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Back before anthologies of modern or of contemporary verse were determined by mass market demographics (designed mostly for "captive" readers in college courses), they were edited and published to the taste of either discriminating connoisseurs or more casual skimmers desiring a "sampler" of what "the age demanded, with no loss of time," to quote Ezra Pound's
Mauberley. More often than not, their spines bore names like Oscar Williams's, or Louis Untermeyer's, and their layout had a relaxed, non-ideologic character, as though the convention that they should all look alike were a mandate of heaven.
This impression was not infrequently a deceptive one, however. An anthology editor's bias was as often as much communicated by what he left out as by what he allowed in, and there was no shortage of string pulling behind the scenes to determine what the contents of the more important of these books should be. Allotting greater than normal space to poems written by the anthologies' own compilers, their "poetically gifted" wives, or close friends and fellow poets to whom money or favors were
owed--these and other "irregularities" not infrequently made the rounds of the book trade as gossip which could itself be used as privileged information. But like unacknowledged "sources" cited by famous historians, such "babblement of the rabblement" was rarely followed up on, being treated rather like a "terminal" disease that though chronic, never exceeds a tolerably noxious level. In thus recalling the way we were (which is not to suggest that a half-century has seen trading on gossip be outlawed or go out of style), one is reminded of those "irregular connexions" between situationally disparate lovers that are "tolerated and condemned by society" in Benjamin Constant's novel
Adolphe (1816). Such "irregularities" were tut-tutted over quietly but not openly repudiated, since who among poets was immune to embroilments of the heart, to double-dipping at the fount of the muse?
Of the 22 anthologies he edited in his lifetime, Auden may be said to have brought into the world three of more than ephemeral distinction:
The Portable Greek Reader (1948), The Criterion Book of Modern American Verse
(1956), and Nineteenth-Century British Minor Poets (1965). This is not an insignificant achievement, given the fact that anthologies are almost invariably perfunctorily undertaken, repetitive in choice of matter, and headed directly or indirectly to the "remainders" table of the nearest large bookstore. Like virtually all editors of such volumes, Auden produced his for the fees they engendered, though, with the possible exception of
The Portable Greek Reader (about whose material he felt some
ambivalence--"The great difficulty for us with regard to Greek thinking is that they had no idea of the importance of the freedom of choice"), they were labors of like if not love.
The year The Criterion Book was published was something of a pivotal time for "traditional" literature. Its
declassé alter ego---writing emanating from decidedly lower reaches of Parnassus, and hence constituting what Old Left curmudgeon Dwight MacDonald blew off as "middlebrow" or "mid-cult"---was nestled in critical but not lucrative limbo; and seeing its profits soar as the sneers from academe over its success grew louder, its purveyors began to believe there might be a connection between these two phenomena. Movers and shakers within the American cultural establishment were clearly of two minds about midcult's meteoric rise. Some were blinded by brilliancies firing up the sky (and the dollar signs they portended), while others, avowedly more restrained in their enthusiasm, were beginning to evince concern over the swelling gaggle of whores and procurers prattling about bigger bangs for the buck from one end of Madison Avenue to the other.
"Quality" publishing in the '50s was fast becoming a nattering of competing book clubs, the signing on to which meant a flood of mailers in which publicists browbeat subscribers into buying books they had been paid to promote. (Random House's Book-of-the-Month-Club, which achieved amazing success during World War II's paper recycling campaigns, established the pants seat by which all subsequent enterprises sought to fly.) Moreover, it was a time when motion picture studios--or more exactly, factories in which movies were spun out of novelistic whole cloth---were acquiring the knack of engineering book deals which, if not exactly bringing the east and west coasts closer together, then certainly driving them no farther apart than had been the case in the '30s and '40s, when literature and film viewed each other as unnecessary evils rather than as separate-but-equal co-profiteers.
Not a few of these bundlings of convenience came to grief as soon as they hit the can. Hollywood's cost-overrun disfigurement of Norman Mailer's war novel
The Naked and the Dead (originally published in 1948) represents a particularly egregious instance of a table of green fields having been run, with almost everyone-but especially its hapless
author--coming in for some nasty snookering. The soap opera blockbuster Peyton
Place, on the other hand, made more in its TV incarnation than as a bloated novel-turned-movie, proving yet again that even an artistic goose egg like Grace Metalious's could be goosed out of the red if the right guilds could come together on a book-movie-and-TV deal big enough to knock everyone senseless. Double-entry pragmatics often prevailed in discussions of how best to sell these fortunate falls from highbrow taste to college-educated readers of
Time and Newsweek, even in instances where one would have thought the shudder factor would have resulted in greater caution and restraint. But it was W. H. Auden, of all people, who with various other authors and culture moguls helped found Readers' Subscription, one of two elitist book clubs (the other being the Marboro Book Club) designed specifically to appeal to "upper midcult." It was never intended, therefore, to be a rival of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which got rich discounting bestsellers to the sort of reader whose lips moved parsing photo captions in
An unlikely fact about The Criterion Book of Modern American
Verse--first offered to club members as a monthly selection and then later, as a bonus for their having bought a quantity of books at regular
price--is that not a single important, let alone authoritative, critical biography of Auden bothers either to mention it or to list it among the poet's published works. This omission cannot be explained by comparing it to other anthologies of its kind (even a cursory glance at rival collections published between 1954 and 1956, in both hard cover and paperback editions, reveals that its non-standard deviation from the mean long established in trade press anthologies made it a standout among its competitors). Nor can it be accounted for by pointing to Reader's Subscription as having eventually gone the way of all other books clubs (up to and including Oprah's) and simply disappeared with the rest of its catalogue. Or, that it was so like other anthologies published at the time it simply got lost in the shuffle, for that was just not the case. Rather than round up the usual suspects, Auden interlarded some of the better non-perennials by Pound, Frost, W. C. Williams, Stevens and Jeffers with samplings from less well known poets such as John Peale Bishop and Merrill Moore, even stooping to sneak in excerpts from Don Marquis's
Archy and Mehitabel, a light-verse satire built around a cockroach and a cat. His criteria for selection made him gravitate toward poets whose "roundedness" had been obscured through over-frequent mustering of poetic warhorses whose appeal was more to critics than to ordinary readers. Idiosyncrasies of style would not necessarily disqualify a poem from being included, but neither would they be allowed to tip the scales in favor of the divertingly bizarre or the plain bordering on homely. Auden was open to any new
legitimate wrinkle that might blunt the likelihood of yet another anthology, tastefully conceived but indistinguishable from scores of others, dying the death of a thousand cuts and being remaindered in as many bookstores. Was it worth burdening the market with nothing but a tax writeoff, packed with parlor pieces and American runners-up to "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"?
Just what should provide the backbone of an anthology of verse designed to be out of the ordinary and graced by an editor whose name wasn't the first thrown out by rolodex roulette is not close to being resolved even after centuries of producing such books. In the view of some, a floral garland costing more than a garden variety bouquet should contain as few exotic wildflowers as possible. To others, the want of yet another boring assemblage of carnations and chrysanthemums, no matter how fetching the arrangement or pricey the vase, is one only a florist could cry. Inexpensive paperback anthologies intended for student use should not have to toe the same line of inclusion as a costly hardbound volume printed on high quality paper and with a sewn rather than a lightly glued binding. Often high-end anthologies, especially if they are elaborately decorated, outsized volumes, end up as "coffee-table books," with all the supercharged glamour (and overcharged glitz) that term implies. The ideal cleaved to by responsible editors is an anthology its readers will not just cherish but actually
peruse. The image of a dog-eared miscellany finding its way to, if not the back pockets of poetry lovers then certainly their night tables, is surely what drives them to put their reputations on the line to come up with a volume that any discerning reader would be proud to have grace his permanent library.
Where the reader might turn to find Auden's views on anthology assemblage and how to distinguish major poets from minor all neatly compacted in one place is the Introduction to
Nineteenth-Century British Minor Poets, a volume commissioned by Richard Wilbur, General Editor of Dell Books' Laurel Poetry Series, in 1965. Unequivocally stated, there is his belief that "the first function of an anthology is educative: it should form taste as well as reflect it." The anthologist, if he or she is to fulfill this requirement,
must first of all do his homework thoroughly and read or read all the poetry of all the poets in the period with which he is concerned. If he does this, he will almost certainly find that, in a number of cases, a poet turns out to be quite a different figure from what he had previously imagined. . . . Secondly he must recognize the difference between his taste and his judgment and be loyal to both. My taste tells me what, in fact, I enjoy reading; my judgment tells me what I must admire. There are always a number of poems that one must admire but that, by reason of one's temperament, one cannot enjoy. The converse is not necessarily true. I don't
think I like any poem that I do not also admire, but I have to remind myself that in some other
fields--tear-jerking movies, for example--I revel in what my judgment tells me is trash.
Auden is also at pains to stress the anthologist's loyalty to his own taste and judgment and not some sociologist's fantasy of what the "reading public" wants:
Loyalty to one's own taste and judgment means not caring whether they coincide with or differ from the taste and judgment of others. It is just as dishonest for an anthologist to exclude a poem simply because his predecessors have used it, as it is to include one for the same reason. . . .
"One bias I have deliberately indulged," he concludes. "When confronted with a choice
between two poems that seem to me of equal merit, I have chosen the less well-known."
But editors can have motivations for wanting to see such books through the press other than the small remuneration commonly provided for their services. In the case of
The Criterion Book of Modern American Verse, the literary lion installed at its helm was grateful to have an opportunity to take the temperature of the relationship then playing English poets off American ones and vice versa. "Only in this century," declares Auden in the Introduction, "have the writers of the United States learned to stand on their own feet and be truly American . . . [;] previously, they were slavish imitators of British literature." From there, the poet goes on to compare two disparate American figures, Longfellow and Whitman, to the even more disparate, because irremediably English, poet Tennyson, and locates the differences between them in influences more cultural than personal. Hence, Tennyson, in his self-restriction to the poets of the English tradition and the Greek and Latin classics of his youth, seems more provincial than, say, Longfellow, whose literary interests ranged across the whole of European literature and was not restricted to just those authors who wrote in English. Longfellow was not only fluent in a number of foreign languages, but his translation of Dante's
Divine Comedy was widely read and he was sufficiently erudite in Finnish poetics to have written a lengthy and intricate poem,
Song of Hiawatha, in Scandinavian meter.
Distinctions based on class and on dialectical arrangements of speech are those that most immediately partition English verse off from American. The most obvious such separation due to class, according to Auden, may be seen in the differing poet-subject relationships driving the two elegies, "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" by Tennyson and the tribute to Lincoln, "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd" by Whitman:
Tennyson, as one would expect from the title of his poem, mourns for a great public figure, but it would be very hard to guess from the words of Whitman's poem that the man he is talking of was the head of a State; one would naturally think that he was a close personal friend, a private individual. . . .
In circumstances where "dialectical arrangements of speech" alter cases, however, the differences are far "subtler," being attributable, in the view of W. C. Williams, to the "pace" of American spoken language, to which Auden would add "pitch." The poet also perceived as crucial the divergence between Old and New World habits of mind, and the very different emphasis placed upon human relationships in the two places.
