In 1946, a British-born resident of Manhattan, who happened to be one of the major poets of the twentieth century, came to the New School to give a series of lectures on Shakespeare. The lecture series proved tremendously popular. Several people took such obsessive notes that the lectures could later be re-constructed for publication.
W. H. Auden is the poet in question, and the world's foremost Auden scholar, Edward Mendelson addressed Auden's life and works in his New School poetry forum with David Lehman on November 20. Mendelson, Auden's literary executor and the editor of all standard editions of the poet's work, has expressed the view that Auden was "the first poet writing in English who felt at home in the twentieth century and the first to understand its special temptations."
A lean figure with reddish hair and a stirring delivery, Mendelson read to us and commented on a series of Auden poems that demonstrated the arc of Auden’s work—a poetics frequently transformed by Auden’s political and ethical concerns. Leaning over the podium, Mendelson remarked that a fundamental aspect of Auden’s work was that he often addressed his reader directly, using the pronoun “you.” This was an inclusive impulse: the reader could be anyone or everyone. Auden did not want to speak from puplit or stage but intimately to an individual person.
Auden was egalitarian when it came to diction. Mendelson and Lehman commented on Auden’s wide-ranging use of styles and vocabulary, from cockney rhyming slang, on one extreme, to well-wrought sestinas on the other. In a low passionate voice, Mendelson read the well-loved ballad “As I Walked Out One Evening” with its opening lines: “As I walked out one evening/ Walking down Bristol Street / The crowds upon the pavement / Were fields of harvest wheat.” Auden said profound things in an accessible way. "We all know what happens to harvest wheat," Mendelson said.
In the same poem Auden writes, "You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.” This maxim or command forms a beating core to Auden’s artistic project. Auden came to think that the Biblical commandment to love thy neighbor had to be heeded although (or possibly because) it is the most unnatural thing in the world. He made this recognition at the time he turned away from Marxism and towards the moral imperatives of Christianity. He switched his belief from huge abstractions (such as History with a capital H) to the existential individual. "History does not have a moral core," as Lehman remarked to Mendelson before the reading.
Mendelson explained a concern for "the other" was integral to much of Auden’s work. Auden illuminates love for the other in what is agruably the most joyful of Auden’s poems, “The Willow That Ran up the Stair.” A poem about a bad poet, it takes the ideological position that lack of literary skill is not the measure of a man's value as a human being. The language of this bad poet may be all wrong, but his ideas are right.
Auden famously revised his view and his poems. His tendency to revise or disown poems that he no longer believed in has caused controversy. The last part of "In Memory of Wiilliam Butler Yeats" is a prime example. Three stanzas were cut. According to these stanzas, time "pardons" writers such as Kipling, Claudel, or Yeats -- writers who articulated the wrong political ideas -- because they wrote well. Auden dropped the stanzas because this struck him as an immoral position.
Mendelson put a different spin on the revision. He said that when Auden wrote the poem -- in early 1939 -- he held that Kipling and Yeats were guilty because of their fascist sympathies. He contended that Auden remained a leftist all his life but that his early stance of condemnation became morally repugnant to him, and that this was why he dropped the three stanzas from his famous elegy for Yeats.
The habit of making changes in his poems can be quite a challenge for the editor, as Lehman pointed out. In the end, Auden’s veering away from his early role as a political poet followed from his feeling that a poet might be the wrong person to act as a political leader.
Auden's own work. separated from his intention, has been used for deceptive political purposes. During the the Q & A section, Lehman recollected Lyndon Johnson's 1964 "Daisy" re-election commercial -- one of the most famous TV commercials ever shown -- which uses Auden’s line “we must love one another or die” from “September 1, 1939.” The commercial depicted a nuclear war and suggested that Johnson's opponent for president, Barry Goldwater, was a reckless warmonger. The commerical was a chilling misuse of Auden’s words that painted Johnson as a peacemaker. A year later Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam.
There’s a telling anecdote Mendelson related about a letter Auden wrote after an appearance at a political meeting early in his life: “I found I could do it. I could speak at a political meeting and bring everyone to their feet.” Mendelson recounted Auden’s words in a deadpan tone. “It was exciting and degrading. I never want to speak at a political meeting again.” Even in a strictly poetic endeavor -- composing “Sebastian’s Sestina” for The Sea and the Mirror -- Auden vered from orthodoxy. He did not follow the sestina form exactly. According to Mendelson, flipping certain stanzas from their natural order (as Lehman demonstrated in the q & a session) conveyed more efficiently the message of forgiveness central to the sesina, a plea for meaning over aesthetics. Always, what mattered to Auden most—Mendelson brought home to us throughout the evening—was what was psychologically and morally true.
