New Zealand anthologies. Baxter is obviously responsible for many of the changes in New Zealand poetry since his death in 1972. The charmed New Zealand confidence with the conversational mode, for example, is deeply indebted to Baxter’s experiments with cadence and natural voice. His adventures with Maori-Pakeha macaronics, not all equally successful mind you, are a sound basis for much bicultural literature that has followed. And more than any other poet, it is Baxter who showed the next generation how to let it all hang out. His social and political ballads, of which there are a preponderance here, are the undoubted forerunner of today’s performance poetry. Very entertaining, packed with the bizarre and indecent. Both as an introduction and as a set text for students, this selection brings us close up to a mercurial poetry written by a tribal fringe dweller who, nevertheless, symbolises awkward, if not at times plain nasty, truths about New Zealand and our own consumer culture.

This review first appeared in the Australian Book Review in 2005

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Auden's Rediscovery of Christianity

 W. H Auden's Typewriter

A paper by Philip Harvey given at a seminar on the poet W.H. Auden, as part of a joint presentation with Dr William Johnston at the Institute for Spiritual Studies, St. Peter's Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, on Wednesday the 6th of April 2011.


1.    The Master of Versification

W. H. Auden (1907-1973) clearly had the view that a poet, especially a great poet and he was only interested in being a great poet, had to have command of all the poetic forms. When we open the Collected Works we find every imaginable form of poem.

There is the villanelle or pantoum:

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

There is the limerick:

As the poets have mournfully sung,
Death takes the innocent young,     
        The rolling in money,
        The screamingly funny,
And those who are very well hung.

Later in life Auden turned his view about forms into promotion. He would instruct younger poets to learn the forms as the basis of their craft, and we should remember that he is doing this at a time in English when free verse and free expression had become rapidly the norm, e.g the Beats. When someone would mention to him some obscure oriental form of poem that he was unfamiliar with it would make him grumpy because (1) he should have known about this form already and (2) he hadn’t yet written a poem in this form, so was not living up to his own expectations.

There is the haiku:

His thoughts pottered
From verses to sex to God
Without punctuation.

There is the medieval Welsh form the cywydd:

Among the leaves the small birds sing;
The crow of the cock commands awaking;
In solitude, for company.

Bright shines the sun on creatures mortal;
Men of their neighbours become sensible;
In solitude, for company.

It is difficult to say where Auden got this idea, that poets had to write in every form. Although all poets have Shakespeare breathing down their neck and Shakespeare was a marvel with the forms, it is a test to find any poet before Auden for whom mastery of all the forms is not just clever but a requirement. We think of Hardy and Browning, we think of Arnold and Keats, all of whom wanted to break from the 18th century chains of the couplet. But it does seem that Auden is new and his effect since in getting poets to think in terms of the multiform has been huge.

There is the ode:

                Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
        Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

There is the clerihew:

Lord Byron
Once succumbed to a Siren:
His flesh was weak,
Hers Greek.

When the young Kant
Was told to kiss his aunt,
He obeyed the Categorical Must,
But only just.

Luther & Zwingli
Should be treated singly:
L hated the Peasants,
Z the Real Presence.

Had the habit as a teacher
Of cracking his joints
To emphasize his points.

Here are some reasons for Auden’s ‘thing’ about being a master of versification. First, poetry for Auden is a hoot. It is a schoolboy game. It is about how many ways a schoolboy can say different things in different ways. Second, poems are, as he says in one piece, “extensions of his power to charm.” Third, Auden was a great great reader and an anthologist. What I mean is, he didn’t just read everything, when it was poetry he saw a form and had to have a go at it.  This happens when a literature is very rich and diverse and long. Auden looks into the literature and must imitate all of it. In this way he joins the society of writers, he writes himself into their history.

There is the couplet:

The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
There lies the body half-undressed
We all had reason to detest,
And all are suspects and involved
Until the mystery is solved
And under lock and key the cause
That makes a nonsense of our laws.

One last consideration is how amazingly Auden takes forms and does something new with them. He makes quantum leaps of imagination and this is a main reason why Auden continues to have a big following, is read in preference to many of his peers. He is the master of surprise. He makes unexpected connections of idea and verse form that always prove to be just right.

There is the riposte:

Contra Blake
[The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom]

The Road of Excess
leads, more often than not, to
The Slough of Despond.

There is the elegy, with here lines to Freud:     

When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
       to the critique of a whole epoch
   the frailty of our conscience and anguish,

of whom shall we speak? For every day they die
among us, those who were doing us some good,
       who knew it was never enough but
   hoped to improve a little by living.