In a land which is fully settled, most men must accept their local environment or try to change it by political means; only the exceptionally gifted or adventurous can leave to seek his fortune elsewhere.
In America, on the other hand, to move on and make a fresh start somewhere else is till the normal reaction to dissatisfaction or failure. Such social fluidity has important psychological effects. Since movement involves breaking social and personal ties, the habit creates an attitude towards personal relationships in which impermanence is taken for granted.
Europe and America, which historically have manifested distinctly varying attitudes toward change and futurity, have tended either to fall in with the notion of
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose or to remain open to the most ceaseless and restless pressures to mutate for mutability's sake. As a result, their separate histories have produced types of verse that contrast as much in tenor as those of France and Slovakia. America has arguably taken as its seal romance (which is counter-revolutionary), while
Europe--and, in particular, England, which tends to hold in cellerage its best vintages of
despair--has seen its landscape littered with what Auden calls verfallene schloesser, or ruined castles having arrived at a state of disrepair through revolutionary neglect. If the ring left round the tub of romance is, in American argot, "ghost towns and relics of the New Jerusalem that failed," that which more subtly marks the equivalent European receptacle remained unidentified until an American expatriate (and individual talent) sprang up and fingered it not as "classical culture" but as "tradition." What then was cast upon the waters in the form of the venture capital of Hawthorne's and James's missions to Europe was returned a
hundredfold--if in the likeness of confederate money--in the dogmatisms and trashings of democracy vented by such 20th Century American Modernists as Eliot and Pound, from abroad.
It's anything but irrelevant to the provisioning of Auden's anthology, or to the argument presented in its Introduction, that the poem selected to be its dedicatory epigraph is Robert Frost's "The Gift Outright." At the center of that poem of course is the debate whether America, or any land ceded to its original, not aboriginal, settlers and their heirs, can be passed to those inheritors by "deed of gift":
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realising westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
Frost's poem sets in elegiac stone the American covenant between two conditioners of condition urged, as so often by economic necessity, to find accommodation upon this nation's shores: ethos and pathos. The demands of ethos made themselves felt because a collective identity had to be wrenched from an intransigent landscape and climate; while those of pathos arose because no entrepreneurial process as lengthy and as unsettling as that which carved America could work itself through without some upending lien upon tragedy being called in, which, for Frost, was the War Between the States.
Auden plainly saw "The Gift Outright" as a rock face upon which a theme could be sculpted that would cast the purposes underlying this collective frieze in verse,
The Criterion Book, in bold relief. He would use his anthology as a "singing school" to underscore his belief that in any
omnium gatherum containing poetry written in the United States during the first half of the 20th Century greater emphasis should be made to fall on "American" than on either "modern" or "verse." To be American within the circumscriptions laid down by Auden's Introduction required that the blooms being exhibited not be culled from backyard trellises, but rather be wildflowers improvisational enough in their native hardiness to astonish all for whom the history of poetry was but a sequence of predictable cross-pollinations. By Auden's account, "modern American" poems come from
no place--or derive from nothing but an irrepressible desire to deny the Anglo-American law of poetic evolution its missing link. Yet, such a "no place" as his account requires, like the "no man" thrown by Odysseus in the face of the Cyclops, remains anything but a weightless counter or fluxion untouched by manifest destiny. It is in fact the very opposite of what St. Augustine proposed when he imagined God as a circle whose center was nowhere and circumference everywhere. The America that can toss off poems like Gertrude Stein's "Pigeons on the grass alas," Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man," Ezra Pound's "Canto XLVII," Marianne Moore's "The Pangolin," Cummings's "my father moved through dooms of love," and Richard Wilbur's
"Potato"--all appearing in Auden's anthology--cannot, to save its life, "builde in sonets prettie roomes" (as John Donne once proposed to a mistress), or "bruise an hour to find a frame." When a modern American poem finds at last its fated
parergon, whether in the shape of a verse form or by the impress of a "strong measure" unindentured by arbitrary rule, it invariably makes of that
frame--if it is a good poem--a rebus of freedom in whose space the untapped and unbidden limn a presence hitherto unconceived by earlier generations of poets.
Unless, of course, some equally unpredictable circuit breaker interrupts the current powering what is current and brings the creative process to a halt. Auden acknowledges the possibility of this happening in a footnote in which his earlier observation that "the danger of the American poet is not of writing like everybody else but of crankiness and a parody of his own manner" undergoes some needed qualification:
The undeniable appearance in the States during the last fifteen years or so of a certain literary conformity, of a proper and authorized way to write poetry is a new and disquieting symptom, which I cannot pretend to be able to explain fully. The role of the American college as a patron of poets has been discussed a good deal both here and in England. Those who criticize it, often with some reason, fail to suggest a better alternative. It would be nice if the colleges could ask no more from the poets in return for their keep than occasional pieces, a Commencement Day masque or an elegy on a deceased trustee; if that is too much to ask, then the poets themselves should at least demand that they give academic courses in the literature of the dead and refuse to have anything to do with modern literature or courses in writing. There has been a vast output of critical studies in contemporary poetry, some of them first rate, but I do not think that, as a rule, a poet should read or write them.
Later on in this discussion I shall be looking more deeply into a trend Auden has but lightly alluded to here, and that is the emergence in English and American verse after World War II of a sedate and even timorous conservatism referred to by some critics as "neo-Victorianism." Ironically, it was the influence of Auden and his
associates--Spender, MacNeice, Day Lewis, and from the cat-bird seat of a major publishing house, T. S.
Eliot--on the younger generation of poets that first created the moonshine whose waxing made reversing the Modernists' tide as likely as getting with child a mandrake root, and so prompted a desire to work their way back to the road
not taken before the Great War and just after. The heroes perched on either side of that time-bend were poets swept away by their own movement's irresistible enthusiasm for dissonance and disorder, and so failed to see that in citing the mythical run-off from
The Waste Land--and other poems as much taken with Spenglerian Liebestod as was Eliot's own
Walpurgisnacht in five time zones--as proof that the topsoil of Western civilization had been despoiled by agents whose culpability should be obvious to all, they were themselves engaged in myth spinning of their own. Did not
The Waste Land definitively denature that natural view of things which from the
Pervigilium Veneris, through Milton's "Lycidas" and persisting into those late flushings of romanticism the Georgian poets of Eliot's own time were given to, had dominated Western culture and inspired its most sublime pastoral elegies? And was not its central tenet that so long as man hoped, it fell to nature to redeem his hopes, devastatingly blighted by death and seconded by time as they were? To the charge that Modernism reduces Nature to the insensate whorl of a Kandinsky, its adherents answered not, in the manner of an E. E. Cummings, with spring, but with the exculpatory refrain that they were simply mirroring in their writings what had begun denaturing a long time ago. Just consult "The Deserted Village" by Goldsmith, Eliot would likely have admonished those who would later emerge, after his time, as the "Greens," and all the
cris de coeur filed afterwards, under the heading "Depastoralization."
In England the poets thought to have best met the test of grace unflappably maintained under pressure to deform were Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas, while in America, figures massed against the self-singers bent on trailing Whitman out of the hinterland numbered, among others, the re-expatriated Robert Frost, Elizabeth Madox Roberts (a favorite of the maverick anti-Modernist, Yvor Winters), John Crowe Ransom and, when he wasn't building bridges exacting tolls from Mallarmé and the Self-Singer-in-chief, Hart Crane. Of course, the inimitable Wystan himself cannot be left off this list, he who around this time was putting the finishing touches on yet another reshaping of his image (necessitating the
mothballing--possibly for ever--of the self-lacerating barfly of "The Age of Anxiety") into someone if not richer, then surely far stranger than even the oratorialist of
For the Time Being--no mean cache of oddities having been surpassed
there. Important things in his conduct as poet had changed--or if not changed, been shifted about to another part of the cruise liner his life had settled into resembling. For one thing, he had returned to his first love of things massy and geological: perennially stratifying disillusionments had taught him one could find things to praise in such as limestone; that the pursuit of quarries, with their promise of eternizing marble always urging one on, could prove markedly less ennobling than happening upon sedimentary deposits with earthworks opening out to embrace "terraces of stars." Ezra Pound had sung of them at the extremity of his
Pisan Cantos, and in remonstrance of that time as prisoner learned to love what could be loved well. Spending half of every year in America and the other half in halls of deposed mountain kings, high in the Austrian tors where the wind kept the horizon as free of cloud as any Symbolist
azur, Auden was experiencing, as did Rilke at Schloss Duino, rebirth in love (the
relationship--partly creative, always stormy--with Chester Kallman dates loosely from this time); rebirth in vocation (the collaboration with Kallman on the libretto for Igor Stravinsky's
The Rake's Progress was in full swing); and rebirth in divining the lore of angels, as opposed to falling victim to that devilish sort having coached his pronouncements in favor of the Loyalists during the Spanish civil war. What was much less apparent was that he was entering the mirror stage of a second childhood which would later whisk him back to Oxford, amid whose lowering High Table exchanges (of interest mainly to the fat and the fatuous) he would find donnish euphoria wholly unrecapturable and pass quietly away, two-thirds of a centarian, in 1973.
But that was a good deal later than the high times between times when Auden was equipping
The Criterion Book of Modern American Verse to assess literary relations between the Great Britain whose nationality he abandoned in 1939 and the America whose cultural crisis he had assumed by throwing in his lot with that of the half-continent he'd adopted, rather than with a dependency that he had, along with Europe, declared offshore and desertable. Never mind that the dependency he turned his back on had been his from birth and needed whatever support his considerable talents might have provided in the way of revitalizing wit. By the time America entered the war against Germany and Japan, he had successfully completed the first of the self-recyclings he would undertake on American soil. By 1956, there is evidence he had begun to see himself--one can only assume, somewhat
unflatteringly--as an English Mime, with the charge of being custodian to a whole generation of poets, each a potential Siegfried contending for the Ring, and every one itching to anneal the sword with which he might slay the memorably lined and sedulous restrainer of their hopes.
For was it not Auden who best exemplified what that "low, dishonest decade" (his own phrase for the '30s) had taught the world to honor most:
a survivor? And had he not emerged from the war against Hitler a veteran of a constellation of lesser
wars--of conscience, of indemnifying nomenclature, of emotional attrition? No
one--or at least no one who had been there (and the "there" remained an endlessly refillable
blank)--could say that Auden, various apostasies aside, had not earned every wrinkle on that memorably lined face, even if, under the gimlet-stare of morality's third degree, those apostasies had withered into truth more absolving than redemptive. With disquieting speed he had shed his Marxist scales and sprouted the wings of an annunciatory angel. To some of his Christian friends he appeared nothing less than a Gabriel whose
saeve indignatio was never without its self-deprecating irony and its hint that, in the shadow of the Last Judgment, grace might turn out to be no more than a shell game after all. If the first poems Auden wrote in America (more than a handful of which, including "September 1, 1939," were to be summarily withdrawn) suggested a Paul dressing down a Rome re-imperialized to suit the moment, others revealed a celebrant of domesticity at the mercy only of squabbles that with a minimum of heavy lifting could be kept to a bedroom's or bed-sitting room's amplitude of recrimination.
