W.H. Auden

“May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
show an affirming flame”

September 1st, 1939 – W.H. Auden

The above excerpt was from the poem that initially drew me to Auden’s work. The poem as a whole was not a favorite of Audens, by any stretch. He was known to refuse to allow magazines to reprint it and once referred to it and another poem as “Trash which he is ashamed to have written”. The poem is also not a favorite of mine, but those lines, more then any have stuck with me, become much more a part of my body then any tattoo could be. They manage to bring in many of the ideas that Auden was preoccupied with in a few lines, while alluding to others. They encapsulate what I admire about Auden as a poet, a man, and a Christian.

Auden wrote about love, the apocalypse, language, faith, war, and loss, in a distant, often impersonal way, that remains powerfully specific. I was never taught any of his work as high school student, an undergraduate, or a graduate student. Even though every poetry class I have ever attended has somehow managed to cover the Fish by Elizabeth Bishop, no one mentioned Auden. In fact most of the complex discussions I have had about Auden have involved non poets, who really admire his writing.

I do not know how his writing managed to find its way out of favor. He was both famous and polarizing in his time. But as I understand it, somewhere along the line he was classified with the “older poets” for writing verse. His poem’s reflect verse, in a natural, organic way that, once you become accustomed to it, only adds to the poem. Never distracting from it. Auden himself said “Poetic Form is a challenge to prove that what the poet has to say is not an accident.” What he chose to say was very deliberate, a clear balance of content and language that happened to involve rhyme. When I first read one of his poems to Jacob, his initial reaction was that it wasn’t very good, partially because he was unsure of how to interact with the rhyme. Now Auden is one of his favorite poets.

Depending on the poem Auden can be a simple poet, making clear statements, or he can be very convoluted. Since I have taught Auden’s work to classes, I have had the pleasure of ordering students to look up words like “midden”. Many of his more complicated works manage to be a treat even just on the level of word play, and the sound of the language.

My favorite Auden poems generally balance the language with an idea, but an idea made clear and substantial through imagery. Because of his strong idea and image pairing many of his lines, have become part of my life, in a way, that makes me grateful, regularly for that fact that he lived and wrote. In a way, when I question my own writing, I keep his poems in mind, as a reassurance, that words can create substance.


(Sources: Edward Mendelson’s introduction to W.H. Auden’s Selected Poems, Auden: An American Friendship, by Charles H. Miller, Wystan and Chester by Thekla Clark.)



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