EDWARD MENDELSON is the Lionel Trilling Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and the literary executor of the estate of W. H. Auden. His Early Audenand Later Auden, among other volumes, can be purchased on Amazon.
We first met Ross Martin through his poetry and have been thrilled to watch his career take off. Ross is an Executive Vice President at Viacom Media Networks and runs Scratch, a creative swat team driving innovation across the company. Just recently, Ross was included in Fortune Magazine's "40 Under 40" list of rising business leaders. Clearly, he's gained wisdom over the years. Here's a sampling from a recent post on his blog Something Burning: I used to say all the time that one of my biggest goals was to bring creativity and innovation to every area of an organization. Problem is, that kind of hubris presumes creativity and innovation aren't already present in those areas, and that I'm somehow the one who can bring it. Read the full post here.
Gift buying time. We feel you. If you want something unique, like the linocut of Philip K. Dick pictured above for example, Reb Livingston comes to the rescue with a Pinterest board for inquisitive readers.
Sherman Alexie talks poetry, booksellers and Kobe on KUOW.org. Kobe beef or Bryant? Listen and tell.
Got something for Hump Day Highlights? Send it to me at email@example.com.
David Lehman's post last week about suicide prompted this comment from Jeff Oaks, Managing Director of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series. It's worth highlighting here because it illustrates how a seemingly small gesture by a caring teacher can have a transformative -- possibly life saving -- impact on an impressionable student. In addition to being a fine teacher, Milton Kessler (1930-2000) published several volumes of poetry, including The Grand Concourse. His poem, "Comma of God," was chosen by Heather McHugh, for The Best American Poetry 2007.
"I had a a great teacher, Milt Kessler (left), at SUNY Binghamton who was reading poems I had given him in hope of being let into his poetry workshop. He couldn't understand, he said to me, why everything was always fading away at the end of my poems. I didn't have an answer then, but it was because my vision, such as it was then, was tied into the recognition of mortality, which both sweetened everything around me, and made it impossible to ever feel like I could have happiness. His answer was to get up from his desk, look out his window, which then looked out over a large field of wildflowers. Then he said, Come here. I stood up next to him at the window. He took my hand in his, which really freaked me out, and said, Look at all that life. Isn't it wonderful? Just look at it. And we stood looking at that field for a minute or so, holding hands. Then he let my hand go. We went back to where we'd been sitting. I honestly don't remember what we talked about after that. I was still buzzing with life.That was a transformational moment for me who'd grown up among a lot of unhappy adults; I'd imagined that unhappiness was all I had to look forward to, and maybe even unconsciously had begun to create a poetry that would prepare me for that inevitability. Milt worked so hard to get us to fight against simple closures in poetry, to embrace what was difficult to say and feel, and to bear the weight of those things as a privilege, as a responsibility. To be angry as hell in a poem. Not to just feel nostalgic or blue because that was the fashion. To not give up. I wish someone would write the book of writing assignments that encourage that!" -- Jeff Oaks
Office holders and political people, Bush, Obama, Cheney, Old Man Bush, Michelle, Hilary, Bill, Condoleezza Rice, The living and dead, Nixon, Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, all had bedbugs But they neither saw nor suspected That bedbugs were biting them.
At the Stanhope Hotel, at the Pierre, At the Mirage Hotel of Beverly Hills In the early morning silence bedbugs Awaken as heedless we slumber, As we bathe, as we have intercourse Bedbugs peer from their hiding places And we are oblivious of the bedbugs.
A stunning woman of fashion On Fifth Avenue – for the bedbugs In her iPhone it is a simple matter Amid her chat and gab to ear-enter Her like some harebrained marketing Jingle and then deep within her The bedbugs pitch their palaces.
Likewise the poor have bedbugs. Egalitarians, equal opportunity Enjoyers, true democrats are The bedbugs for whom not Solomon in all his glory enticed Like a homeless man asleep in A doorway or on a subway grate.
What can be done about bedbugs? Go Google bedbug poisons or How to kill bedbugs or natural enemies Of bedbugs and you will find sprays, Ointments, and simple inexpensive Home remedies like dish soap that Annoy bedbugs but not to death.
Much then can be done about bedbugs But (really) nothing can be done about Them. We slather ourselves with soap, We fumigate, we fuss and fulminate, We literally get down on our knees and Pray to God and in that same hour we Get bitten, we get dozens of bites.
Still by all means let us spray and Slather, let us turn up the thermostats In our apartments because bedbugs Hate heat, let us leave no stone unturned And the end of all our slathering and Thermostating will be to know the Futility of slathering and of thermostats.