Auden's association with Readers' Subscription had fortuitously grown out of his increasing immersion in the world of book-reviewing and so with some symmetry aimed at recruiting the sort of audience that would someday make
The New York Review of Books a pace-setter within the academy and its outposts of progress overseen by Alfred A. Knopf and the Manhattan publishing elite. (This was before the unendowed university press emerged as a force to be contended with in American publishing.) Having not made a single gaffe that might trouble his ascendancy, Auden carved a rewarding (if not all that lucrative) niche for himself within a New York literary establishment (then going through its final stages of deradicalization) by supplementing one of its traditional
personae (the eminence grise--pre-eminently Jewish--with organizational skills sufficient to edit an ideological powerhouse like the
Partisan Review or Dissent, and with enough feistiness when pushed into a corner to muster the intellectual forcefulness of a Philip Rahv, an Alfred Kazin or an Irving Howe in order to break out of it) with a classier--i.e., more gentle, genteel and, yes,
gentile--presence that with little or no effort could downshift the iconic engines of High
Culture--the Kafkas, the Manns, the Célines--to "broadband" levels wholly accessible to mainstream or "mid-cult" audiences.
Since it was an open secret that this establishment was a hotbed of Anglophilia waiting to erupt, Auden had no trouble presenting himself to its members as an avuncular alternative to Evelyn Waugh and Jessica Mitford, a patient Gulliver straining to make clear to the Brobdingnagians not what made them tick, but what made ticking in sync with higher civilizational clockwork a desirable thing in itself. Unlike the morticians of the sublime just mentioned, the "American way of death" was far from being in Auden's purview. As grist for his Village explaining he much preferred the care and feeding of the American beast then busily extending its economic tentacles and amorous feelers all over the world, despite certain notable efforts on the part of Henry Luce's
Time-Life-Fortune consortium to put a happy face on its commercial and erotic predations. Waiting in the wings as well were the Beats, who would in time redraw the configurational paths which the American cultural debate would follow for decades to come. The year in which
The Criterion Book burst negligibly upon the scene, and the following one, felt the double lightning strike of Allen Ginsberg's poem
Howl and Jack Kerouac's novel-memoir On the Road, two works that scorched earth from coast to coast and quite literally made a generation over in the image of their authors' druggy encapsulations and disheveled phantasmagoria.
It is unlikely that Auden looked upon these developments with anything but a studied indifference, which by the mid-'50s had become the hallmark of a declining eminence that was so far from the charisma once exuded by the correspondent of Lord Byron in
Letters from Iceland that one could only with difficulty extrapolate the shadow from the shade. As well, the camera-loving culture heroes of the Beat
Generation--Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, and their alter-egos, the Black Mountain
poets--Creeley, Levertov, Spicer, Blackburn, and Duncan--had little in common with a carpet-slippered poet obsessed with Icelandic sagas and given to humming
bel canto arias when absent-mindedly shopping Greenwich Village emporiums for this or that. Enough that he furnished the surface roads of Modernism with overpasses for which Freud's consulting rooms had supplied the paving; that with dynamite caps of guilt waved but never used,
à la Thomas Hardy, he had kept the sober confessional poem from exploding into the hell-breaking-loose self-revelatory one; that with stoop-shouldered flamboyance he had tricked out in Kierkegaardian motley a form of
vers de societé markedly upstream from (the cabaret-bound) Noël Cowardice, while remaining manageably downwind from his book reviews' plunderable subjects. Having weaned himself of that collaborative urge which in the '30s had led him to team up with John Garrett
(The Poet's Tongue, an anthology); with Louis MacNeice (Letters from
Iceland); and with Christopher Isherwood (The Dog Beneath the Skin and
On the Frontier, two plays, and Journey to a War, an account of a trip across China), he was now preoccupied with establishing just where eminently parodiable Audenian glitz left off and the inimitable Audenesque manner began. Almost 70 years later, it is not at all taxing to distinguish this, from "The Strings'
The strings' excitement, the applauding drum
Are but the initiating ceremony
That out of cloud the ancestral face may come.
And never hear their subaltern mockery,
Graphiti-writers, moss-grown with whimsies,
Loquacious when the watercourse is dry.
---from the now, perhaps a tad ubiquitous, "Song: Stop All the Clocks":
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one:
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods:
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
The first of these two exhibits shows how loquaciousness can set in even when things remote from watercourses go dry; the second, quickly nailing its colors to the mast, advances metrically with a drum roll rhythm once heard at military funerals, and along the elegiac salient with vocalics (every bit as lurching as the drum roll) giving the quite distinct impression of a lover utterly
farklempt with grief. So engaging is the almost child-like swervings into surrealism that the poet hardly seems aware of the presumptuousness of his own hyperbole. True, exaggeration is part and parcel of the pastoral elegy, but here all stops are pulled in order to secure the Adonis of this lament his mini-Adonais. Even if this poem didn't turn up in such unlikely places as
Four Weddings and a Funeral (a film that takes an unconscionably long time to have a mumpish Hugh Grant mount an overcast Andie MacDowell), its illustration that hackneyed rhymes will do as well as unhackneyed ones (provided, of course, they serve a worldliness that remains aloof to any show of unreason other than a loss mourned past all forgetting) sets a new high for the kind of succinctness Auden could only dream of when being a poet was seizing some
paysage and making it moralisé from the safe remove of a side-car, courtesy of Karl Marx.
All of this would be of little interest were it not for the fact that Auden's
modus operandi as a poet offers interesting clues to what might have influenced him when choosing poems for
The Criterion Book of Modern American Verse. By now we are all familiar with Auden's morality play of turn, counterturn and stand; his way of bouncing paradox off paradox, while all the while balancing irony and anxiety on a trampoline strung to a Kierkegaardian equilibrist's snootiest requirements. In
"Musée des Beaux Arts," for example, Auden strikes unbenownst off the unbeknowing so that a string of recognitions set off along a fault line of suppositions would show art as less unstable than "normality" because it is not subject in the same way to what Freud called "overdetermination." Coerced into downloading the poem's major premise, the reader is pressured into assuming an awkward moral posture which, should he acquiesce to its duplicity, would cause him to render
de rigueur its most astringent implication, which is not, by the way, "About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters." We can safely refuse this blank check: the Old Masters were as likely to be wrong as anyone else in their time and place, and about suffering,
too--or if not wrong, then certainly complicit in consigning it, as collateral damage incurred,
mutatis mutandis, to a religiously sanctioned back burner. No, the more controversial item floated here by Auden is that world-shattering events
are always, on their own instant, negligible. To argue this is to collapse every auspicious or extraordinary onset into a
Nativity--or worse, to turn the speech acts of art into the performative utterances of religion.
In contrast to literature, representational paintings confine themselves to a single subject because their point of view is inescapably singular and univocal. The "Mona Lisa"'s smile may be ambiguous but the "human position" of its subject as delineated by Da Vinci in his painting by is not. Which brings us to the crux cleverly inlaid in Auden's poem, namely that as a consequence of painting's univocality, the revolutionary engine of modern art resides less in abstraction than in the freeing up of perspective to a point where athematicism overwhelms subject and in a majority of cases abolishes it altogether. In such wise has much modern art been left holding a bag of winds
that--Picasso's Guernica excluded--hardly ever blow moral. (The only moral issue arising out of being in a room with a Kandinsky or a Miró is whether to steal it or not.) By implication then, Auden's
poem--which is about Old and not New Masters--points to a dereliction of the artistic that can be compensated for only by embracing the intimations of painterly prophets whose sermons-in-tempera, having warned of the human position's being lost sight of, have been reduced to stuffing for,
well--for musées des beaux arts. The burden imposed by Auden's poem, then, lies in seeing the
ne plus ultra of "a boy falling out of the sky" as encoding more than Eliot's Gerontion might disparagingly designate "a sign and a wonder." And so the scene, with its Olympian
de trop emblazoned on its frowning brow, is surrendered to the care of a Love-starved interregnum, to whose toilers in indifference the vision of a Breughel the Elder cuts as much ice as do the legs of his Icarus the surface of the sea before "disappearing into the green." (Though a more cynical reader might explain the
exemplum Auden draws from myth rather differently--as deriving, say, from a homosexual poet's fantasy of what a potlatch of the gods might, in a dream of dreams, literally culminate in: a boy falling out of the sky.)
Reduced to a formula, such superposition of wall-writing (in blood,
à la Nebuchadnezzar) and industrial strength wish-fulfillment (aus Die Traumdeutung of Freud) stands guarantor to the spirit of American poetry informing the anthology Auden wished to present to his adopted country in 1956. By way of demonstrating this, I offer Robert Francis's poem "Swimmer" as a case in point:
Observe how he negotiates his way
With trust and the least violence, making
The stranger friend, the enemy ally.
The depth that could destroy gently supports him.
With water he defends himself from water.
Danger he leans on, rests in. The drowning sea
Is all he has between himself and drowning.
What lover ever lay more mutually
With his beloved, his always reaching arms
Stroking in smooth and powerful caresses?
Some drown in love as in dark water, and some
By love are strongly held as the green sea
Now holds the swimmer. Indolently he turns
To float.--The swimmer floats, the lover sleeps.
Swimmer, lover; floater, sleeper: the adduced homology sinks well below the analogic, yet rises triumphantly above the merely congruent. Francis, in as much as he's a poet, is playing at jacks with correspondences, or at correspondences by spinning commonplaces. Let's just say he's whiling away his time (albeit divertingly) in a sandbox as packed with opacities as the litany of valedictions seeing out the young child's classic,
Good Night, Moon. "Things one can drown in" might be one catchall his poem shrewdly avoids, opting suggestively instead for its chiastic
doppelgänger, "things to dream about while going through the motions of drowning." The desire to flirt with sexual and absolute death (in the course of bathing one's limbs in a sensually submergent bath) poses a problem no poet in English from Campion through Cleveland stood in ignorance of. And Francis's poem solves it, without invoking the term-limits of drowning as a
riposte to suburban malaise so mawkishly belabored in John Cheever's
New Yorker story (and '60s film, with Burt Lancaster as a neighborly, but out of control breast stroker) "The Swimmer."
Perhaps it was the fact of swimming pools with their accusative odor of disinfectant wafting over backyards across the country as the century reached its halfway point that turned the fancy of their owners, many themselves adrift in mid-life crisis, to thoughts of amortization extending beyond property lines. For there is something about backyard swimming pools (imagine where Mike Nichols's film
The Graduate would have been without its chlorine aquatints importuning us about how suburban life during the mid-'60s in southern California was just one big
aquarium) that makes it difficult not to think of shallow people going off the deep end; or worse, of margin players like Jay Gatsby floating face down in a reddening, olympic-sized testament to their own
overreaching--though Francis's poem, to be fair, has its own, rather different ways of imagining tradeoffs and their agendas for staying afloat.
After a long season in hell, stretching from the ideological conflicts of the '30s, through World War II, to its aftermath of naming names and refusing to call things by their right ones, it now seemed sweet and fitting to poets like Robert Francis to lay out what grace under pressure might have the look and feel of in an utterly un-Hemingwayesque world of apostasy and betrayal. How much to give, and of what; how much to accept, and from whom: such dandlings of scruple do the work here that allegory used to do, as the plumbing of prudential depths takes precedence over the gunning of metaphor with conceits that are at best a stretch. "The depth that could destroy gently supports him. / With water he defends himself from water. / Danger he leans on, rests in": for Francis, how one adapts to the danger posed by the medium holding one prisoner ultimately determines whether the existential risks undertaken were worth it or not. (Whether their outcome merited the award of both ears and the tail to the taker of risk is very much a separate matter, of significance perhaps to those given to pondering over Miguel de Unamuno's "tragic sense of life.")
