Tuesday, February 27, 2007

From W.H. Auden's "The Cave of Making" (Commonplace Book)

I wanted to quote today from a poem that exemplifies what I like most and least about Auden. Here is Auden with a wonderful statement about poetry:

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 status-trophy by rising executives,
cannot be "done" like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored.

That is lovely, and true, and makes me proud to be a person who cares about poetry. But for Auden, pride is always a sin, and so the poem ends like this:

God may reduce you
on Judgement Day
to tears of shame,
reciting by heart
the poems you would
have written, had
your life been good.
(The computer is making it hard to format this correctly but you get the idea). It is beautifully put, but the idea that poetry would be better if poets were better human beings seems to me to be not such a good observation. Ego-maniacs write great poems -- and comic books and television -- and I do not think their poetry would be better if they spent more time loving their neighbor and loving God, which Auden says are the only important things in life, unlike poetry, which he calls frivolous.


Roger said...

Good doesn't necessarily have to mean "moral" there, at least not necessarily in the same way many think of morality.

It might mean political. I mean, Auden was obsessed with poetry doing something, even though he was cynical he desired a kind of political transformation (I think) that could be arrived at through poetry.

It might also mean authentic (good/authentic), as in Kierkegaard's notion of a kind of leap of faith or his focus on the religious stage (both of which involve a goodness that is not strictly "moral" or at least whose morality is not systematic or purely rational. So, one could be a prick--and Auden wasn't a prick but he was withdrawn and reclusive--and still be a good poet. But you can't be a good poet if you aren't guided by a desire to be excessively authentic, "good," leaping from one way of being to another.

I might be stretching things slightly, but Auden read Kierkegaard somewhat obsessively, so he is probably stirred by Soren's depictions of the excessiveness of morality. Morality as more than morality.

Stephen said...

I don't have a lot of time to go into this as I'd like to (to, e.g., reread the whole poem!), but I wanted to second Roger's point: I'm not sure that "good" there means 'moral'.

There's an old Jewish midrash whose details I forget, but a rabbi -- call him Rabbi Joe -- said that when he died he didn't expect God to ask him why he hadn't been Moses or Abraham, but why he hadn't been Rabbi Joe.

It's this spirit of living up to oneself, becoming who you are that I heard in those lines.

(If you don't know the work of philosopher Stanley Cavell, you should check it out. But he writes a lot about this notion -- an idea he calls, rather misleadingly, perfectionism -- misleading since it isn't perfection in the common sense of the term. (He gets the term from Emerson, who has his own special twist on it.) But he focuses on the need to be true to oneself as a separate category of moral thinking apart from utilitarian or deontological thought that is usually associated with moral thought. Anyway, check out CONDITIONS HANDSOME AND UNHANDSOME sometime.)

sara d. reiss said...

happy birthday darlin'


liam said...

happy birfday!!!

Geoff Klock said...

Roger: I don't know where you are getting this Auden-was-obsessed-with-poetry-doing-something idea, transforming society. Auden said the opposite: he wrote in one of his most anthologized poems: "poetry makes nothing happen" and said elsewhere "novel writing is a higher art than poetry altogether" (Letter to Lord Byron). He considered all poetry frivolous, or at least said he did. I kind of hope you don't have any evidence for your claims, because I said this stuff in my doctoral thesis. :)

Roger and Stephen: You are right "good" can mean something more than everyday morality. It is the self-laceration that bugs me, whatever it means.

Roger said...

But see, I read "poetry makes nothing happen" as being cynical and as an anxiety about the ability of poetry to do something. I mean, why write poetry if he thought it frivolus?

Furthermore, I think you have to take in the context of both remarks: both to promienent poets who were political: Byron and Yeats. "Poetry makes nothing happen"is written--in a sense--to Yeats because Yeats believed that poetry could be used to reinvigorate the mythical imagination of Ireland, give the Irish a nationalist sense and further their very political goal of becoming their own nation (apart from Britain).

Byron, himself, was extremely political (even if his politics were somewhat strange and ambiguous). Much of "Childe Harold's Pilgramage" is a critique of the conservative turn many Romantic poets took after the fall of Napolean. He had a political career and used Spenserian stanzas in "Childe Harold" against Miltonic free verse that had been so influential in most Romantic poetry. I believe that both moves (while being poetical) were also political and that Byron saw little difference between the two.

So, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that Auden felt anxious about the connection between poetry and politics.

Geoff Klock said...

Auden wrote poetry even though he said it was frivolous because he was good at it and it pleased him and pleased others. It was like a game to him. He did not confuse it with the things he said were important like loving God and you fellow men.

I am sure Auden felt anxious about the connection between poetry and politics, but for the most part he settled on the idea that poetry does not change the world, that it is a small part of life. He said "we MAY write, we MUST live."

Anonymous said...

I think everything you've all said is valid, but I am more inclined to agree with Geoff Klock that Auden did not believe in poetry as being powerful.
I write poetry and have no belief that words on a page ever changed the world, though they may have changed or channeled a few lost souls.
But the thing about a poet is that, whether or not they believe in poetry, they write it anyway.
I fell in love with that section from Auden's "In Memory of WB Yeats" because I read so much truth in it.
Poetry to me is nothing but the agonies of a human soul verbalised, or smeared on a page with ink. I don't believe that line to be cynical, I believe that line to be sad.