2. England and the United States

When we talk about the English Auden we are talking about the 1930s. We are talking about an amazing outpouring of sometimes very challenging verbal objects. Auden was a prodigy.  From his early twenties he is making poetry that doesn’t sound like anything else:

We honour founders of these starving cities
Whose honour is the image of our sorrow,
Which cannot see its likeness in their sorrow
That brought them desperate to the brink of valleys;
Dreaming of evening walks through learned cities
They reined their violent horses on the mountains,
Those fields like ships to castaways on islands,
Visions of green to them who craved for water.

He writes of landscapes that are troubled, populated with looming and doomed humans often playing out indeterminate roles. While someone might like to call this nature poetry, the country and its inhabitants are uneasy. Past and future are unresolved.

As well as being spectacular virtuoso performances, witness the enduring delight of Letter to Lord Byron, right from the start Auden also is running counter to many of the established traditions of English poetry, or using them in new ways.

The poet, like many in the 1930s, discovered psychoanalysis and took it upon himself to be a psychoanalyst. He would analyse his friends and colleagues, so for example when he had worked out how Benjamin Britten ticked he not only told Britten in direct language, but then gave advice based on this scintillating and insightful knowledge as to how Britten should behave in future. Whatever the accuracy or truth of Auden’s case study, we see this as one of the causes in the breakdown of relations between Auden and Britten. Is it any wonder? But when Auden transfers this propensity for psychoanalysis to society in general and through the poetry, very interesting things happen. He gave to us, for example, the definition of the 1930s as The Age of Anxiety.

Auden is restless. He whoops it up in Berlin. He visits Iceland to explore an ancestry that may or may not be verifiable. He goes to Spain to assist the republicans but departs unconvinced and dismayed. He travels to China with Christopher Isherwood, ostensibly to write journalism. While on the way he stops off in Egypt. He writes this sonnet:

The Sphinx

Did it once issue from the carver’s hand
Healthy? Even the earliest conqueror saw
The face of a sick ape, a bandaged paw,
An ailing lion crouched on dirty sand.

We gape, then go uneasily away:
It does not like the young nor love nor learning.
Time hurt it like a person: it lies turning
A vast behind on shrill America,

And witnesses. The huge hurt face accuses
And pardons nothing, least of all success:
What counsel it might offer it refuses
To those who face akimbo its distress.

“Do people like me?” No. The slave amuses
The lion. “Am I to suffer always?” Yes.

Much has been said about why Auden went with Isherwood in 1939 to live in America. When we look at his activities up until that time several facts are prominent. Auden cannot settle in England. He is out of love. He lives at odds with many of the mores of respectable English society. On the one hand he is extremely popular with many of those he comes into contact with, on the other hand he is unhappy and England is one of the sources of that unhappiness. He is too familiar with the institutions of England, he knows them too well. He carries his own wound. He is restless for new found lands. When it comes to his first duty and vocation, the English language, the choice elsewhere is obvious: New York City.

We shall never know what he would have done or written if he had stayed in England, but we do know what he wrote when he went to America. Much of his time is spent looking across the Atlantic at the unfolding catastrophe of war and social disintegration. Much of his poetry in the next few years is wrapped up in the very same analysis of the illnesses of society that lead to such devastation. Here, for example, is part of a song sometimes titled ‘Refugee Blues’, which ought to be required reading in all schools and customs departments today. It starts:

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

And the song concludes:

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

   3. Auden’s Rediscovery of Christianity

Writing in 1956, Auden recalled his English upbringing: “The atmosphere of my home was, I should say, unusually devout, though not in the least repressive or gloomy. My parents were Anglo-Catholics, so that my first religious memories are of exciting magical rites (at six I was a boatboy) rather than of listening to sermons. For this I am very grateful, as it implanted in me what I believe to be the correct notion of worship, namely, that it is first and foremost a community in action, a thing done together, and only secondarily a matter of individual feeling or thinking.

“It so happened that the bishop of our diocese was an extreme modernist who refused to visit the church we attended; consequently I was accustomed from my earliest years to doctrinal and liturgical controversy. Dissenters and Low Churchmen were known as ‘Prots’ and accused of squatting instead of kneeling; on the other hand, a firm line was drawn between ‘Devotions’, which were all right, and ‘Benediction’, which was definitely over the Roman border. I grew up, therefore, with a conception of the Church which is, I suppose, uniquely Anglican, as a community in which wide divergences of doctrine and rite can and do exist without leading necessarily to schism or excommunication.”

