Monday, May 11, 2015

Review: Selected Poems, by W.H. Auden

I’m once again trying to fill some gaps in my canonical reading, which has led me to W.H. Auden, a 20th century poet I hitherto had shamefully little contact with. I was familiar, as many are, with what is arguably his single most famous poem, “September 1, 1939,” written in the wake of the Nazi invasion of Poland and very competently included in this anthology edited by Edward Mendelson. There is something timeless in the specificity that Auden captures in this poem, especially in its memorable second stanza:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

We can see in this piece what we can see in this entire collection – that is, the reason Auden is worth reading and why his work continues to stand out today. He is, in a word, concerned with the wide view, the bird’s eye scan of contemporary affairs and politics and culture. At a time when most poetry seems very much stationed upon the self, focused on the teeming aquarium of a single individual’s emotional experience, Auden dares to speak loudly of the larger forces shaping his world. This gives his voice a refreshing tang as we read it here, in 2015. In the stanza above, Auden makes allusion to the whole Germanic project, from Luther to Hitler, referencing the latter’s abusive childhood in Linz as well as the horror he wrought upon countless others. Auden does this with a kind of metronomic swagger, a swinging indifference to whether his subject matter and reference points will one day seem dated. Oddly enough, very few of them, in any of his poems, actually are.

Much of Auden’s early work relied on rhyme to provide structure to his ideas, and he seems to have been a late adopter of free verse. The chronological arrangement of the poems in this book allow us to view that evolution as it happens, as the poet tries to articulate both what his verse wants to convey as well as what it wants to reject. Even in the later works, the man remains ruthlessly contemporary even while he dabbles with and contorts over age-old techniques. Look what he does here in “Lament for a Lawgiver”:

Sob, heavy world
Sob as you spin
Mantled in mist, remote from the happy:
The washerwomen have wailed all night,
The disconsolate clocks are crying together,
And the bells toll and toll
For tall Agrippa who touched the sky:
Shut is that shining eye
Which enlightened the lampless and lifted up
The flat and foundering, reformed the weeds
Into civil cereals and sobered the bulls;
Away the cylinder seal
The didactic digit and dreaded voice
Which imposed peace on the pullulating
Primordial mess. Mourn for him now,
Our lost dad,
Our colossal father.

For seven cycles
For seven years
Past vice and virtue, surviving both,
Through pluvial periods, paroxysms
Of wind and wet, through whirlpools of heat,
And comas of deadly cold,
On an old white horse, an ugly nag,
In his faithful youth he followed
The black ball as it bowled downhill
On the spotted spirit’s journey,
Its purgative path to that point of rest
Where longing leaves it, and saw
Shimmering in the shade the shrine of gold,
The magical marvel no man dare touch,
Between the towers the tree of life
And the well of wishes,
The waters of joy.

Only a poet looking to make a statement about effect could pound the key of alliteration so many times across two blunt stanzas – so many times, in fact, that we are nearly hypnotized by its dizzying consistency. Only a poet who knows the force of structured lines could play so recklessly, so randomly with indentation and the precision of a line break. There is much in this poem about the “heavy world” that Auden is preoccupied with, but even if this were randomized gibberish, we’d still sit up and pay attention to what the man is doing here.

This collection aims to be comprehensive, a kind of Essential Auden – and as such there are many pleasures, and a few hiccups, along the way. The inclusion of his massive “The Sea and Mirror – A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest” may test even the most patient reader, as it moves from verse to prose over several pages. This piece forces us to delve deeply – perhaps too deeply – into Shakespeare’s iconic play in order to parse out the nuggets of meaning that Auden has planted for us. I questioned, after finishing this lengthy piece, if it was worth it. But there shorter, more succinct gems to enjoy. The poem “Oh what is that sound which so thrills the ear” (labeled poem 18 here) has a cadence and rhyme structure that stays with the reader long after he finishes reading it. Poem 35 (“‘Oh who can ever gaze is,”’) has us relishing in bon mots and aphorisms galore. Auden is always at his best when he is pointed, when he is able to crystallize a singular observation about the wider world around him.

By and large, these are poems to be relished over time, and I suspect I’ll be dipping back in to this collection for many years to come. Auden sets an impressive example for other poets, a writer who dared to say that it’s okay to write about society, about history as it is unfolding right now.

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