Tag Archives: W.H. Auden

A Heaven of Words

Wescott

A Heaven of Words – Last Journals, 1956-1984
By Glenway Wescott
Edited by Jerry Rosco
University of Wisconsin Press – $24.95

I sing wine and I drink water.

As the author of Wild Animals I Have Known: Polk Street Diaries and After, Kevin Bentley states, this (at times) overtly colourful and enlightening book is ”a frank and insightful collection of later journals from a brilliant gay writer and Lost Generation survivor.”

That it is ”full of literary and sexual anecdotes, wise ruminations […] and poignant reflections on growing older as a writer and lover of men,” does much to recapture not only a lost generation, but a lost time. An era, that when things happened, they were truly special amid the people to whom they were actually happening, rather than beamed across the planet – for all and sundry to see and share and comment upon – a mere few seconds after they’ve taken place.

The more than aptly titled A Heaven of Words (Last Journals, 1956-1984) is an inadvertent reflection, as well as confirmation of such; whereby the acutely observational Glenway Wescott (clearly never one lost for meditative thoughts nor words), mirrored all that he saw through his own, honest and highly intellectual prism of nuanced portrayal.

”Observation of pleasure” was after all, his ”religion.”

As mentioned in the title, these 279 pages (excluding Index and a section called ‘A Glossary of Glenway Wescott’s Contemporaries’), begin in 1956 and conclude in 1984. Along the way, there’s a menagerie of simply terrific one-liners, the altogether witty and esoteric likes of which, one doesn’t stumble across everyday: ”He introduced me to Jesus Christ, and also to the Queen of Romania,” ”[…] partings have to be a rehearsal for the great aloneness,” ”The verb ”belittle” was an invention of Thomas Jefferson’s,” ”What pain is to the body, shame is to the mind,” ”There is nothing stranger than life, unless it is literature.”

As with all great writing, the reader is transported unto another place, wherein the translucence of one’s own imagination is extraordinarily viable to be both educated and enhanced simultaneously. Take the following passage for instance, where, on May 13th 1957, Wescott wrote: ”I am an aging genius, with an insufficient talent; now pregnant with certain books that I have been gradually labouring at for years; in extremely unhappy circumstances in some ways; extraordinarily independent but with very little liberty; kept in extraordinary luxury here at home but penniless otherwise; perhaps due to be famous before long, perhaps more apt to fail, to sicken, to disappear from the picture. Yet there are a few things I know more about than anyone else alive.”

It is just such idiosyncratic insinuation that enabled Wescott – who began his writing career as a poet but is best known for his short stories and novels – to live the charmed life he did. Whether as part of the American literary expatriate community in Paris during the 1920s or revelling amid the company of such celebrated writers as Jean Cocteau, Somerset Maugham, Christopher Isherwood and (one of my all-time favourite poets) W. H. Auden – much of which is captured throughout this wonderful recollection in earnest.

David Marx

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The Complete Works of W.H. Auden – Volume V

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The Complete Works of W.H. Auden – Volume V
Prose 1963-1968
Princeton University Press – £44.95

Having already reviewed the previous four volumes of W.H. Auden’s colossal body of work that Princeton University Press have published over the years; it should come as no surprise that I’d be more than compelled to write about this rather marvellous collection too.

Weighted in overt literary curiosity, my reasoning is such that almost all of Auden’s work, whether it’s prose, poetry or indeed, just about anything, remains so instantly enlightening. Not to mention consistently refreshing and invigorating to read.

In the words of The London Review of Books’ Frank Kermode: ”When you add in the volumes already devoted to plays, libretti, poems, it becomes hard to avoid describing the whole enterprise as heroic. In fact it could also be described as unique, for no other twentieth-century English poet has been so fully and patiently honoured.”

Indeed, it’s not remotely easy to even marginally fathom what makes W.H. Auden – Prose 1963-1968 so very readable. So very enjoyable; other than it being a darn good read of the highest (and I do mean the highest) calibre.

