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Book Review February 8, 2007
The World's Most Overrated Poets: Vol. I
By John Dolan Browse author Email

Auden is the worst famous poet of the 20th century. He simply cannot write a decent line, let alone a decent poem. Some of his very worst poems are among those "classics" found in every anthology of Modern poetry. They'll continue to clog those penitential first-year university texts until we find the courage to laugh out loud at stanzas like this:

Earth, receive an honoured guest:

William Yeats is laid to rest.

Let the Irish vessel lie

Emptied of its poetry.

This, comrades, is just plain lousy poetry. In O, so many ways. O, let us count the ways. The most obvious defects of this stanza are technical, as in, Auden couldn't make a decent rhyme to save his life. He starts with a full-rhyme couplet, "guest/rest," and clearly meant to use a straightforward, undemanding AABB rhyme-scheme throughout this poem, as shown by the rhymes in the next stanza: "dark/bark/wait/hate." But he can't find a rhyme for "lie," a word hundreds of humble pop lyricists have had no trouble slotting into their songs. Instead, we get the incredibly clunky "lie/poetry" - not a "slant rhyme" or "half rhyme" but an outright non-rhyme in any dialect of English.

The stanza is full of such prosodic gaffes, like the fact that Auden has to rechristen the deceased "William Yates" to squeeze him into his deal coffin. The man was often called "Yeats" but when more formally addressed insisted on all three names, "William Butler Yeats"; knocking out the middle name is simply Auden's home carpentry in verse at work. Indeed, the whole structure of this first stanza is maudlin, hackneyed bathos, a crude example of the most debased genre in poetry, the elegy for the illustrious dead.

For centuries, bad poets have pounced on the fresh corpses of famous people, eager to use the opportunity to jerk career-advancing tears from their readers by shedding meretricious, metrical tears of their own over the body (see my book, Poetic Occasion from Milton to Wordsworth ). By the 20th century, this tradition was so noisome that scrupulous poets, confident of their talents, made a point of eschewing such occasions.

Auden was perfectly positioned to claim Yeats' corpse, thanks to two key advantages: his superb literary connections (he was one of the poetry world's all-time leading schmoozers), and the fact that he had no taste. That meant that he didn't mind gorging on carrion, didn't recognize the sleaziness of the whole enterprise, and so he was all over Yeats' corpse before it was cold. He had the "Irish guest" wallpapered with his ode, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," before the competition could get off a haiku. And his entry in the funeral games was exactly the sort that wins public acclaim: huge, clunky and soppy, full of topical references and a vast self-pity in which Yeats' dead body becomes the occasion for a big group weep over the state of Europe.

The first part of the poem is free verse, held together by the pseudo-ballad chorus, "The day of his death was a dark cold day." (Auden was always aping Yeats' balladeering - see his "As I Walked Out One Evening" - but with no grasp of Yeats' context, the Irish revolution, Auden's yo-ho-ho-in' always sounded like folk songs about sailors by Greenwich Villagers who showered twice a day.) Auden's observation about weather conditions at the time of Yeats' passing o'er was true enough; it was January in Ireland, for God's sake. Ah, but this, for minds like Auden's, was more than meteorology; this was metonymy. Indeed, for Auden's purposes, it was "the metonymier, the better," because he didn't have, couldn't have, much real interest or sympathy in the deceased, the wacky, prickly Anglo-Irish self-made legend, Yeats. Auden was above all a conventional mind, voicing the commonplaces of middlebrows everywhere; and Yeats, to his credit, was an autodidact nutcase, supergluing his own ideology out of Irish nationalism intentionally poisoned with MacPherson's glamorized defeatism, abstracted via the German mystics. Auden understood nothing of all that, as he makes clear in what is virtually the poem's only attempt to discuss Yeats, its ostensible subject:

Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,

Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still...

Here we have a fine example of the depth of Auden's socialist analysis of colonialism, which extends about as far as lamenting boy-on-boy violence, as shown in "The Shield of Achilles" (which may be his very worst, most laughably cliché-ridden poem):

...that two boys knife a third,

Were axioms to him, who'd never heard...

Another triumph for our rhymster, "third" and "heard," with "word" ending the next line - but the point is that this is as far as Auden's sense of evil goes. He's incapable of finding any historical context in the revolutionary violence that made Yeats a great poet in spite of himself. For Auden, an alleged socialist, it's just "mad Ireland" doing what she does naturally.

This remarkable blindness concerning a certain island due west of Oxbridge will be a recurring theme in this series, leading us back and back to the question: why is it that only Lord Byron, the designated villain of English poetry, will spare a word for the Irish peasantry? Why do committed Marxists, professional sympathizers like Auden, always fail to see anything but a genetic predisposition to violence in the people whose mulched offspring literally paid for the careers of most English poets of the last three centuries?

Keep that question in mind; it'll be on the exam.

One part of the answer is that Auden's utter conventionality precluded such an heretical awareness. And it's that conventionality, which defines every word the man ever wrote, that underpins his continuing celebrity. The shortest answer to the question, "How do you get famous without poetic talent?" is: sleep around the hot universities and squeeze tears, then stage a well-timed conversion to the Right.

Auden followed an absolutely conventional path to Anglicanism through Socialism, which in the circles he frequented was nothing but Flannery O'Connor's "Church of Christ without Christ" anyway. When the red flag lost its luster, it was a very easy step for Auden to subside into a fluffy, tweedy devotion to that same Church, with the Christ part slipped back in.

