Friday, February 23, 2007

Auden, the major-major poet

Wednesday saw the 100th anniversary of the birth of WH Auden, so the BBC has been stopping the clocks, catching the Night Mail and Telling the Truth about Love all week.

On his excellent blog, Bryan Appleyard calls Auden “the last great English poet.” This bold statement raises the ghost of Larkin. Years ago, Appleyard famously dismissed Larkin as an example of “repellent, smelly, inadequate masculinity”, though he now distances himself from this dismissal.

He does however still claim that Larkin is major-minor, whereas Auden is major-major. Aside from the danger of coming over all Catch-22 (Major Major Major Major), this gives us an interesting method for categorizing poets.

Larkin is major-minor because he is brilliant but in a very narrow range – albeit the most important range. Betjeman is also major-minor because he is just on the wrong side of the style-substance balance. Ted Hughes, on the other hand, is minor-major, because he is epic and wide-ranging but not universal, ie. too obscure and self-indulgent.

Auden alone, therefore, is major-major, because he has the range, the style and the universality.

I can buy that, though I still like Auden best when he is Betjemanish (funny and rhyming) or Larkinish (writing about death). But possibly none of the other major-minors and minor-majors could have written something quite as different and brilliant as Moon Landing.

10 comments:

Duck said...

Any poem that uses the word phallus gets an automatic 20 point deduction. Plus and additional 30 point deduction for not rhyming. Squash it all together and it's just a clever essay about the sour grapes of artsy types who don't build things.

Brit said...

You're a harsh critic, Duck. A harsh critic indeed.

Duck said...

Well, you just don't diss the Moon Landing. Not on this Duck's watch!

Brit said...

I don't think he's dissing the moon landing. Or where he is, I agree with you. But he's trying to say something about humans, or more specifically, men.

Bryan Appleyard picks out this line:

"Irreverence
is a greater oaf than Superstition"

Which is Peter territory, I think.

I like this one:

an adventure it would not have occurred to women /to think worth while, made possible only/ because we like huddling in gangs and knowing / the exact time...

erp said...

... knowing / the exact time... You certainly got that one right, but I had no idea it was a pan-male fetish.

If my husband notes that the time on the dashboard clock is a second off the time announced on the radio, he will attempt to make the correction even if he's driving 80 mph on the interstate.

Duck said...

Noone cared about the exact time until global navigation made it an issue fir determining precise longitude. It also became a big issue for making train schedules work. Now our economy and technology infrastructure are totally dependent upon it.

I've always had a hard time with poetry. It's the same issue with modern art. Authorities say that this poet or that is the cat's meow, and I just read and scratch my head. So I chuck the official line and just like what I like and dislike what I don't.

That said, if it doesn't rhyme it isn't a poem. Part of the appreciation of a great poem is the technical virtuosity of fitting the subject matter to the form. Saying something clever is one thing. Saying it clever and making it rhyme is much harder. Without rhyming all you get are a bunch of shiftless blowhard hippies like Allen Ginsburg ranting about nothing in particular and striking a pose as daring adventurers in the vanguard to nowhere.

So saith the Duck.

Brit said...

Woah Duck, steady there.

Nobody here is asking you to like poetry or indeed modern art or indeed to respect The Literary Canon, but there's a difference between iconoclasm and plain philistinism.

I'm a rhyme-lover myself (because I think free verse is too often a cop-out for the untalented), but to rule that "if it doesn't rhyme it isn't a poem" is absurdly draconian. Unless that's just a semantic insistence, in which case it's just pointless.

This doesn't rhyme:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.


You could argue that it isn't a poem, but it is poetic. (You could also argue that most great poems since are just pale imitations.)

Duck said...

OK, I'll climb off my high horse. Especially if you are going to invoke the Bard. Yes, Shakespeare is brilliant even when he doesn't rhyme. Some people are that good. There is a sense in which language can be poetic without rhyming, though I'd be hard-pressed to define what poetic means in that instance. There's cadence and rhythm and other sound effects, for lack of a better term, that give certain combinations of words a special aura.

But most of all it is imagery. Great poems evoke images in the mind, images with profound emotional impact. But I've found it to be a hit or miss kind of thing, mostly miss. We aren't all arranged alike emotionally, and images which have great impact for some leave others cold.

I've enjoyed some Wordsworth, some Whitman and some Eliot. Dickinson leaves me cold. She was a master technician, but of narrow substance. I haven't read much Auden, but from the collection you linked to there is one I prefer, but since the firewall at the office won't let me get there, I'll talk about it later tonight.

monix said...

I thought ITV's South Bank Show tribute to Auden was good but BBC 4 was obsessed with his lifestyle rather than his poetry.
He is not the easiest of the 30s poets to read, compared with Spender, MacNeice and Day Lewis, but he's definitely a major-major. Personal favourite - Musee des Beaux Arts.

Duck said...

Here's one of Auden's poems that I particularly like:
As I Walked Out One Evening