Buying into such tradeoffs seems at least consonant with Auden's own mid-century views on how to handle pains in the cervical region from all those jerky attempts to save one's neck in that "low and dishonest decade" and the one of hot and cold war that immediately followed it. No doubt Francis, only a few years older than Auden, experienced like traumas trying to save face in his own neck of the woods; but in the late '40s and early '50s, when so many rose or fell by association, metonymy looked as suitable a replacement for metaphor in the speech of poets as in those delivered in the House and Senate chambers of the U. S. Congress. This is not to suggest that every poem Auden saw fit to include in
The Criterion Book accords with some schema of the poet's own devising. But literary anthologies do tend to mirror the current preoccupations of their editors, and these in turn reflect the cultural concerns, both latent and manifest, of their time. That is why certain collections survive the winnowing and remaindering of years and why others, though appearing equally to have mastered the game, do not. A good anthologist of modern American verse will confine her choices to those poems that strike her as either the singular achievements of poets whose genius is hardly
questionable--a Yeats, an Eliot, a Stevens--or worthy compactions, from whatever source, of gists and piths thrown up by the time "speaking in tongues." A
great anthologist, however, will unfailingly zero in on poems (and poets) that erase by dint of sheer relevance the line by which the first category may effectively be distinguished from the second.
Now, Auden, apart perhaps from a compulsion to give light
verse--a passion of his--more than its due, is a great anthologist, which means that we shouldn't be surprised when a certain off-the-wall quality creeps into his selection process. "This Dim and Ptolemaic Man," by John Peale Bishop (1892-1944), may in an obscure way recall the glories of metaphysical poetry past; but other than rehashing a somewhat earlier attempt by T. S. Eliot to yoke together heterogeneities made eerily companionable by Webster and Middleton, what price glory when one has to account for such declinations from the auratic as this:
For forty years, for forty-one,
Sparing the profits of the sun,
This farmer piled his meagre hoard
To buy at last a rattly Ford.
Now crouched on a scared smile he feels
Motion spurt beneath his heels,
Rheumatically intent shifts gears,
Unloosing joints of rustic years.
Morning light obscures the stars,
He swerves avoiding other cars,
Wheels with the road, does not discern
He eastward goes at every turn,
Nor how his aged limbs are hurled
Through all the motions of the world,
How wild past farms, past ricks, past trees,
He perishes toward Hercules.
The rhyme scheme is far from the level of accomplishment of the Eliot who gave us the Pound-inspired satiric poems that are today more memorable for their anti-Semitic slurs than for qualities that might have softened Dr. Johnson's verdict on the school of Donne, had he been alert to their presence in "Burbank with a Baedeker" or "Sweeney Among the Nightingales." Nor are the various disorienting sexual obsessions in place that would personalize these quatrains with Eliot's characteristic turf marker. Bishop's
idées fixes swerve toward different evasions of death than do Eliot's, though they are certainly no less couched in gauche
bacchanales of the mechanical. No "taxis throbbing, waiting," here; or off-road vagabondage of the sort attributable to such as Mrs. Porter and her daughter. The object of Bishop's vignette is a farmer, a "dim and Ptolemaic man," whose ecstatic interface with the world of the Model-T is neither final nor even fateful, but instead hinges on the hermetic, which is presented as mercurial indeed. While remaining thoroughly earthbound--hence
"Ptolemaic"--and undiscerning of how "He eastward goes at every turn, / Nor how his limbs are hurled / Through all the motions of the world--hence "dim." In fact, his swervings all occur as "morning light obscures the stars." Far from prospecting some Copernican, or post-Copernican, rendezvous with wings, Bishop's poem instead looks ahead to the mindless orgiastics of a world automotively out of control, like J. G. Ballard's in the "first pornographic novel based on technology,"
Under the spell of such thematics it is not at all difficult to get carried
away--by the Benjaminian implications they unleash, if nothing else. But far more central here is what Auden might have seen in this poem to make him view
it as exemplary. Did he take it for a piece of light verse weightily taking on more cargo than such poetry normally can handle? Was it the deftness with which that excess cargo, made to double as bulwark
and hold, keeps the craft from sinking of its own excess weight? Or could it be something subtler than that, an appreciation by Auden, perhaps, of the daring required, after
Mauberley and The Waste Land, to rhyme trees with Hercules and imagine getting away with it? Another poem, facing Bishop's in the anthology, titled "The Fog" and written by Robert P. Tristram Coffin (1892-1955), throws light on why Auden might have valued, and even possibly overvalued, poetry whose groundedness in "strong measures" outweighed both unconcealed weakness of argument and inconsistency of tone. In this poem of three stanzas of four rhyming couplets each, Coffin intends a resuscitation Sublime but leaves the distinction between artificial respiration and fogging up a mirror a coroner's toss-up:
He knew how Roman legions looked, for he
Had seen the Maine coast fogs march in from sea
For many years now, in the August days.
They came in mighty columns up the bays,
Tawny and grey and silver in the sun;
They trampled out the seaports one by one,
The islands and the woods, with their high hosts,
And pushed the world back inland from the coasts.
This little house was lost, these hills and dells,
Cows in a pasture faded into bells,
The world around a man closed in and in
Till nowhere was ten paces from his chin.
A man drew up and halted with a start
To be so close to his own beating heart
And left so to himself and wholly blind
To everything but what was in his mind.
This was the peril and the comfort, too,
A man who lived in such a region knew;
On any Summer's day, within an hour,
He might be blind and naked to a power
So vast, it might have come from stars unmade,
Undreamt of, even, making him afraid,
So mightier than the night that he could guess
How life was but a name for loneliness.
This is the sort of poem that on Auden's native ground would be the seventh heaven of the Sixth Former that meets puberty head on and bottoms up, while struggling to bend Horace into neo-Augustan curlicues that, one would be willing to wager a lot, sound a lot like those couplets of Coffin's above. And it might also go far to explain how a poem as "over the top" as "The Fog" undercut others to get into Auden's book. Along with John Peale Bishop and more than a few other poets for whose work room in the anthology was either found or made, Coffin has pretty much faded from the
scene--though this might say more about how poems with "morals" have lost faith with their readers over the years than about how today's attention spans have begun quailing at having to accept rhyme as the only adhesive that can bond things viewable aslant to Aristotelian
sophrosyne (or "high seriousness") in poems that are otherwise as negligible as "The Fog." Not that peril coming smack up against coziness hasn't the crumbly feel of old newspapers; or that the capitalization of Summer, though not thematically a deal breaker, doesn't further grease a slope already slickened by the outlandish conceit of a fog metonymizing Roman legionaries on the march. Yet, what is likelier to have snagged Auden's attention is the third stanza's elevation of loneliness to the summit of human vulnerability: the power of a fog that can blot out stars and sky must necessarily also be one able to occlude all lesser pieties of terror and leave man "blind / To everything but what was in his mind." By this unhorsing of
reason--and in this the recombinant theme of Auden's universe stands
revealed--man is reduced to nothing each time his sense of mortality is enlivened by an importunity of the sublime. It is only the susceptibility to anxiety (as Auden's favorite philosopher, Kierkegaard, taught) that permits man to remain on an even keel since only through dread is he finally made to face, unaided by abetting ideologies, the forces of destabilization that his anxiety shoots back at him in the shape of his own declining talent.
During the Depression years Auden learned how difficult the
faux-religiosities reared by Marx and Freud were to shake, how decentering of Christian love their lowering encirclements could prove. He went from loving the fascism that dared not speak its
name--communism; to closeting himself in an Unconscious reeking of Original Sin; to filibustering the forces on either side of the apolitical divide that from moment to moment threatened to vote his slipshod manner of existence up or
down--all in less than 20 years.
America helped. It too was on an all-expenses-paid cruise through the locks of Hegelian historicism, the open sea of hegemony a distinct possibility for the first time in its span of generations as a first-rate second-rate power. Granted, the country had had its problems, but they were mostly blowouts from spurts of uncontrolled growth and the need felt every now and then to let off steam. They were the inevitable downside of a political system that not only facilitated the election of loudmouths to high places but enabled the often cockeyed instaurations these windbags thought to impose (with the help of rabble-rousers like William Randolph Hearst) on a bored, distracted and, not infrequently, intoxicated electorate. In the late '40s and early '50s every yellow-dog Democrat had his hobbyhorse, and every yellow-dog Republican his Trojan one. Below the Mason-Dixon line, politics was all about tire salesmen voting populist and espousing Negro inferiority, while above it, oddballs like Wisconsin's Senator McCarthy were waving lists of Communists in the federal government and whistle blowers in the Fifth Estate were finding the nation's sex scandals more than
The Police Gazette could handle alone. No wonder America's writers headed for cover (in company with
The Nation's writers, which, given the radical pasts many of them were sitting on, was both prudent and wise). They joined their critical colleagues, who, absent a G.I. Bill-Ph.D. and an assistant professorship at Podunk State, found themselves caught between the rock of being high paid, unattributed fools of
Time and the hard place of being low-paid, but attributed Times'-servers.
But this is old news (especially for readers who've downloaded my most recent pieces in
Contemporary Poetry Review). Why am I rehashing here? Because it is neither outlandish nor unfair to say about
The Criterion Book's editor that, unlike Henry James and T.S. Eliot, he found it amusing to poke not at the presentness of the past, but at the pastness lurking just behind the present. Auden could not resist the bitter but engaging tang that came off slightly stale news, the "titbits" (as he called them) that show mold in the same way gossip does when its shelf life is
just about to expire, its smell like Welsh rarebit that's a little bit off. Who can say if Auden's judgment was skewed or unaffected by its blandishments? An idiosyncratic and even scrofular letch it could certainly have been, and it might well have fed into his weakness (a well documented one) for what might be termed "topical
kitsch"--the sort of stuff Lord Byron collected and Edward John Trelawny ghoulishly rehearsed in his memoir,
Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron . In addition, and not unrelated to this, was Auden's notorious habit (by the '50s more or less under control, but still sometime requiring prior restraint) of squirrelling away odd kernels of meaning in stubbornly unyielding abstract nouns, perhaps most typically treed in verses like the following, from "Three
But lovelorn sighs ascend
From wretched greedy regions
Which cannot include themselves . . . .
How else explain why, of all the lesser poems by Archibald MacLeish, Auden chose to include "Cook County" (as unsavory a poem as, outside Chicago and environs, its title might suggest) and "Words in Time," a paper bagatelle in which
being--in a mutant version of the poet's famous formula--is but a booby prize awarded missing meaning altogether:
Bewildered with the broken tongue
Of wakened angels in our sleep--
Then, lost the music that was sung
And lost the light time cannot keep!
There is a moment when we lie
Bewildered, wakened out of sleep,
When light and sound and all reply:
That moment time must tame and keep.
That moment, like a flight of birds
Flung from the branches where they sleep,
The poet with a beat of words
Flings into time for time to keep.