With the possible exception of only a handful of exceptional writers such as Burroughs, Camus or Orwell, where else would one read such colourful and quintessentially vital provocation in any other book’s Introduction – as any of the following: ”When in love, the soldier fights more bravely, the thinker thinks more clearly, the carpenter fashions with greater skill […]. It is quite true, as you say, that a fair principle does not get bald and fat or run away with somebody else. On the other hand, a fair principle cannot give me a smile of welcome when I come into a room. Love of a human being may be, as you say, a lower form of love than love for a principle, but you must admit that it is a damn sight more interesting […]. For millions of people today, words like communism, capitalism, imperialism, peace, freedom, democracy, have ceased to be words, the meaning of which can be inquired into and discussed, and have become right or wrong noises to which the response is as involuntary as a knee-reflex […]. Propaganda, like the sword, attempts to eliminate consent or dissent, and, in our age, magical language has to a great extent replaced the sword.”

Replete with philosophical undercurrent(s), the above quotations are equally cerebral and regal. Yet the tonality of the actual language used, remains nothing less than that which one has come to wholeheartedly expect from surely one of the twentieth century’s greatest of poets.

Yetr, what set Auden apart from so many of his contemporaries, was his uncanny and sometimes audacious ability to wax lyrical without ever falling into the trap of taking his eye off the ball. A facet of both thinking and writing, that still isn’t all too easy to accommodate. As not only was his writing simultaneously succinct and elaborate, it was anchored in being acutely fundamental: ”[…] ”there is no comprehensible relationship between the moral quality of a maker’s life and the aesthetic value of the works he makes;” the sources of every artist’s art ”are what Yeats called ‘the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart,’ its lusts, its hatreds, its envies.””

Suffice to say, the above is a mere tip of the extraordinary, literary iceberg contained within these 509 pages (excluding seven sections of Appendix, numerous Textual Notes and an Index of Titles ad Books Reviewed). From the very outset of Prose 1963-1968, Auden testifies to his own resounding translucent belief, where, in a Foreword to The Plough and the Pen: Writings from Hungary, 1930-1956, he writes: ”[…] in deceiving others, I cannot help knowing that I am telling a lie. I can, of course, choose to avoid learning certain facts because I am afraid of the truth and prefer to remain in ignorance, as the average German under Hitler, though he knew that concentration camps existed, preferred not to think about them […]. We must not, of course, imagine that political freedom in itself guarantees the creation of good art; indeed one of the most obvious characteristics of any country where there is freedom of speech and publication is the vast quantity of rubbish which gets spoken and printed. Persons with a love of and a talent to perceive and utter it are, unfortunately, a minority, but only under conditions of freedom can this minority develop its powers and have an influence.”

Hopefully, what I’ve written will give just some indication as to the sheer breadth and depth of W.H. Auden – Prose 1963-1968. To simply call it an altogether wonderful book could be construed as getting off too lightly, but in truth, that really is what it is: ”The articles will delight any reader with their wit, charm, and elegance (Charles Rosen, New York Review of Books).

David Marx

What W.H. Auden Can Do For You

What WH Auden Can Do For You

What W.H. Auden Can Do For You
By Alexander McCall Smith
Princeton University Press – £13.95

”The moral certainties of the Left are comfortable for those who feel themselves rejected, and a sexual nonconformist might well find such circles welcoming […]. Those moral certainties also offer a new you.”

The above quote, taken from the fifth chapter (‘The Poet as Voyager’) of this altogether rather splendid read, certainly makes one think – while instantly bequeathing the reader with an abundance of political, as well as philosophical food for thought. As such, one of the fundamental attractions of What W. H. Auden Can Do For You lies just as much in the author himself, as it does the all looming and continuing trajectory of his subject.

By way of appealing to those interested in Alexander McCall Smith as a novelist and Auden as one of the greatest poets of our time (at the same time), these twelve chapters are, if nothing else, a charming account of how a relationship between a budding writer and his colossus of an influence, can, over many years, come to bountiful fruition.