Then let that knowing inspire all Humankind to a frenzied piling up Of mattresses in the world’s cities, Towns, and fields – pillows, bedclothes Piled high and burned by huge mobs Fed up with bedbugs, joyful at mattresses Burning if the bedbugs are also burning.
Let a crazed energy as in the poet’s Vision of how Pandemonium was built Grip all humanity and from that energy Let bitter knowledge emerge that burning Mattresses, pillows, and bedclothes is not Enough for complete and total bedbug Extermination because everything must burn!
Then onto the flaming mattresses let gold Jewelry be flung, MacBooks, Big Bird t-shirts, Watches and handbags, ATM cards, bras, You name it, let even hundred dollar Bills eagerly be flung lest bedbug eggs Adhere to the hundred dollar bills To say nothing of the twenties or tens.
Shrieking women tearing off their blouses, Men – husbands, sons, lovers – flinging Accoutrements of masculinity such as Barn coats, beer cans, cowboy boots, Baseball mitts and football jerseys Into the flames to deny a refuge To even one goddamned bedbug!
Yet as hand in hand the mobs dance Naked around the fires in a hurly-burly Unprecedented historically by pyramids Or potlatches another grim awareness Must dawn: no need have bedbugs for The things of men when men themselves Are so safe, succulent, and stupid.
At this a silence descends, befuddlement, Despair, and mere surrender to the notion Of bedbugs in the crevices of one’s own Corpus finding room and blood until Suddenly with a war whoop someone Whose name will never be known Flings himself or herself into the flames!
Then without hesitation and even with relief Here a Hottentot, there a hedge fund manager, Here a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet Immolate themselves and their differences go Up in smoke. What a spectacle but what irony That the grander it becomes, the fewer are left To admire it and I will be the last of all.
For like Captain Snuffy Shemengenopolous -- What was his name, the guy who crashed His plane in the river? -- I will usher others Out and then as Nixon did when last he Ascended into his helicopter, waving my arms I will address the barren landscape, I will cry, “Bedbugs! You can have it! It’s all yours!”
Sophie Cabot Black was raised on a small farm in New England. Her poems have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including the Atlantic, Fence, the New Yorker, Bomb, the Paris Review, Poetry and the New Republic. Her work has also appeared in various anthologies, among them Best American Poetry, ed: Louise Gluck, Doggerel and Fatherhood, both poetry anthologies from the Everyman’s Library Series. Her first poetry collection, The Misunderstanding of Nature, received the Norma Farber Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her second, The Descent, received the 2005 Connecticut Book Award and was subsequently chosen as a hot pick on MSNBC’s program Topic A With Tina Brown. She has been awarded several fellowships, including at the Fine Arts Work Center, Macdowell Colony, and the Radcliffe Institute. She teaches at Columbia University.
Lisa Olstein is the author of Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (Copper Canyon Press, 2006), winner of the Hayden Carruth Award, and Lost Alphabet (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), named one of the nine best poetry books of 2009 by Library Journal, and Little Stranger (Copper Canyon Press, 2013). Cold Satellite, an album of songs based on her poems and lyrics, was released by singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault in fall 2010 and was ranked #1 on Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top Ten list in The Believer (February 2011). A new album, Cavalcade, was released in April 2013. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Council and Centrum. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals including The Nation, The Iowa Review, American Letters & Commentary, Denver Quarterly, and Glitterpony. She is a contributing editor of jubilat. She co-founded and co-directs the Juniper Initiative for Literary Arts & Action at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she is Associate Director of the MFA Program and Director of the Juniper Summer Writing Institute. In the fall of 2013, she will join the faculty of the New Writers Project, the MFA program in the Department of English at the University of Texas Austin.
Upcoming, Fall 2013
Dec 2 David Lehman + Kim Addonizio + Season Finale Party
When I come back to this garden after my death will the black walnut tree have been cut down, the brick-and-galvo studio made over into flats reflecting what will have happened all over town?
I wonder just what my airy after-self will find that the present me could even recognize roughly, as being something we lived amid; what will confront my hypothetical eyes
and spiritual vision? Will the bluestone paving be there, tangled vines and archaic gingko tree? I wonder how my grandkids’ generation will be getting along: at all familiarly?
If a posthumous person can view things with horror will my airy unself shrink back from the tacky way fashion can rot the linework of certitude, making more of a mess from townscape every day?
Will the blackbird’s descendent still be pecking, though, at our patchy lawn? Parrots will squeal overhead, I’m sure. The hedge may still murmur hints of us or the corrugated tanks. But I’ll be dead.
In Chris Wallace-Crabbe (1934-) the urbane can still reside in the vernacular, the vernacular can still possess urbanity. Had his career been North American he would have joined such craftsmen of the academy as Hollander, Howard, Hecht and Hine, and not a bad thing too.