Readers of Auden too often overlook or do not properly appreciate his lifelong relationship to the Anglican Church. For those familiar with Anglo-Catholic practice the image of Auden as a boatboy says a great deal: he is an important in fact unique part of the action but he knows he is just one part of the action. For Auden religion is cultural and deeply engaged. It is about community, everybody is doing it and everybody has a proper sense of what they are on about. It is a secure world and special, to be respected. Indeed, it is so secure that he can leave it and come back to it just as he feels. From his youth and through his twenties this is exactly what happened. He lost interest in religion and took up all sorts of new causes, including Marxism and Freudian psychology. The passage above shows that Auden’s religious understanding is already formed long before the personal crisis of 1940-41 that led to his conversion and consequent dedication to Christianity. He owns a developed sense of liturgy and church music that he keeps for his whole life. He is well aware of religious difference but is tolerant and very certain of his own grounding.

Auden recounts that before he went to New York in 1939 he had already had experiences of holiness felt in the presence of other people. He talks about these encounters as moments where he felt “transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving.” Auden is saying that he sees the Holy Spirit at work in people.

When he goes to Spain during the Civil War he is shocked to see that all the churches are closed and there are no clergy in sight. He is shocked and disturbed by this and cannot dismiss it as “a mere liberal dislike of intolerance, the notion that it is wrong to stop people from doing what they like, even if it is something silly like going to church.” He discovers that church is important to him, even if he cannot say why. This experience is related to a much bigger reality in Europe at the time, fascism.

The United States is a very religious country with many churches. It can be observed that Auden escapes his English world when he goes to New York, but the one English thing he doesn’t give up is his religion. And of all the possibilities on offer, he rediscovers his Anglicanism in New York. It is here, in the Episcopal Church and in the company of such mighty Protestant theologians as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, that Auden attains positions about Christianity that can respond to the fascists who make a mockery of justice, liberty, and love of neighbour. He needs to find answers to the barbarous indifference and cruelty of fascism and finds, not without some surprise in fact, that the answer is in Christianity.

The other historical situation that moves Auden into conversion is personal. Auden is someone with a deep need for love, affirmation and personal lifelong companionship. The person with whom he believes he has a found this relationship betrays him, leaving him not just devastated but prone to demonic and destructive forces. How to deal with those forces inside him is something he knows he must learn.

In literary terms, Auden’s take on Christian teaching and practice can be seen everywhere in his work. The Australian poet Peter Porter thought Auden was the tops but was always troubled by his religion. Late in life Porter would say that Auden didn’t really believe in God but that he thought God was a good idea. This opinion tells us more about Porter than Auden and reminds us that many of Auden’s greatest fans remain uncomfortable with Auden’s Christianity.

Theologically, Auden became unquestionably Nicene, to the degree that he loved to play spot-the-heresy when confronted with any new theory about anything. But Auden also said that doctrines of the church are like shaggy dog stories and that you miss the point as soon as you go into too much analysis. Auden endorsed Dietrich Bonhoeffer's line: "We ought not to try and be more religious than God Himself."

He also liked to quote Bonhoeffer to this effect: “There is always a danger of intense love destroying the ‘polyphony’ of life. What I mean is that we should love God eternally with our whole hearts, yet not so as to compromise or diminish our earthly affections, but as a kind of cantus fermus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. Earthly affection is one of those contrapuntal themes, a theme which enjoys an autonomy of its own." We can see why this musical analogy for love in its different forms would appeal to Auden. Bonhoeffer is affirming the love we have for one another, including erotic love, as distinct from but completely part of and intelligible through our love of God.

A theological view that seems also to be a powerful rebuke to too much theology is this line of Ferdinand Ebner’s, often quoted by Auden: “To talk about God, except in the context of prayer, is to take His name in vain.”

Another view of the religion that I would ascribe to an Anglican sensibility comes in a sermon given in Westminster Abbey in 1966, where Auden says: "Those of us who have the nerve to call ourselves Christians will do well to be extremely reticent on this subject. Indeed, it is almost the definition of a Christian that he is somebody who knows he isn't one, either in faith or morals....Where faith is concerned, very few of us have the right to say more than -- to vary a saying of Simone Weil's -- I believe in a God who is like the True God in everything except that he does not exist, for I have not yet reached the point where God exists." His view that, in effect, no one can be a Christian (it’s too difficult, if not indeed impossible to be like Christ) and that we can only try to be more and more Christian, is a very useful key when reading much of Auden’s poetry.