It is as the author of Early Auden and Later Auden, Edward Mendelson has written: ”This is not only a convincing account of W.H. Auden’s poetry and life. It is also a self-portrait of McCall Smith himself and a testimony to the wisdom and courage he has found in Auden’s poems. This is a valuable and memorable book.” Valuable, might I add, because of some of the brave and open, yet quasi-contentious consideration throughout: ”[…] Auden has been taken to task for trying to be too clever, for using words for effect and without real regard to their meaning, and for being juvenile. There are other charges against him: in particular, he was famously criticized by the poet Philip Larkin for turning his back on political and social engagement in favour of the self-indulgent and the frivolous – a criticism that has lingered and is still occasionally encountered” (‘Love Illuminates Again’). And Memorable, because of some of the book’s many astounding declarations of common-sense: ”Understanding helps us deal with most threats, and seeking to understand must be our first response to evil, just as it is to anything else with which we have to deal. But there will be limits to our understanding, as Auden points out in ”If I Could Tell You.” Some things, we come to learn, just are” (‘If I Could Tell You I Would Let You Know’).

Entertainingly dense yet poetically informative, I found What W.H. Auden Can Do For You a more than inspiring read, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in poetics and the sometimes shameful ways of the world.

David Marx

Jews In Berlin

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Jews in Berlin
By Andreas Nachama, Julius H. Schoeps and Hermann Simon
Berlinica – £20.00

The thirties, once described by the poet W.H. Auden with such devastating force in ”September 1, 1939,’ as a ”low dishonest decade,” were years during which Germany descended into what was probably the greatest moral disaster of its history.

No-where was this more horribly pronounced than in the country’s capital city of Berlin, still one of the most exciting and greatest of cities in the world, although as written in the Forward herein: ”The city associated with glamour, decadence, sophistication and terror has become a city of serious scholarship and research on Central European Jewry, which, of course, includes glamour, decadence, sophistication and terror.”

To be sure, in the fifth chapter of this rather wonderful, at times poignant, and all round informative book (‘Jews during the Period of National Socialism (1933 – 1945)),’ Hermann Simon leaves no ghastly ideological stone unturned – especially in relation to the city’s Jewish population: ”The transports followed one after another until, on Frebruary 27, 1943, the so-called ”Factory Action” took place. More than 11,000 Jews had been working in armaments factories. They were arrested on the job and deported. Berlin was now considered ”free of Jews!” The expression comes from Goebbels, who needed a new success bulletin to take people’s minds off the defeat at Stalingrad.”

In and of itself, the last sentence is as inflamatory as it is fundamentally hard to believe.

Not only was the Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943) a complete and utter disaster for Germany; it’s close to impossible to believe, let alone imagine, that the ruinous deportation of Berlin’s remaining Jews, would constitute as a ”success bulletin.”

Whether or not at the time it (subliminally) did, is yet another chapter in the city’s dark and quintessentially chequered history. An unfortunate chapter that could well warrant a book in its own right, for as Simon further clarifies, Goebbels most defiantly gave it his utmost: ”He entered into his diary: ”The rest of Berlin’s Jews are finally being forced to go; as of February 28, they will all be put in camps and then deported, up to 20,000 per day. My goal is to make Berlin completely free of Jews by mid or at the latest the end of March.”

Assimilate such madness as you will, but there’s no doubting that the key words in the above paragraph are quintessentially chequered history, which Jews in Berlin really does cover and portray magnificently.

From the very outset, wherein authoress Claudia-Ann Flumenbaum states: ”The earliest trace of Jewish history in the area is a gravestone dating back from 1244 found in the western district of Spandau, once an independent city. This was the same year that Coelln’s sister city, Berlin (which wouldn’t give its name to the entire city until 1709), is first mentioned in an official document. The year 1244 thus marks both the first official mention of Berlin and of the region’s Jews” (‘From the Beginnings until 1789’); right through to where Judith Kessler and Andre Anchuelo semi-conclude with: ”The exotic combination of West Berlin’s solidity and East Berlin’s optimistic spirit has contributed to the fact that young Israelis and Americans prefer to take up residence in old Berlin neighbourhoods, rather than locating in Paris or Rome. The decades long condemnation of the ”land of the perpetrators” is apparently over” (‘Jewish Life after Reunification (1990 – present’)); Jews in Berlin covers a tumultuous terrain.