The ideal support system for such hackwork is a
Collected Poems full of other pieces just like it, each snug within its homiletic opacity while remaining humble and content to occupy a pew somewhere near the back of the Cathedral of Literature. As a poet, MacLeish had the ability to appear wordy and sententious even when his statements affected a terseness like that of the lines quoted above, and a desire for the sort of
"stet" immortality of utterance which his "Ars Poetica," in being quoted to death, ironically failed to achieve. Such lapidary perfection-mongering has proved as elusive to critical ratification as fine-art status for ships-in-bottles, which MacLeish poems in a funny way seem to resemble. (A parting question for this
poet--though unfortunately, of course, no longer answerable by him: Are flights of birds, or for that matter of anything else,
Auden himself could be wordy, but in his own way, which was not the way of Eliot's talkier
Quartets (and plays), and certainly not that of his
co-conspirators--Spender, MacNeice, Lewis, and Isherwood--addressed, alluded to, and even auraticized in his book
The Orators (1930). He would go about it-is wordiness--as though he were, in fact, His Wordiness. In order to pull off this rather adolescent imposture he would mock the sort of self-swallowing circumlocution that bureaucrats and politicians favored while milking its udders dry. Few habitual readers of the poet were fooled by seeing him put such avoidances of owning up into the mouths of foils like Caliban, who in the poem-sequence
The Sea and the Mirror gets to bare himself on the lip of the stage and show his teeth, though from the tenor of his address to the audience the years of their best baring have come and gone:
If now, having dismissed your hired impersonators with verdicts ranging from the laudatory orchid to the disguised and disgusting egg, you ask and, of course, notwithstanding the conscious fact of his irrevocable absence, you instinctively do ask for our so good, so great, so dead author to stand before the finally lowered curtain and take his shyly responsible bow for this, his latest, ripest production, it is
I--my reluctance is, I can assure you, co-equal with your dismay--who will always loom this wretchedly into your confused picture, for, in default of the all-wise, all-explaining master you would speak to, who else at least can, who else indeed must respond to your bewildered cry, but its very echo, the begged question you would speak to him about.
All that to register an objection to
The Tempest--one which, it should be noted, has been multivalently voiced by Shakespeare critics from Xanadian Coleridge down to Orientalism's current scourge, Edward
Said--namely, that among the play's unresolved questions, the fate of Caliban is the one most pleatedly skirted. Are Auden's readers meant to feel tipped to his views on such matters by the closeness of the prolusions mouthed by "Prospero's ape" to his own "propria-ted
personae-tion" inserted in other places? Wordiness is as wordiness does, but not in poetry, which, being the opposite of language that entails, bespeaks ramifications, undoes partitions thrown up to separate things from one another analytically.
Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it certainly isn't the soul of information, which is what everything in language, except poetry, exists to make manifest. What poetry
cannot make manifest, except through prayer (or its nearest cognates among trumped up spiritualities), is what makes the calling forth of aggrandizements beyond the normative galaxies of the self (with its remote disturbances of mood, like sunspots upsetting life on earth) culminate in humility in the sense of what the French term
disponible, or in rather less gracious English, "at someone's disposal." Whether it speaks to the heart of what is best spoken in Auden, the truth or expedient mordancy of his Christian overview, or not, there is no question that this poet was most supreme not when he was voicing satiric paeans to Unknown Citizens, but when he was giving utterance to that
Let be which exfoliates as naturally, and as supernaturally, as supplicative petals on a stem of petitionary calm:
Make this night loveable,
Moon, and with eye single
Looking down from up there
Bless me, One especial
And friends everywhere.
With a cloudless brightness
Surround our absences;
Innocent be our sleeps,
Watched by great still spaces,
White hills, glittering deeps.
Parted by circumstance,
Grant each your indulgence
That we may meet in dreams
For talk, for dalliance,
By warm hearths, by cool streams
Shine lest tonight any,
In the dark suddenly,
Wake alone in a bed
To hear his own fury
Wishing his love were dead.
Thus, "Nocturne," a plea for simplicity in the face of a wound too deep for tears, too eager in its arranged miscegenation with
self-doubt--and self-arraignment--to accept the "tough love" of self that civility and common sense demand. Moon-inspired, as well as moon dissolved, such night-prayers wrung from lovers must remain simple without giving rise to fears that simplicity might itself be made self-accusingly to wither amid whispers of "Honi soit qui mal y pense." "Moon, save me from myself," is what cries out from the heart of this "petition," the very word recalling the title of a 1928 Auden poem, which was among the first to be deleted from the later "Variorum Auden," which also dropped "September 1, 1939" from its pages as "dishonest." But that self the speaker wishes to be saved from is indistinguishable from that which revels in speech remaining so conscious of itself as speech that it is never far from wallowing in the sort of self-conscious word play that denies poetry its queenly patent.
(An aside: I realize that the phrase I've just written involves Auden in a double bind (if not a sexual double helix) and I don't even want to go there. I could simply have written "No pun intended," but then I would've implicated myself in a duplicity of the sort so cuttingly depicted in a marvelous 1980's
New Yorker cartoon with that disclaimer as its caption. In it, a letter writer is leaning back from his desk, Mont Blanc uplifted at a rakish angle and a look of utter triumph on his face as he revels in all the stylish deceit of the cliché he has just denied using. Now, step back from contemplating what
I've just finished doing and you'll appreciate how hard it is to ignore damning evidence of satisfaction taken in the use of word play with a stinger in its tale; and coincidentally, how Auden bounces poem after duplicitous poem off his own jousts with
Schadenfreude and what Eliot, in his essay "On Lancelot Andrewes," memorably refers to as "the shadow of the impure motive.")
Again--predictably, I suppose--Auden has made a point of seeking out such moral catechresis in the poetry he holds up as "exemplary" in the "modern" as well as the "American" sense of that term. But his liking for certain poets, as reflected in this anthology's disposing of ins and outs, indicates he thought wit less in evidence in verse originating on this side of the Atlantic than ham-handed preachiness. Like his politics after the Spanish Civil War, Auden preferred his American poetry overcooked as opposed to raw or even pink in the middle. He instinctively went for poems that having laced a dilemma into a moral straitjacket early on, then paraded horns no longer threatening to anyone as proof of bull in anyone but Kierkegaard's compulsive eitherings of or. He also believed, somewhat unaccountably, that the American language was best represented in moralizing tongue-twisters, such as "Description of Elysium" by the otherwise exemplary James Agee:
Whole health resides with peace,
Gladness and never harm,
There not time turning
Nor fear of flower of snow.
Or this rather more hot-under-the-collar study in symbolic wool-gathering, "The
Daughters of the Horseleech," by Stanley Kunitz:
The daughters of the horseleech crying 'Give! Give!'
Implore the young men for the blood of martyrs.
How shall we keep the old senator alive
Unless we satisfy his thirst for cultures?
Entreat the rat, the weasel, and the fox
To forage for a toothless master;
Have mercy, boys, on the monkey in his box;
Dear Judas goat, lead out the sheep to slaughter.
For if the warlock with the gilded claws
Withers away, and of his bones are waters,
Who will transmute our foreheads into brass
And who will keep his five charming daughters?
Unless it be the enormous tribute we pay just to keep our superstitions in the style to which they've become accustomed, the meaning of this poem escapes at least one reader. Kunitz is better at reading the tea leaves bottomed out in life's steeper, it seems to me, in "He," the second of the three poems by him Auden has singled out. Rather than bring the Judas goat to water, Kunitz's "he" makes him drink the water
before it gets walked on (by you know Who):
He runs before the wise men: he
Is moving on the hills like snow.
No gists, no tears, no company
He brings the wind-rise and water-flow.
In meadows of descended day
His motion leans, dividing air:
He takes the unforgiving way
Beneath the apostolic star.
Mary, Mary, call Him Stranger.
Parting the night's long hair, He steals
Within the heart, that humble manger
Where the white, astonished spirit kneels.
His vertical inflicting pride,
Whose shadow cuts the nib of space,
Bends to this virtue fructified.
But though He kiss the little face
Like rapture breaking on the mind,
The necessary fierce details
Implacably He has designed.
Redemption hangs upon the nails.
The '50s were very much a time for valuing poems that made one work for one's supper, symbolism-wise. Unshriven by reader-response, we thought it chic to beat our brains to pulp, if only to make a wall of verse somehow yield truth, convinced as we, as only those desirous of benightedness could be, that with
knottiness abounding everywhere--holiness be damned--there had to be a tree in there
somewhere. Poems like Kunitz's were our stock in trade, as were the God-consuming fever-flowers of the Filippino poet, José Garcia
Villa--before he decided to do for the comma what Emily Dickinson did for the dash:
Between God's eyelashes I look at you,
Contend with the Lord to love you,
In this house without death I break His skull
I ache, I ache to love you.
I will batter God's skull, God's skull, God's skull!
I'll batter it till He love you
And out of Him I'll dash I'll dash
In thy coasts, O mortal flesh.
He'll be broken He'll be broken He'll be broken
By my force of love He'll be broken
And when I reach your side O Eve
You'll break me you'll break me you'll break me.
Though most poetry readers of the '50s would probably have listed overt religiosity in verse as a pet
aversion--and that hanging over Eliot and the High Church school of critics that sprung up around
him--some weren't averse to Buddhism lightly brushing them with its yak whisk every now and then. (It was the time of the Beats, after all.) Yet, if the question had ever been put to those readers, most, I think, would have readily agreed with Dame Edith Sitwell (who supplied a Preface to Villa's
Selected Poems and New in 1958) that the truth indeed was as the poet Novalis claimed when he remarked that "All absolute sensation is religious"; which is probably why those wowed by Villa's tricks with a Herbert or Crashaw poem were signed on so quickly to the notion that a poet able to knock off a poem like "Between God's Eyelashes," with or without a Hopkins upgrade,
had to be one upon whom--to paraphrase Eliot on Henry James--no "absolute sensation" was lost. The trouble with Villa's approach to religion
and poetry is that bad not infrequently invites worse, and what should early on have met with a full stop careens fecklessly and benightedly toward this:
Crisp, is, God's anger--
It, cracks, with, Tenderness,
He, is, so, much, Sun,
He, must, in, the, end, caress.
I, caused, His, anger, once,--
He, smote, the, dark, into, me, fierce!
But, then, it, broke, it, broke--
He, placed, me, again, amongst, His, peers!
Moreover, it pretty much went without saying that poetry like this (minus the compulsive dashing) was right up Auden's alley. He much enjoyed watching the elemental faith of the Puritans leap clear out of its skin, and then watch the discovery dawn that in climbing back in, its skin had been turned inside out. Especially, he relished the role of spectator-outsider, being able to stand, as he could then, on the very soil to which those arts of conservation, so keenly practiced by the
Puritans--and so rudely interrupted by the dissolution of the English Commonwealth in
1659--had been transplanted. Much of the best topsoil enriched with those arts had produced the final harvest of Emily Dickinson's nearly 2000 poems, leaving later American poets of religious mien with the humiliating task of trying to seed and fertilize no longer fecund
ground--which perhaps explains the manure-like smell that wax fruit like Allen Tate's "Sonnets at Christmas" (1934) sends wafting.