Auden too would have come to identify with Samuel Johnson’s saying: "To be of no church is dangerous. Religion, of which the rewards are distant, and which is animated only by faith and hope, will glide by degrees out of the mind unless it be invigorated and reimpressed by external ordinances, by stated calls to worship, and the salutary influence of example." For thirty-three years, starting with his ‘rediscovery’ of Christianity, Auden attended High Church worship, mainly at his Episcopal parish church of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery, New York City. He once said that “The truth is Catholic, but the search for it is Protestant.” It is difficult to imagine a Roman Catholic expressing this view, and not that many Protestants either; but it is perfectly possible to imagine an Anglican seeing this as a ground rule. Furthermore, a position that is at once based in a common, agreed certainty while permitting a constant searching after the truth explains a great deal about the great intellectual impetus, range and originality of Auden’s poetry.

4.    Bohemianism versus Bourgeois Domesticity

When Auden goes to New York he lives what would be called a bohemian lifestyle. He shares a house with people like the striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, the musician Benjamin Britten, the writers Carson MacCullers, Richard Wright, Paul and Jane Bowles. What a crowd! Certainly his domestic situation by all reports was chaotic, with a kitchen full of unwashed plates and utensils, and rooms piled high with books and papers. He is also part of what today we would call the gay scene, with all the campery behaviour and necessary special social codes that went with that territory. It is an adult world and a long way from England. He encourages in others the breaking of restraints that harm and limit creativity or that bring psychological damage. He goes to Ischia in the Mediterranean to extend this frantic playful existence of sensuality and literary effervescence.

Auden’s take on Christian teaching and practice can be seen everywhere in his work. ‘Horae Canonicae’ is one of the most overt testaments to his beliefs. Auden knew that the canonical hours are explicit in the arrangement of The Book of Common Prayer, yet his title reminds us that we are talking about the Breviary of the Divine Office, used in its Latin form since at least the time of St. Benedict (6th cent.). By the 1950s Auden needs more than ever routine and stability in order to get the work done. He starts making pronouncements about how “Bohemia won’t do, my dear.” By the time he leaves Ischia to buy a house in the Austrian town of Kirchstetten near Vienna, he has established a daily life that is even more time-conscious than a Benedictine’s. So that in Auden, both in the life and the work, we must be aware in him of strong but contradictory forces: between bohemianism on the one hand and bourgeois domesticity on the other; between the desire to shock and surprise on one side and the desire for respectability and general social acceptance on the other; between what is counter-cultural and original even dangerous on the one hand and what is culturally normative, traditional and even cosy on the other hand.

The poems in ‘Horae Canonicae’ are about ordering the day. They also state that in any day we are both alone and together in the process of living. Dailiness has become accepted, even dailiness that must of very necessity involve the witness to sacrifice and loss. Auden recognises in the Hours of the Benedictines the structure that humans must put on their existence to make it liveable and meaningful.

5.    Auden in old age

When I was growing up it was thought that middle age was 35 years old, but this seems to have changed in the past couple of decades and is now more like 55. This is worth keeping in mind when we consider that Auden died in old age at 63 years. What is old age?
In the last ten years or so of his life we see a deepening of what for Auden is a matter of supreme interest: we are all individual humans, our own persons. He tries for completer expression of what it is to be human. Here I want to warn against the idea that this is just some effort at celebrating our ‘common humanity’. He is not interested in such platitudes. He is interested in how it is we are human and how we can, through our own wills, become less human or more human. He has learnt how easy it can be for others to become fascist, how easy it is for people not to question such things. He had to find another way. He keenly studies new discoveries – scientific, technological, psychological, neurological, literary – and asks, what does this mean for being human? The results are poetry.

Unpredictably, decades ago, You arrived
Among that unending cascade of creatures spewed
From Nature’s maw. A random event, says Science.
Random my bottom! A true miracle, say I,
For who is not certain that he was meant to be?
As You augmented and developed a profile,
I looked at Your looks askance. His architecture
Should have been much more imposing: I’ve been let down!
By now, though, I’ve gotten used to Your proportions
And, all things considered, I might have fared far worse.

When we read poetry we want to know what it means, but this is not the most important question. What we have to ask is, why was this written? Where is this coming from? How does it speak? How does it speak to me? The lines I have just quoted from ‘Talking to Myself’ enact a monologue the poet is having with his own body. With Auden I think a root cause of poetry is this desire to understand how God’s creatures love and understand themselves and the world. We can be sure he is not a Manichean: in another poem of this period he discusses with fascination all the microbes that his body keeps alive and that keep him alive. When he studies his ageing flesh he is fascinated by all the good that it can do, by the fact that each of us lives as a self inside this amazing human form.

If for Auden one of the main tasks in life is to love our neighbours as ourselves, then understanding better who our neighbours are is an important exercise. He wishes to share his findings with the rest of us.