A deeply entrenched terrain that is all the more enhanced by the varying tonality of the several writers involved.

Along with an array of black and white as well as colour photographs, predominantly Jewish newspaper headlines – which still resonate with a clarity of authenticity and power – a Jewish related Chronology of the city and a superb Selected Bibliography, these 300 pages are more than likely to touch many a heart of the inquisitive, humane persuasion.

As Carol Kahn Straus so eloquently reminds us in the book’s aforementioned Forward: ”the secret of redemption lies in remembrance.”

And once again, no-where on earth is this more pronounced than in Berlin.

David Marx

Thomas Hardy – The Poems

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Thomas Hardy – The Poems
By Gillian Steinberg
Palgrave Macmillan – £16.99

”W.H. Auden, who claims Hardy as one of his favourite poets and earliest literary influences, writes, ”What I valued most in Hardy, then, as I still do, was his hawk’s vision, his way of looking at life from a very great height… To see the individual life related not only to the local social life of its time, but to the whole of human history, life on earth, the stars, gives one both humility and self-confidence.””

                                                         (from the Chapter, ‘War and its Casualties’)

It’s always a more than rewarding pleasure to read all about the work of one’s favourite authors, especially when the actual reading entails discovering and finding out oodles of things one didn’t already know.

Such is most definitely, if not didactically the case with regards this most well researched and analytical of book’s by Gillian Steinberg. Not that I’ve read many analytical texts on Thomas Hardy, particularly when it comes to his poetry; yet Thomas Hardy – The Poems, most decidedly piqued the partially subliminal stasis of a dusty knowledge learned many moons ago.

In fact it has done so to such a degree, I now feel compelled to go ahead and re-read a number of his works. So to describe this book as thematically inspiring and a pleasure to read is, perhaps, selling it a little short. Reason being, those already familiar with Hardy’s work are surely well versed in the mighty influential and intentional depth-charge of his humanity. I for one, was alerted to this very issue from the very first minute I started reading the brilliant Tess of the d’Urbervilles – a sublime tango of literary poignant pathos, if ever there was one.

Yet to have one’s investment in such deeply held thinking succinctly reiterated, is, as mentioned, just a small measure of this book’s potentially long-standing inspiration.

There are a number examples of said reiteration scattered throughout these 218 pages, although one of my favourite’s is where (in the Concluding Discussion of ‘Poet as Storyteller’) Steinberg writes: ”Hardy the storyteller is not a common voyeur but someone who wants to understand others and offer momentary windows into their lives. By voicing the concerns and telling the stories of the voiceless, he finds fundamental humanity in each of his characters. The pathos of his often powerless, unfortunate, or mistreated characters emphasizes the many ways that they are trapped in their lives and their locations, but they are seldom treated patronizingly or with condescension. Instead, the tragedies that beset them are not particularly different from those that Hardy believes beset everyone, and their experiences only differ from those of more empowered characters in their details, not in the depth of their feelings.”

Covering and dissecting nearly all aspects of Hardy’s poetry – from the aforesaid ‘Poet as Storyteller’ to his nigh infatuation with ‘Ghosts,’ from the opening quote of ‘War and its Casualties’ to ‘God, Man, and the Natural World, Thomas Hardy – The Poems covers a very wide terrain of exceedingly well considered analysis.

To be sure, the Analysing Texts series is ”dedicated to one clear belief: that we can all enjoy, understand and analyse literature for ourselves, provided we know how to do it.”