How artificial the contortions that Villa put himself and his language through, and how paltry their dividends now seem. Note how in "Be Beautiful," Auden's other selection of Villa's, the poem ignores its own title's admonishment, while its factitious exactitudes, (ostensibly "the good life"'s
desiderata) pile up like crash test dummies:
Be beautiful, noble, like the antique ant,
Who bore the storm as he bore the sun,
Wearing neither gown nor helmet,
Though he was archbishop and soldier:
Wore only his flesh.
Salute characters with gracious dignity,
Though what these are is left to
Your own terms. Exact: the universe is
Not so small but these will be found.
Somewhere. Exact: they will be found.
Speak with great moderation: but think
With great fierceness, burning passion:
Though what the ant thought
No annals reveal, nor his descendants
Break the seal.
Trace the tracelessness of the ant,
Every ant has reached this perfection.
As he comes, so he goes,
Flowing as water flows,
Essential but secret like a rose.
It's unfortunate for the survival of poems like these that anthologies sandwich them between "classics" that eclipse them utterly. What a pity that only four pages further on lies "The Waking," by Theodore Roethke--
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light makes the Tree; but who can tell how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
--ready to crush "Be Beautiful" like the not so antique ant it is. Cruel as it might be to call "The Waking" a modified Villa-nelle (though it might not be clear to whom it is most cruel), it becomes plain when the two poems are juxtaposed that Roethke and Villa inhabit poetic planets as different as the tutelary stars they orbit. True, Roethke is no tutelary star himself these days, though his years as an inside straight beat Villa's opening queens, hands down. But then, one needn't reach for arcane technical reasons to explain why "The Waking" moves us and "Be Beautiful" remains crushingly stillborn. What is curious is that Auden's taste is not infrequently capable of looking past the quick to embrace the miscarriage, if its conception seems marked with a trace of genuine passion. Whether it was catholicity of response on Auden's part that made the difference, or the poet's fearlessness in courting the impossible is anybody's guess; Dame Edith wasn't the only insider to fall for Villa's
ersatz surrealism and canned religious heat.
The Criterion Book of Modern American Verse opens with the poets Edwin Arlington Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters, both of whom (with birth dates in 1869) came into the world just as the robber barons were coming into their own, and ends quite fittingly on the promissory note of its two youngest contributors, Robert Horan and Anthony Hecht, being born in 1922, the
annus mirabilis that could claim, among other things, the publication of
Ulysses and The Waste Land as signal events. But the gap that yawns between those years in ways defies consolidation. To make good the ground covered by Americans of all colors from President Grant's administration to President Harding's in poetry is to paper over a
terra infirma plagued by scandal, darkly cobbled fortunes and Indian genocide from Oklahoma to California. What found its way
onto paper in those years was a hugely different story--again, not the one being written as
graffiti all across the country by boatloads of immigrants, mostly fleeing the slums and ghettoes of Europe, but the more somber record of blighted hopes and souls in hiding that flourished alongside the Whitmanian epic of a New Canaan dripping with honey (rather than money) and ready to be milked. It's odd how America's alternative
bounty--it can't really be called a "tradition"--of "immigrant verse" had to wait until the politically correct '70s and '80s for Paul Lauter and his kind to lift it off the boil.
Only one such poet, Samuel Greenberg (1893-1917), made it into Auden's anthology; but his three short
poems--condignly titled "Conduct," "Peace" and "Man"--tell more than their air of brevity might seem to restrict them to. "Man," for instance, hints at holocaust, as well as Apollo 11, in its haruspicy of entrails to come:
Always alone, star-told?
What tales are bones and skulls?
O thou nigh art a lost mind!
Quite true, we dug gold out
Of thee. Wilt thou build shadows?
Cause them thicker than now?
A trip to the moon perhaps
Will turn Heaven's eye real.
O burning statue of tendons---
Time loses thine eye!
The quaintness of his idiom almost overshadows the wilt-proof I-Thou-ness of Greenberg's touching anticipation of Crane's "The Bridge" and "The Broken Tower." We're a ways from "benzine rinsings of the moon," but how could a poet like Greenberg really be expected to have had a life-altering experience with a book like
The Symbolist Movement in Literature as Eliot did, or one with Eliot's early poems as Crane was later to have? In "Peace," his language resembles a colloquy between dyspeptically sleepless versions of 19th Century English poetry (as well as some early Yeats), all busily collaborating on a Lautréamont-esque reworking of Edward Young's
The blue, faded purple, horizon mount
Seemed to bellow the valleys in mists
Of enriching, ensuing, divine shadowings . . .
Where may this be? Perhaps unpopulated
Crags of stepping rocks, where thought
Slumbers, inhaled thought, unbearing
Real earth that refines e'er the insects' muse.
Royalty defies the haunt they chose,
Therein mingles wild, perspective charm,
As immortals' thorny, entangled growth
'Mongst the fields of oaks, pressing steep
Twilight's veil, Milky Way's fence; the deep
Lionized eagle hisses o'er this scene;
Birds, wild swans, glide palely o'er a charming stream.
It's hard to know how to do critical justice to something like
this--its effects are primordial and subtle, certainly; but also rumbled, ruffled and disarranged (in the sense of being denied the sensible gradations of range and perspective);
and abysmal, as though we'd stumbled upon a De Profundis coughed out by a computer crammed with every late 18th Century poet from Chatterton to Blake.
It's a shame Greenberg died before even reaching the age of 30. Who knows what prodigies of derangement he might have birthed under the impress of what was just then, in 1917, beginning to erupt under the sponsorship not only of Whitman the extoller of promised lands and democratic vistas, but of the aero- and jargonautically
correct Whitman, done up in Imagist or Objectivist
"imitations"--harking forward to Robert Lowell's use of the term--of the best and the worst of
Leaves of Grass. In the presumptive world of American poets Auden has staked out in this anthology, Greenberg seems almost to have been put in quarantine out of fear that he, and poets like him, might be hosting foreign germs against which Wasp America lacked effective antibodies. Even so, one has to be grateful for his inclusion, if only in a small way; for the slippage of his name from memory constitutes more than a mere lapse in critical judgment. From the vantage of another half-century beyond 1956, it appears a misdemeanor that, were pro-active scholarship to enter the picture, might well prove to have masked the literary equivalent of a high crime.
No bushels or hidden lights obscuring another writer, Kenneth Patchen. Once venerated as a cult figure for the experimental novel
The Journal of Albion Moonlight, his sentimentally inflated poems have sunk as though harpooned. Even worse, readers too young to believe the '50s could have venerated anyone other than Ginsberg and Kerouac confuse him with another '30s poet, Kenneth Fearing, whose work Auden saw fit to ignore. Patchen's style stands as an anti-war surrealist complement to Fearing's all-homogenizing "rube heteroglossia": he knits where his anti-self, Fearing, purls; aims at awe where his Other is content to feed language into a masher. If your adolescence tailed off during the late '50s, and you were the kind who let poetry fall through the cracks of your leisure, you were almost sure to have a beat up copy of Patchen buried
somewhere in your kit and kaboodle. Looking back, it seems impossible that an abnormally intelligent (and as abnormally lonely) 18-year-old,
circa 1956, would not have given serious thought, while reading a poem like "The Everlasting Contenders," to following Thomas Merton into Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where he wrote the famous memoir of conversion,
The Seven-Storey Mountain:
Of the beast . . . an angel
Creature of the earth
It is good
Any who praise not grandly
O but they should
But they should
Death waits for everything that lives
Beast of the wood
Grim beast of the wood
Who praise not grandly
Heart weeps for all things
And is greatly comforted
For the heart is the angel
Who praise not grandly
But wish they could
Auden, himself a pushover for every sentimentalism a creased and near-to-doddering intellectual might meet coming from another direction on his way to a second childhood, was partial to poets for whom the heart of the mystery was the mystery of the heart. With the world's end looming ever closer as the age of Eisenhower wore on, Patchen found himself more awe-stricken than awe-struck when forced to contemplate the increase in interstate commerce (then waxing near to exponential) between bangers and whimperers, and even more depressingly, vice versa. He was also disconsolate (along with many other thinking people) over the parade of hollow men making it to the cover of
Time Magazine as "Man of the Year," time after time and year after year. By the '50s, Patchen's by-the-yard verse jostled few sensibilities, but when the fit seized him he could do the muse proud. If not quite as proud as Ezra Pound could when seized by the spirit of his beloved Cavalcanti, here, in a poem Auden chose
not to select, "For Miriam," Patchen could skim the light fantastic as trippingly as any '60s
poet--and he didn't need a controlled substance to help him do it:
As beautiful as the hands
Of a winter tree
And as holy
Base are they beside thee
As dross beside thee
O green birds
That sing the earth to wakefulness
As tides the sea
Drab are they beside thee
As tinsel beside thee
And fair as the clouds
Over a summer field
They are crass beside thee
Move through the starhair
As tawdry beside thee
Or his "Beautiful You Are," a mirror poem to "For Miriam," and the same hairsbreadth away from what routinely ensnared Rod McKuen and his "pier poet" cohorts during the '60s and '70s:
Cathedral evening, tinkle of candles
On the frosted air
Beautiful you are
Beautiful your eyes, lips, hair
Ah still they come
Evening like chalices
Where little roofs and trees drink
Until a rude hand
Shatters them, one by one
O beautiful you are
Land of holiness, unblemished grace
In this winter place
O in the candles there
Than any legend's face
Your eyes, your hair
But what a hairsbreadth! The Auden who could write "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My
Love"--indeed, the entire cycle of 38 poems titled "Songs and Other Musical
Pieces"--was able to endorse, despite his control freak's passion for laying up wit against a nutless winter of love, a Patchen's indulgence of togetherness as the "good cop" of intimacy's
embrace--even to the point of rapt worshipfulness--because in the early stages of his lengthy "marriage" to the much younger poet, Chester Kallman,
he had been there. And that, surely, bears upon what any anthologist worth his or her salt must ask when including or rejecting a poem:
Have I been fortunate or unfortunate enough to have been where this poem leads me to imagine I could go more confidently, were I to have its vision to gainsay my passage? Wit could be useful to a poet when bargains with candor needed to be sealed, but the Auden who had managed to come out the other side of the Depression years and the war in Spain's political storms had concluded that, as Claude J. Summers writes in
The Columbia History of American Poetry (1993), "poetry [was] a form of efficacious communication rather than . . . an autonomous structure of private feeling and intellect." Not that this meant that he couldn't retract his vulnerabilities when horizons of sentiment either lowered or boomed. In his halcyon days as
un poète engagé, he had made a point of depicting "erotic love and feverish political activity," to quote Summers again, in a different context, "as stemming from the identical impulse and as expressions of vanity and the desire for power."
It was wit that brought a late-blooming Augustan glow to Auden's cheek in those
years--not the other way round--and kept it burnished through the (albeit inspirationally leaner) ones of his crypto-Freudian Christian novitiate. But the relationship with Kallman continued to cool his ardor for censure and the moralist's scourge. Lower-case love taught him that though "the Love that rules the sun and stars / Permits what He forbids," in that lexicon where Word meets word and divine ways are crossed by human means, "permit" and "allow" (the smiling invocation of Dante's paradisiacal Rose to the contrary notwithstanding) are anything but synonyms. In this life, Auden came to realize, Life may impose its scope, but it leaves the range of motion accorded man's moral existence strangely uncircumscribed. But isn't that precisely what the New Testament held justified its supplanting the Old? Do not its scriptures say to us:
Do as thou wilt, just so thou wilteth not in the doing; for God believeth in man His will to execute, in bravery of truth, as well as in the Life he draws from that which His letter giveth?