In the last years Auden lives an increasingly lonely life. His lifelong partner Chester Kallman stays most of the time in Europe when Auden is in New York. Auden writes poems about the mice he befriends in his New York flat. For me, one of the signs of this isolation in the writing is the excited use of obscure English words that he fishes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which was in a permanent place before him in the room wherever he wrote poetry. 

Every decade of the 20th century was one of great cultural change. Those biographers who write about Auden in the 1960s lived through it and choose to see him as out of step with the times, lost in the new world of personal freedom and excess. Whereas I think that Auden was a contemporary, a vital and important presence in the period. But curiously, when we turn to the main theme of this paper it’s a mixed story. 

Liturgical change was a significant part of church life in the 1960s, something Auden found difficult to cope with. Although he actually assisted in an advisory capacity with some of the changes to wording at his own church of St Mark’s-in-the-Bowery, he at the end started going to the Greek Orthodox Church in New York because he said that he wanted a liturgy that was "timeless". It needs to be understood, this doesn’t mean Auden left the Anglican Church, only that his need for a traditional worship that he could relate to was a huge incentive: this is something we have seen in Auden since he was a child. Late in his life he would say, "I like to think that if I hadn’t been a poet, I might have become an Anglican bishop – politically liberal, I hope; theologically and liturgically conservative, I know."

6.    What is poetry?
Lazy literati love to quote one of Auden’s most famous lines: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’ I say ‘lazy literati’ because the line is used as an excuse for not having much to do with poetry, it’s dismissive, it sees this whole business as peripheral to the main deal, whatever that is. The thinking goes that if Auden thinks that poetry makes nothing happen, then who are we to argue? Also, it sounds impressive and is no doubt a good starter for seminars and book clubs. 

But this is not what Auden meant. The line is from an elegy to W. B. Yeats and is saying that no matter what we do about poetry "Ireland has her madness and her weather still," in other words Yeats’s work has not changed certain social problems or climatic conditions, which we will always have. The line is written after his experience of the Spanish Civil War. Englishmen like Auden went to Spain in the belief that their words and actions really could make a difference to the course of events. They didn’t. The line itself expresses not so much disillusion at that expectation as realism about how poetry can possibly hope to influence politics. Readings of this line proliferate. There is a metaphysical reading of the line: poetry is an affirmation of the internalising strength of poetry: it can delineate the soul. It is a koan: poetry makes ‘nothing’ happen. The koan itself may become ironical, as we read the decades of proliferation of readings of this line and ask mockingly, poetry makes nothing happen? The lazy literati don’t quote the other definitions in the verse:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making, where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

I like the idea of a poem flowing south down the page, though clearly Auden also means that poetry (indeed all our important words) are native and come to life as they move from one place to the next and that we will have them, whatever. Though we’re told they make nothing happen, they are a way of happening, they meet a need, they live inside those who take them up and remember. Poetry is a mouth, that is our individual speech, which is carried on and effects meaning.

In the Yeats elegy Auden is questioning the absolute or hallowed or romantic ideas about the poet that existed at the time and that were epitomised in the public idolising of Yeats himself, an idolising that Yeats did little to deter. I would argue that this ironic subversion inside the elegy is Christian, it attacks the self-importance of the poet. While honouring the artistic process and the value of art, Auden undermines the concept of poetry as some absolute. He is also saying to himself and others, who cares about poetry? What is its importance? The larger indifference of the public to poetry, whether in England or America, is a matter about which Auden is intensely aware. 

It is hard today to recall that in that time there were those who argued for poetry as a means to personal salvation, and that it offered alternative visions or answers to the pragmatic problems of existence, including political and economic problems. Auden wouldn’t have any of this. For him, individual salvation is a very important question, but one quite separate from Works, including the Works of the creative human. He is already heading towards faith as an explanation for how to live. Also, although he spends a lifetime writing poetry about economics and politics, he has removed himself from those who extol literature as a game-changer; for him this is ultimately delusory.

This role for the poet is described, again not without irony, in that incredible poem ‘In praise of limestone’:

The poet,
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
By these marble statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth.
We notice here that the poet is in an inescapable bind with his poem and that he is making myths or fictions even as he tries to deny them.

And in conclusion, without comment, here are some lines from ‘Thanksgiving for a Habitat’ (we don’t need to ask who is he giving thanks to) and the poem ‘The Cave of Making’, words about the room where we create things like poems, dedicated to his friend Louis MacNeice:

Who would, for preference,
be a bard in an oral culture,
obliged at drunken feasts to improvise a eulogy
of some beefy illiterate burner,
giver of rings, or depend for bread on the moods of a
Baroque prince, expected,
like his dwarf, to amuse? After all, it’s rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status-trophy by rising executives,
cannot be ‘done’ like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored: our handful
of clients at least can rune.