If nothing else, this book not only provides us with the ”know how,” it most resoundingly provides us with the relentlessly colourful, if not heartfelt luminosity, of who I consider to be one of Britain’s finest ever writers and poets. Suffice to say, this remains somewhat subjective when, in ‘Critical Views,’ the authoress states: ”From beginning to end the poetry of Thomas Hardy is the very voice of pessimism, but it is the pessimism of Shakespeare’s tragedies, a pessimism so profound that it goes down to the depths where constructions begins.” Either way, this most readable of books most certainly stands its analytical ground, thus making it both refreshing and a pleasure to read.

David Marx

For The Time Being – A Christmas Oratorio

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For The Time Being – A Christmas Oratorio
By W.H. Auden
Princeton University Press – £13.95

All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

It’s hard to tell what makes a great poet. Obviously language plays a considerable part, but more often than not, it’s the imagination at play or at rest within the language, that sets the many thousands of dull poets apart from the mere handful of geniuses.

W. H. Auden was such a genius.

His flight of imaginative prowess and command of the English language, not to mention his extraordinarily, relentless pursuit in wanting to get it just right, remains (almost) unsurpassed to this very day: ‘’Therefore, we see without looking, hear without listening, breathe without asking.’’

Admittedly, there are great poets out there, but I believe Auden – along with the likes of Ted Hughes – is simply exemplary. For The Time Being – A Christmas Oratorio is not only a fine example of this, but could well be the first Christmas related review you have so far read this year!

Written in Memoriam of his mother Constance Rosalie Auden (of whom he wrote: ‘’When mother dies, one is, for the first time, really alone in the world and that is hard.’’), this collection is exactly what its title suggests. Although, as with much of Auden’s work, the trajectory of some of his writing meanders unto territory that is not in the least expected. Some might consider this to be both dangerous and exciting, while others might feel a little abandoned, if not lost at the first staging post.

For instance, in relation to the Wise Men towards the end of the oratorio (‘At The Manger’) Auden writes:

Love is more serious than Philosophy
Who sees no humour in her observation
That Truth is knowing that we know we lie.

While in relation to Shepherds, he immediately continues:

When, to escape what our memories are thinking,
We go out at nights and stay up drinking,
Stay then with our sick pride and mind
The forgetful mind.

Might not the above seven lines actually equate love within philosophy?

Again, the territory into which Auden occasionally ventures really does need to be delicately deciphered. It’s like drinking a fine wine with a certain after-taste that is simply unknown – but provocatively alluring nevertheless. And it is this altogether unknowing trait of Auden’s, which invariably continues to ensure that his reputation remains nigh unsurpassed.

David Marx

The Complete Works of W. H. Auden – Prose Volume III (1949-1955)

The Complete Works of W. H. Auden
Prose – Volume III (1949-1955)
Edited by Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press – £40.00

Throughout this third edition of The Complete Works of W. H. Auden – Prose Volume III (1949-1955), the magnificent trajectory of what can only be described as some of the most alive, authentic and worthy of considered prose and poetry ever written, still soars far higher than most of his contemporaries. This includes contemporaries of both yesteryear, as well as today. For the colourful validity of so much of Auden’s work(s), still resonates way beyond comparison. One of the prime reasons being that his actual approach to writing, was never saccharine or just so so, lacklustre or dull, repetitive or dare I say it, safe.

Unlike so many of today’s young-soul-rebels of petty glissando, glitterati poetics; all hung-up’n’strung-up on a detox vindication of all of life’s languid liability (and then some), Auden was a true master of a writer and observer. An inventive wordslinger and story teller of the highest, and most pristine order. Where else would one stumble upon an inflammatory dissertation upon such a didactic line as: ‘’Thou shalt keep thy word irrespective of the consequences (Auden’s italics)?

Let’s be honest it here, one wouldn’t.
Well not very often anyway.
Not unless one was knee-deep in either Blake or the Bible, and even then, one would probably have a hard time quantifying/qualifying the solipsistic strength of the words themselves. Especially with regards the latter.