Having escaped a bed of nails for one in which nails bite amorously into what is content to luxuriate in its own bed, passions of the flesh are only too eager to assuage themselves with flesh drawn alike from the same well. All there is indeed
well--at least within the short term such beds provide for.
But what does the Christian do if the only beckoning bed is the reckoning bed? The final stanza of "The Drunken Fisherman," one of three poems by Robert Lowell chosen for this collection, reminds the American reader plunked down in the mid-'50s that neither he nor the time has wholly escaped the vortex, literary and spiritual, of
The Waste Land's tapering swirl:
Is there no way to cast my hook
Out of this dynamited brook?
The Fisher's sons must cast about
When shallow waters peter out.
I will catch Christ with a greased worm,
And when the Prince of Darkness stalks
My bloodstream to its Stygian term . . .
On water the Man-Fisher walks.
The narrowing of global horizons with the onset of the Cold War served further to reinforce the disrespect bordering on contempt Auden had begun to feel for such "glory boys" of 20th Century apocalyptism as D. H. Lawrence, as the '30s lapsed further into history. The passing of W. B. Yeats from the scene in 1939 had prompted from Auden one of his most splendid elegies; but the reputation of the poet considered by Eliot to be the century's best writing in English took some stiff body punches before settling into an almost reflexive source of quotes. In his poem of 1939 Auden noted what another great war was about to prove, that the rawness of history's humor turned ever more sanguine the more men waxed choleric. By the '50s, the body English discernible in Auden's autumnal unleavings bespoke a hunkering down as much as a letting go. An often flaccid discursivity now ruled where rhyme had once knit a shirt of flame: the very lengthening of his lines seemed to confirm a reaching for a liturgicality the poems themselves seemed determined to avoid. There was no mistaking that his taste in poetry, like his taste in everything else, had become decidedly more conservative. But an interesting sort of
conservatism--not the usual mix of crotchety sparring with humbug and youth-bashing from the shaky pedestal of insincere apologetics. His own verse had modulated to a version of sublimity on cruise control: dedicatory poems to benefactors and friends and speaking in spare rhapsodics of objects like tables and
chairs--"things about the house." Not long after having begun assembling The Criterion Book he praised W. C. Williams's late-blooming wonder of a confessional lyric "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" as "one of the best love poems in the English language," and was having almost as nice things to say about some of the younger American poets with whom he'd become acquainted. His acerbic manner was clearly softening, like a ripe and comfortably pungent English cheese. In the wake of having abandoned the long poem, with its urgent striving for polemical high ground, he had come to realize it was better to air issues than to have them, and again with Yeats in mind, that perhaps the poem, whether lengthy or brief, was not the place to stage a dialogue between actual and ideal self, or to seek a division of the house on the question of whether the self could be real or, as Sartre was busily declaiming to
tout Paris, merely a fiction of phenomenology's "transcendent ego." Auden found
consolation--and on occasion controversy--in serving for some twelve years on the Yale Younger Poets Series advisory board. Helping to promote the work of such new and fresh talents as Ted Hughes, John Ashbery and W. S. Merwin, he found he could make amends for earlier slights dispensed to rivals and pretenders to a grace he felt he'd already embezzled quite effortlessly from the muse.
Meanwhile, American poetry seemed to be oscillating perilously between a darkened age of pusillanimity and caution and an imminent Dark one in which hell was people Othering. The Battle of the Bookish, marvelously characterized by Donald Hall as pitting the Tweeds against the Sandals, was already being waged in the academy and in the coffee bars and taverns of San Francisco's North Beach and New York's Greenwich Village, Auden's own aerie and haunt. Hall himself, in collaboration with poets Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, was putting together his own anthology, in quality paperback format, which sought to exclude any poet even remotely associated with the bearded grunge merchants busily congregating in those dark places of the earth from which taste, elegance and decorum had fled in fear and disgust. Sporting the title
New Poets of England and America, that collection would appear the year after Auden's, 1957, to boasts not only of great courage in having drawn a line "between Them and Us" in the sand, but of exceptional determination to see this face-off, this "North Beach-as-Dover Beach thing" on which the fate of higher literacy hung in the balance,
through. For the Tweeds were not just setting themselves up as defenders of the faith fighting for the honor of Colgate, Columbia or Cornell, they were preparing, in full apocalyptic gear, for
Thermopylae. The barbarians they saw themselves up against might opt for the sobriquet "Beat," but their cockroach-like determination to dominate, the glint in their eye for Dostoievskian malevolence, was anything but beat if the term was taken to mean "beaten down." Though they sought approval from the Rimbaldian diaspora for having mutinied like Cain against conformism, they felt their highest marks had been earned for bringing the surrealist revolution home to America. And as their last hurrah, the '60's would show, they got terrorism off the streets and back into the schools where it belonged. They even found a way to make it seem respectable: they called it
But in 1955-56, when New Poets was being cobbled together, the Harper's Ferry insurrection of the Beats still seemed if not stoppable, then certainly slowable. And what would counteract the momentum of their accursed little movement was a
dose--a powerful dose--of "strong measures," a last, and lasting, antidote to rid American poetry of everything Whitman's
Leaves of Grass set spinning, once and for all. All the excesses of the so-called free-verse movement had to go. (William Carlos Williams might be a nice pediatrician and all that, but damn it, physician,
heal thyself!) Villanelles, rondeaux, sestinas would all be "in" again, big time. And why not? Weren't all the prestigious literary journals controlled by the Tweeds? Didn't the Ivy League universities hold all the major prizes, awards and government grants-in-aid in fief? "This Beat thing will go away soon enough, if only We can present a unified front while They uselessly court the Henry Luces
(Time and Life), the Donald Grahams (Newsweek) and the Barney Rossets
(Grove Press, with its unstoppable house organ, Evergreen Review)," was the cold comfort dispensed from downtown Manhattan all the way to the Hudson River. The rest of the country could choose its own path around Greenwich Village; they'd found theirs.
Yet they were right about one thing: it was a turning point, and, as we all know now, the Tweeds
lost--if not to the Sandals (who soon melded indistinguishably with the Hippies, Yippies, and fast-food malcontents of the '60s), then to the politically correct Theory wing of postmodernism, by which is meant the Marjorie Perloff/Charles Bernstein (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) axis, rendered most high-profile by Bradford Morrow's journal
Conjunctions, out of Bard College in New York State. This hasn't altered much in terms of the succession of establishments by one another, but it has resulted in the expansion of the nerve center of the American literary world in a westerly direction. It may now be said to extend from downtown Manhattan all the way to Annandale-on-Hudson (the site of Bard College).
There are other odd refinements to this paradigm as well. John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich, the
doyen and doyenne of the School of Poet-Academicians, have bestowed their diverse blessings on this new iron age aesthetic made up of roughly equal parts moribund politics (mostly "liberationist") and dead letter neo-Modernism (about which more later). At his best Ashbery transcends the ink cloud that since
As We Know (1979) has followed him about and nearly swallowed him up. At levels somewhat less than that he scrapes along magnificently as a Stop=Making=Sensicalist, with a new book of poems almost every year and the chance to have panels listing one's name as "advisory editor" grace as many mastheads as once plied the seas between Great Britain and India. As for Adrienne Rich, the cause of non-Pagliative feminism has been far better served in her poetry than has poetry itself. Over the last decade or more, her career has ranged from ensuring every American's right never to have poetry turned down for publication to crisis management of the status quo. Not to take anything away from Rich as First Lady of Ladies First, much of the blame for the impression many people have that 90% of being a poet is, to paraphrase Woody Allen, just showing up has to be placed at her door. What used to
matter--and this was one of two dirty little secrets professional poets kept to
themselves--was whom you showed up. The other dirty little secret was that things actually
were more interesting then, and poetry, being all that got tattooed on the epidermis of myth, was more interesting too. It's ironic that when the demand being voiced everywhere is to let
everything--even sex with children--hang out like kids in malls, we have tattoos and body piercing
up the yin, but less and less myth to tattoo and precious little poetry that doesn't put the skin trade in mind, or at the very least as at present, an air-brushed navel, complete with preening Jewel.
Still, fascinating as all this is, we need to get back to Auden, since this is after all an essay about him and the modern American verse tradition he tried to project through exhibits of the Promised Land Walt Whitman was not permitted by mortality and a certain lack of nerve to enter.
Fortunately for the readers of his Criterion Book, his taste in verse still proved sharp enough to allow the scrupulous bearers of his flame to be winnowed out from the merely talented Audenites. How exacting the gift distinguishing Richard Wilbur's "Beasts," which did get in--
Beasts in the major freedom
Slumber in peace tonight. The gull on his ledge
Dreams in the guts of himself the moon-plucked waves
And the sunfish leans on a stone, slept
By the lyric water;
In which the spotless feet
Of deer make dulcet splashes, and to which
The ripped mouse, safe in the owl's talon, cries
Concordance. Here there is no such harm
And no such darkness
As the selfsame moon observes
Where, warped in the window-glass, it sponsors now
The werewolf's painful change. Turning his head away
On the sweaty bolster, he tries to remember
The mood of manhood,
But lies at last, as always,
Letting it happen, the fierce fur soft to his face,
Hearing with sharper ears the wind's exciting minors,
The leaves' panic, and the degradation
Of the heavy streams. . . .
from "Hunt", by Melvin Walker La Follette, which did not:
All day it had been raining; now, the leaves
Were crisp and wet with light. It was not late
Yet; bright, the clouds were bright; but it was cold,
And in your small shivering you let me hold
Your head against my chest, and in that great
Alone it was only the light of the leaves
That was watching us. Our breath was clouds, a stump
Steamed quietly, a goldfinch landed on a clump
Of thistle, and started to sing; and it was good
To be warm with you in that untrammeled wood.
But time broke around us like glass, our friendly park
Grew bristling, we stood apart. From the dark
Trees came a red fox, running. Then
The dogs closed in, and finally, the men.
An R. P. Blackmur or a Randall Jarrell is hardly needed to tell which, from the standpoint of poetic quality, is the hawk and which is the handsaw. The Wilbur soars and swoops, the La Follette grinds a friendly blade into an obliging two-by-four with all the genial sure-footedness of a well-rehearsed stand-up working a familiar room. The influence of Auden is more than dimly present in each sample of verse; but whereas "Beasts" amortizes debts by dropping acreage, "Hunt" has trouble getting out from under cost overruns that should have been defrayed by interest on the principal originally invested. At best, La Follette's sonnet points forward to the Eliot-overlaid-with-Dickinson spinoffs made popular by Simon and Garfunkel in a decade in which inducements to narcolepsy were as routine as the awe-induced apnea which concludes that oft-reprinted trance in the shape of a poem, Frank O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died." But one would have trouble imagining even a Paul Simon letting pass a clinker like "[. . .] our friendly park / Grew bristling, we stood apart. From the dark / Trees came a red fox, running . . . ." Really-is S & G's "I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand / On Bleeker Street" any worse than La Follette's untrammeled woodenness of idiom and sentiment?
