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Mary Jo Salter on W. H. Auden (& more) in the new "Literary Matters"

Mary Jo Salter on W. H. Auden in Literary Matters

Mary Jo Salter

What is the secret meaning of the last line of "Epitaph on a Tyrant": 
"And when he cried, the little children died in the street"?

To what extent does "New Year Letter" owe its greatness to Auden's mastery of the tetrameter line?

"Poetry might be defined as". . .
complete the sentence with a six-word formulation derived from Auiden.

David Lehman thinks "Caliban to the Audience" is Auden's greatest prose poem. What would Mary Jo Salter say?

To get the answers to these and other fascinating questions related to the great W. H. Auden read Mary Jo Salter's essay in the new issue of Literary Matters, edited by Ryan Wilson. Salter reviewed the two new volumes of Auden's collected poetry edited by Edward Mendelson, with elaborate annonations, published in 202 by Princeton UP.

An excerpt:

One could spend years tracing such unwitting rehearsals and deliberate rethinkings. In Another Time’s “XXIX. Song,” whose manuscript Mendelson dates from September 1939, Auden writes “Silence invades the breathing wood” although he has already written, in January of that year, the famous line of the Yeats elegy, “Silence invaded the suburbs.” Auden VanVechten1939Maybe he didn’t remember. I prefer the line from the Yeats elegy, not because of the difference between a wood and a suburb, but because the past tense, “invaded,” makes you wonder what comes after the silence. In “X. Brussels in Winter,” I prefer the arresting 1966 revision “And fifty franks will earn a stranger right / To take the shuddering city in his arms” to the milder 1938 original, “And fifty franks will earn the stranger right / To warm the heartless city in his arms.” In “Music is International” (1947), Auden writes that “we may some day need very much to / Remember when we were happy,” which is fine, but it’s not as delightful as the ending to “Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno” (1958) : “…though one cannot always /  Remember exactly why one has been happy, / There is no forgetting that one was.” Auden was often wrong-headed to ditch his earlier poems, but it’s a pleasure to see him, late in his career, writing better versions of similar material, either in revised poems or wholly new ones. He also recasts ideas from prose into poetry, or the reverse. Among many examples, in “Vespers” (1954) from Horae Canonicae, he writes, “In my Eden our only source of political news is gossip”; in a section of his essay “Reading,” he lists the attributes of his “personal Eden”, and one of them is “Sources of Public Information: Gossip.” Auden1

And there’s yet another pleasure in store for the reader who plans to peruse these two volumes—as I do—for the rest of life itself, studying just a few pages in detail at a time.  You can never overestimate Auden’s technical ingenuity. [Edward] Mendelson alerts us to some of the most winning bits: for instance, a note says that Auden told Malcolm Cowley that the eleven-syllable line used in both “Miranda” (in “The Sea and the Mirror”) and “Lullaby” (in “For the Time Being”) “comes from Ireland—there has to be a caesura after the fifth syllable.” In another note, we learn that Auden proposes (insanely?) to Theodore Spencer, whose writing course at Harvard he will be visiting, “What about making your class write a drapa?” If you don’t know, and I didn’t, this is a Medieval Icelandic form, a death-lament or dirge, with a very long list of undergraduate-unfriendly requirements like this: “the odd lines contain an internal assonance, the second of which falls on the penultimate syllable.” 

And there many other great things in the issue.

September 01, 2018

August 31, 2018

April 12, 2018

March 10, 2018

March 02, 2018

March 01, 2018

February 21, 2018

November 09, 2017

June 06, 2017

March 03, 2017

September 18, 2016

October 27, 2015

August 10, 2015

May 28, 2015

June 19, 2014

June 30, 2013

January 07, 2013

November 25, 2012

Best American Poetry Web ad3
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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

Click image to order


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