This really isn’t the case with W. H. Auden; or at least much, if not most of the writing(s) throughout these 699 pages (775 if one includes the Textual Notes). For instance, the aforementioned line leaps out of page 537, where, amid ‘The Dyer’s Hand – 1, What Is Poetry About,’ Auden argues: ‘’There are people whom the Poet despises or condemns, but it would never occur to him to think that they could be anything but despicable.

For him mankind are divided into two classes, the gifted few whom he admires because they are really themselves, and the average anonymous mass whom he considers beneath his notice because they are no one in particular. Thus he is interested in well-bred families with ancient titles, great warriors, athletes, beautiful heiresses, wise ancients of both sexes, all who exhibit daring and energy like big-time gangsters and speculators, and monomaniacs of all kinds like pathological misers and spendthrifts. […]. The only moral commandment he takes seriously is: Thou shalt keep thy word irrespective of the consequences. Disloyalty is the unforgivable sin. However, for one who emphasises loyalty so much, he has a curious trait. If some misfortune happens to his dearest friend, if he loses his job or falls ill, the Poet will drop him or avoid him, for the Poet agrees with Nietzsche that there must be something dreadful about anyone to whom dreadful things happen, and he has a superstitious horror of misfortune which he believes is infectious.’’

For some reason, Morrissey comes to mind here, as do a number of other self-indoctrinated believers of their own worth, such as one of Morrissey’s idols, Oscar Wilde, and he who once subscribed to his own self value to such a degree, that he aligned it with the Khmer Rouge’s declaration of Year Zero, Joe Strummer.

Suffice to say, one can wax lyrical on the propensity of self value and poetry ad infinitum, and perhaps no one has (ever) done this better than Auden himself.

Throughout The Complete Works of W. H. Auden – Prose Volume III, numerous such examples are placed before us at regular intervals. They occur it seems, to prod and remind, to alert and provide us with our very own, variable reflexive analysis of not only Auden’s instinctive Poetry and idiosyncratic Prose, but the very society within which we find ourselves.

Furthermore, one really doesn’t have to wait too long to be alerted to this, along with a wide array of relative issues. Whether it’s: ‘A Note On Graham Greene’ or ‘Religion and the Intellectuals: A Symposium,’ ‘Of Poetry in Troubled Greece’ or ‘The Philosophy of a Lunatic,’ ‘Some Reflections on Music and Opera’ or ‘The Adult Voice of America,’ ‘T. S. Eliot So Far’ or ‘Selected Essays of T. S. Eliot,’ ‘A Message from W. H. Auden [on Dylan Thomas]’ or the aforementioned ‘The Dyer’s Hand.’

To be sure, there is something herein that is indeed guaranteed to make one sit up, perhaps swallow hard, reflect and then proceed to take note. In fact, as early as page xviii of the book’s Introduction, we are already faced with Auden’s take on celebrity culture: ‘’The Public has always existed, but one effect of the mass media is to make it easier than ever to be faceless and impersonal. The culture of celebrity is one result of the growth of the Public: ‘’the public instinctively worships not great men of action or thought but actors, individuals who by profession are not themselves.’’ The moral consequences are all too clear: ‘’ The public, therefore, can be persuaded to do or believe anything by those who know how to manage it. It will subscribe thousands of dollars to a cancer research fund or massacre Jews with equal readiness, not because it wants to do either, but because it has no alternative game to suggest.’’

With the exception of Will Self and perhaps Jeremy Paxman, who today, would come out with such a vengeance with regards the current crisis of celebrity culture? A crisis, which, if nothing else, is disposing of individuality, as if it were a cancer.

An illness to which almost everyone, is succumbing.
Everyone.
Every age, every creed, every colour, every genre, every idiot, every television producer, every Tom, Dick’n’Scumbag record label: ‘’that faceless purposeless mass that anyone can join when one is no one in particular.’’

This excellent tomb of a book is as academic as it is entertaining as it is informative as it is inspiring as it is (obviously) superbly well written. The only downside being, it ensures the literary bar is so highly placed, it ensures the rest of us can only ever negotiate coming close – if, with the exception of a selected few, such a thing is remotely possible.

David Marx