I'm not in any way implying that Auden was calculating or insincere. Would he had been! Then he might have been an interesting poet. On the contrary, he was a genuine dunce, plodding along with the majority of middlebrow intellectuals who joined the Communists in the Thirties and then drifted back toward a vague, chastened piety after the war. If you want to see a very good, cruel account of the process, read Edmund White's Memoirs of Hecate County. There were Audens cocktailing their way through every country club in Connecticut and the Home Counties; most of them simply didn't pretend to be poets.

In Auden's elegy for Yeats, written at the end of the 30s, we see the bovine instinct loitering around an interim deity, a way-station between Stalin and the Archbishop of Canterbury: a schoolboy's deity, "poetry." Again and again, the poem offers Yeats' corpse to this word:

...Poetry makes nothing happen; it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches and isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

Ah, this man is such a rotten poet that though I want to discuss his meaning, I can't help marking the sheer lousiness of his rhymes. Why, Mistuh Auden, do dat river flow "south"? It wouldn't be because you needed a rhyme for "mouth," would it? And why for that matter, is poetry reduced to another one of your determinedly Platonic metonymies, "mouth" - aside from the appalling pun on riparian geography? Why, indeed, does this river which flows into the mouth flow "ON south" rather than simply "south" - could it be that you needed an extra syllable there? Could you, W. H., sir, rhyme your way out of the proverbial paper bag? (Hint: "tired old slag.")

Well, let us, to quote Thurber's mom, "move on to something more elevating": the ideology, so to speak, of this Ode to Poetry. It means nothing. Absolutely nothing. That's the beauty of it, that's the secret of his success: zip, nothing, nada.

Wallace Stevens, a genius and a man of honor, talks about nothing, wears it proudly to the sneers of the mob, even courts those sneers (and by "the mob," I mean Robert Frost and Hugh Kenner); Auden, the mob's Anglo-American idol, genuflects to this empty space called "poetry" which, according to the last line of his Yeats poem, will "teach the free man how to praise."

Way to go with that intransitive, Auden. No direct object for "praise" - crafty. Cunning, in the way of dumb-as-bricks people. As long as we don't know what the "free man" is going to "praise," you haven't offended anybody. Contrast this with Stevens' truly great and virtually contemporary poems, which are painfully contemptuous of the gigantic aporia where the object of praise should be, like the heartbreaking "Latest Freed Man." His point is that there is nothing in the intellectual world, circa 1940, that an intelligent man can honestly praise - a problem Auden has avoided in a manner that many a place-seeking curate would envy.

Making the bland generic term, "poetry," the object of love reminds me of those poems other bookish kids used to write "in praise of books." I never understood how anyone could write in praise of books; it was like endorsing everything, good bad and rotten. Books were most of what I loved as a kid, books and animals; but books were most of what I hated, too, feared and loathed.

The same applies to "poetry"; I can't imagine praising any category that includes Robert Southey, William Wordsworth and Lorna Dee Cervantes. Only an idiot could... well, that's the point, isn't it? Idiots need odes too; in fact, idiots are the main market for odes and elegies, as Mark Twain showed in the immortal "Ode to Stephen Dowling Botts, Deceased."

Auden's poems after 1940 enact a slow, elderly courtship of the Deity via European high culture as interpreted by a man of limited intellect. As with that other bard of the bell curve, William Carlos Williams, you get a lot of poems based on the paintings of Breughel. Odd, you might think, that two major Modernist poets should make so much of such a busy, cheery Norman Rockwell of a painter. But that's the point: Breughel is a happy moron, like his 20th century champions. For Williams, he's the artistic equivalent of a baseball game; for Auden, playing that old-world sage role for all it's worth in Manhattan, Breughel, incredibly, becomes one of the "old masters" in that famous, rotten hyperbaton, "About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters...." This poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts," sums up Auden's meaning and value rather nicely: it's fake high-European culture for a busy American audience that knows nothing about anything, and simply wants an imported sage to embody the mournful quietism which is the only stance it needs from such decorative figures.

Believe me, I saw the same thing with Czeslaw Milosz in Berkeley back in the 80s, the time of Solidarity and Reagan, when suddenly every Pole was a genius. Everybody adored Milosz; two of my professors actually fought, violently, over the correct pronunciation of his name, and lunch with the old eyebrow-monger was an honor to be bragged about for years. Then somebody noticed he'd left his mind back in Cracow, and the crush waned.

But we've been more loyal to Auden. After all, he's not some peripheral Pole, he's all we want to salvage from the muck of Europe in the 30s. Not because he's the best writer of the period; he doesn't even deserve to make the top thousand. The real list would be headed by Celine, a self-proclaimed "man of hate," and Stevens, whose attitude toward the Great Depression was sneering contempt:

I heard two workers say, "This chaos

Will soon be ended."

This chaos will not be ended...

Nobody at NYU really wanted to hear that, let alone Stevens' views on WW II (envy at the attention it got, mixed with disdain for the hokiness of literal bombs) - let alone Celine's magnificent contempt for the postwar, peaceful reverent suburbs.

What they wanted, more than ever, was Auden: a physically handsome old man with a grieving smile that managed to imply vast old-world suffering - from which the old man had distilled a vague Christianity; not the alarming redneck sort that was already lapping at the cities' edges but a safe, neutered devotion beyond politics. Above all: beyond politics. After all, he had been a commie, and was now safely in the highbrow conservative camp.

The fact that he never could write a lick had nothing to do with it.

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