Nothing surprises here because there is nothing brought forward to surmount the ordinariness of an argument whose gestalt is equal to the sum of its parts, less the desire likely to be experienced by the reader to total them up. One moment of illumination only pierces the pedestrian fog: "[. . .] now, the leaves / Were crisp and wet with light," and is almost as soon lost again to the darkening nimbus: "It was not late / Yet; bright, the clouds were bright . . . " And has ever a rhyme more infelicitously married sound and sense than "a stump" and "a clump"? Or a sonnet more desperately sought originality of form than this fourteener, with a rhyme scheme (a-b-c-c-b-a-d-d-e-e-f-f-g-g) suggesting nothing so much as a trial balloon unsuccessfully floated at a poetry conference during the Renaissance? Auden-influenced or not, "Hunt" is to memorable poetry what a Republican National Convention is to free speech. No wonder the Gregory Corsos and Allen Ginsbergs stood on the threshold of igniting the young in a massive poetry reclamation project that has yet to be countered by measures any stronger than forcing poetry back into girdle and wonder-bra and pretending the insurgency staged by the Modernists almost 100 years ago never happened.
But what did happen in, and to, poetry all that many years ago? Do we really know, or have we been snow-blinded by generations of critics, themselves so bedazzled by the muzzle flares and flash bulbs of culture wars of years past, that virtually no one can now say with even a glimmer of certitude what in fact changed on or about the famous cutoff date, "December, 1910," assigned by Virginia Woolf to the supersession of an age just perished by one intoxicated by history and no longer "powerless to be born"? The house of poetry was shaken to its rafters, and we know by whom. But by what, specifically, was it shaken? And what was moved by all those shakers? I must beg leave for a brief digression here, because the evaluation of the place occupied by Auden's
Criterion Book of Modern American Verse will be compromised if it isn't clearly established what sort of New Troy its aging (and insecurely transplanted) Aeneas was embarked upon founding.
To begin this re-unearthing of revolutions past we could do worse than scoot back for a moment or two to that small marvel of a
poetic perpetuum mobile, Richard Wilbur's "Beasts." This poet often resorted to rhyme in his verse because, as he has
said--and his remarks are worth quoting at some length--strict poetic forms are
like the use of framing and composition in painting: both serve to limit the work of art, and to declare its artificiality: they say, "This is not the world, but a pattern imposed upon the world or found in it; this is a partial and provisional attempt to establish relations between things." [ . . .] There are other less metaphysical reasons for preferring strictness of form: the fact, for example, that subtle variation is unrecognizable without the pre-existence of a norm; or the fact that form, in showing and complicating the writing-process, calls out the poet's full talents, and thereby insures a greater care and cleverness in the choice and disposition of words. In general, I would say that limitation makes for power: the strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle. . . .
Forget all that nonsense about the iamb being heaved from center stage in English verse and the heroic comeback of the Homeric dactyl being made a reality after almost 3000 years. Mostly Poundian in
origin--and having nothing to do with the cure for anything--such anodynastic mantras are little more than pond scum obscuring the undersurface of Modernism where its once revolutionary light went dark. It's quite plain that nothing of the sort ever really happened, and no one was better placed than Pound and his ragtag consort of Imagists and Vorticists (in whose
commedia dell' arte knockabouts he was routinely cast as Loudmouth) to know this. At the entry level of style what
did happen (and it was inevitable that it should) was that implicative ellipses within diction and
syntax--indeed, within the very soul of what the critic and translator of Heraclitus, Philip Wheelwright, called "plurisignation"
itself--managed to elbow their way into the business-as-usual of poetry to take on the character of "destroyers of worlds."
Or at least in those disputed borderlands where denotation and connotation stare out at each other through barbed wire, like Israelis and Palestinians set upon on unsettling the settlements relied upon by each for their security. More simply put, Modernism inverts the traditional roles played by those two inspired scramblers of sense and meaning, explicitness and implicitness. It rends asunder the plasm keeping the various major tropes in greater or lesser equilibrium and, contrary to the influential formalizations of the founder of the Prague Linguistic Circle, Roman Jakobson, executes an end run around that phonologist's personal version of E=MC2, the "metaphor" vs. "metonymy" bipolarism, by denying each trope the semiotic means to establish itself "outside the box" of Jakobson's other key opposition, that involving the contraries of "linguistics" and "poetics." These latter exist asynchronically, which is to say they cannot be experienced by the reader simultaneously (like the animals in the famous composite drawing adduced in
Art and Illusion by E. H. Gombrich, whose images can be read "frontally" either as "duck" or as "rabbit" but never synthetically as "dabbit" or "ruck"). As a result, they simply alternate back and forth,
ad infinitum, as though caught in a mindscape of neon signs out of Bladerunner, each blinking the Derridean version of "Fuck you" as compacted into that unplumbable anti-metaphysical coinage of his,
différance. (By way of a footnote: one of the best discussions of these Jakobsonian distinctions-though not with reference to Modernism-may be found in Guy Rosolato's essay [reprinted in
The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, edited by Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, 1970], titled "The Voice and the Literary Myth.")
While apologies are tenderable for the descent just completed into the snake pit formerly known as "theory," it's the nearest (if not, Lord knows, the dearest) way to demonstrate that American Modernism, having jumped the tracks laid by industrial- strength romanticism in the form of Symbolism, refashioned things so that it became no longer possible to get
there (the totality of literary facts on the ground) from the here the Modernist poet was obliged to call home (though, given the
emigré status of so many Modernists, more often than not, it was a home away from home). What is designated "here" thus assembles under a single rubric that set of effects relied upon by the Modernist poem to give rise to those "literary facts" mentioned above.
The inability, or unwillingness, of the Modernist poem to encourage conversation between the "linguistic" and "poetic" dimensions of literary reality is made discernible in the opening lines of Wilbur's "Beasts." Leaving as wide a gap in associative logic as the one occurring in "Beasts in the major freedom / Slumber in peace tonight" would have been unthinkable in both England and America before Thomas Hardy switched to poetry after the debacle of
Jude the Obscure, and before Eliot read Laforgue and made of the Uruguayan's Pierrot a denizen of anaesthetized evenings and tea-drenched afternoons he could never as a Harvard student
circa 1908 have reproduced unaided. "In the major freedom," a phrase as devoid of seeming as of sense, would be incapable of releasing into the imaginative wild anything like a Gobi of desertedness more spacious even than that which interrupts Asia with itself, were it not prepositionally adjunctive to "beasts." Hence what is "new" here isn't what is
stated--that beasts roam free, making wherever they happen to be a wilderness without corresponding to the human wilderness (the untamed freshet of the Id, within, may hardly be news) but the making of its being stated concurrent with the open-ended connotativeness that bloomed between Baudelaire's discovery of Poe and the fashioning of Mallarmé's aerie on slopes too rarefied even for Parnassians, surely is.
A similar, if not quite equivalent, freeing up of implication takes place over the following seven or eight lines of Wilbur's poem. The speed of assimilation whereby the disparate inferentials at play in "The gull on his ledge / Dreams in the guts of himself the moon-plucked waves below / And the sunfish leans on a stone, slept / by the lyric water" is light years away from anything any American poet-the later Whitman, earliest of all "modern" poets in English, not
excluded--was equipped to broach. "By That Long Scan of Waves," written in 1888-9, keeps its specificities under wraps but leaves no doubt as to what they have been and meant to their tight-lipped specifier:
By that long scan of waves, myself call'd back, resumed upon
In every crest some undulating light or shade--some retrospect,
Joys, travels, studies, silent panoramas--scenes ephemeral,
The long past war, the battles, hospital sights, the wounded and
Myself through every by-gone phrase--my idle youth--old age at
My three-score years of life summ'd up, and more, and past,
By any grand ideal tried, intentionless, the whole a nothing,
And haply yet some drop within God's scheme's ensemble--some
wave, or part of wave,
Like one of yours, ye multitudinous ocean.
The ambiguity lodged here is inclusive rather than dissociative, clenching instead of centrifugal. The "stations" of the past are rehearsed in well-tried rhetorical order: these, we are not allowed to forget, are Whitman's circus animals, and unlike Yeats's at the end of his life, they have not deserted him. As always with this poet (who lists least when most sunk in cataloguing), the fly-in-amber retrospect in which he suspends them are neither more nor less real than the particulars with which we are to imagine those abstract categories of
his--joys, travels, studies, silent panoramas--to be jammed. He musters them for our inspection, like soldiers brought to attention under an easeful sun, their buttons shining, but their tunics undone. The poem's central symbol (though it hardly seems that, resembling more an archetype burnished, as though shellacked like an acorn might be when preserved as a keepsake) is the wave-form constituted by the past, not the wave itself. To complete a life span on this planet, the poem seems to be saying, is to articulate the movement of a wave or part of a wave, to become caught up in motive discharge of crest and trough in a protracted energy thrust of life, of vitality, of sheer encompassing by the oceanic fact of existence undergone.
But not in Wilbur's world, not nearly. In the wake of Modernism, the defining moment of force is as much reversional as it is aslant and forward-tilting. Its hour is perennially the Cubist "violet hour" of Eliot's distortive waste land, "when the eyes and back / Turn upward from the desk" in a clerical parody of souls writhing in Dante's hell. This is surely why Wilbur's next few lines seem to have one foot in a
Macbeth-like world of murderous saturnalia and another in the "which's cellar" that made Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke poems as hard to conventionalize as
Zeitgeist pop-ups out of a nightmarish send-up of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things
And the sunfish leans on a stone, slept
By the lyric water;
In which the spotless feet
Of deer make dulcet splashes, and to which
The ripped mouse, safe in the owl's talon, cries
Concordance. . . .
Again, it's not nature red in tooth and claw that sets the taxi of Modernism to "throbbing and waiting" in perfect sync with the rendings and tearings of
Macbeth's "rooky wood"; it's the capacity relentlessly sought by Modernism as an "art idiom" to render commensurable within a single language those elements which social ideolect, cognitive pre-set and moral algorithm all pour into unlikenable moulds. A naturalist would have no difficulty in having on the same platter a deer splashing softly in water and a mutilated mouse clutched in an owl's claw, asymmetric facts though they might be. However, only a poet weaned on Modernism would articulate their homogeneity within the scheme of things by means of a lattice-work, a macaronic imbrication of
faux-syntactical coordinates ("in which . . . and to which . . ."), and top it off by speaking of deer plashing harmlessly as an occurrence to which the "ripped" mouse, very much at the
business end of tooth and claw, could "[cry] concordance."
Rhetorical worlds have always brushed up against naturalistic ones in
poetry--especially in that typically designated "Romantic"--but only in mid- to late-20th Century verse like Wilbur's do we find them so effortlessly superposed as to recall not only the superposition by Pound of "petals on a wet, black bough" to "the apparition of these faces in a crowd," but also the fact that it was just such overlapping of "digital" and "analog" representations that made his archetypalizing of imagism in that small miracle of an intaglio, "In A Station of the Metro," a classic prototype of Modernism