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The human face of a 'metaphorical' poet

W. H. AudenThe first time I saw Auden was on a small black and white television screen in England in 1965. The voice had a surprising duck-like softness, but it was the face that captured your attention. Deeply furrowed, it was, Auden himself had said, 'Like a wedding-cake left out in the rain'.

In 1972, aged 65, he famously abandoned New York, his home since 1939, to return to live at Christ Church College, Oxford, where he had been an undergraduate in the 1920s. He was given a cottage in the College grounds, and was expected to give occasional talks and be available to students.

It turned out not to be the success everyone had hoped for. The worse for drink at high table, he could be grumpy and offensive. 'Of course, everyone pees in his bath,' he might say, or rudely turn away from anyone whose conversation he didn't like. He might abandon a talk after a mere few minutes if he'd felt he'd said enough.

Some of the younger Fellows gave him a wide berth. But his fame was such that the College Board was prepared to accommodate such minor irritations, convinced that he was good for their image.

My college, Linacre, was then next to Christ Church, and I would sometimes see him puffing his way along the St Aldates wall. An emphysemic, he struggled for breath in the damp Oxford air. He looked sad, lost, lonely.

A postgraduate mate at Linacre was studying American History. One lunchtime he casually mentioned that his supervisor was running a seminar that afternoon on modern American society, and Auden had agreed to take part. Would I be interested?

Interested was hardly the word. No poet faced the world of his time with more courage and honesty than Auden. One had reservations; there was that troubling line about 'the necessary murders' which so exercised George Orwell, and the conversion to Christianity that for the Left was a sell-out, and his move to America that was a defection. But he was still the finest living poet in English; it would be like sitting at table with Shelley or Arnold.

Eager, we got there early, and were directed upstairs to an ancient gloomy barn. A rickety round table stood in the middle of the floor, and we took chairs from a stack on one side. A few students drifted in, and we sat around the table chatting nervously. Only five turned up, so I saw the possibility of a wonderful, unexpected intimacy.

Eventually he appeared at the top of the stairs, ushered in by the greying, suave-looking Professor of American History, who welcomed Auden to the seminar. In a shabby blue suit and crumpled grey shirt with a loose wool tie, he stood unsmiling and breathing hard while someone fetched him a chair. He placed himself, not at the table, but some eight feet away, turned so that he could gaze out the window at the blue sky.

Everything about his body language suggested he would rather be anywhere but here.

The seminar got underway, briskly led by the professor. The topic was The American City, particularly New York, and the professor kept tight control on the flow of talk, most of which he did himself. After some 20 minutes Auden had still not said a word, indeed hardly seemed to be listening at all. He lit a cigarette — a transgression, but no one cared — and sat gazing out the window in unmistakeable disdain.

I was close enough to observe the ancient lizard's face, the smoker's barrel chest and stick legs, and to sense something of his loneliness.

The topic turned to urban violence. The professor was becoming glib and rhetorical with his mounting unease at Auden's lack of participation. 'What we have, of course, is not so much a problem of moral failure, as Saul Bellow has recently argued, but a new kind of class struggle.

'In the ghettoes of Los Angeles and New York, unemployment, poverty, lack of education all conspire to give ethnic minorities no chance of using the system to their benefit. "A riot", Martin Luther King once said, "is the language of the unheard". So for young urban blacks, with no other means of self-expression, violence is a kind of poetry.'

He paused here and unexpectedly directed a question across to Auden. His patience had finally given out.

'Wystan', he said expansively, 'You've been living in New York recently, and we've all seen the reports of muggings in the subways, attacks on people in the streets, thugs roaming the city at night. What's your view on all this? Is it worse than a decade ago, are the reasons different now, does violence always come down to a matter of chance or are the explanations glaringly obvious?'

There was silence as we all waited. The question loomed huge and amorphous over the room, seeming to block out thought. Auden's lips stammered a few times, then he lisped, in his softest, limpest duck voice:

'Well ... it's terribly nice where I lived.'

And he spoke not another word for the rest of the seminar.

I have little memory of what was said after this. I kept thinking how disappointingly out of touch, old-womanish, his comment was. I walked in silence with my mate till we got to Christ Church gate, when he finally remarked, 'Well, that was a load of old bollocks then, wasn't it?'

'Oh, yes, well ... I guess he's pretty old and not too well,' I said, unconvincingly.

We parted — he turned right, up to the shops, I went left towards Linacre. I walked down the hill past the little coffee house where Auden, I learned later, liked to spend time in the hope of being approached by students; apparently few bothered, or even knew about it.

I was reflecting on his comment when suddenly another possibility occurred to me: perhaps it wasn't so mindless after all. In fact it might have been right on the money. How could he register his disapproval of the whole event, an exercise in linguistic waste, without contributing to the pile himself? The only way was to speak purely for himself, from experience, in cant-free language.

In this way only could he be what he professed to be: a real, not a metaphorical poet. It turned out a good day for literature, I told myself as I headed up the walkway to the Linacre library.

Garry KinnaneDr Garry Kinnane is Honorary Senior Fellow in The School of Communication and Culture at the University of Melbourne. His books include George Johnston: A Biography, Colin Colahan: a Portrait, and, most recently, Shadowed Days: Fragments of a Melbourne Boyhood.

Topic tags: garry kinnane, w.h. auden, new york, Christ Church College, Oxford



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Existing comments

'A good day for literature?' I'm not convinced, Dr Kinnane. If that seminar was merely 'an exercise in linguistic waste' why isn't the same true of every seminar, of the whole university system? Does a 'real, not a metaphorical poet' communicate by not using words?

Joe Castley | 04 March 2009  

Hi Joe. My point is that it was the history professor who implied that black urban violence was (metaphorical) poetry. Auden did use words, but only ones that were true to experience. My other point is that the difference between poetry and talk is the degree of waste.

Garry Kinnane | 04 March 2009  

Hi Garry,

I read your article with great interest, having never heard of Audin before. Nice work.

Tim Graham | 04 March 2009  

Dr Kinnane, I loved your solution to the situation you describe of Auden in a seminar, and I like to think it is what the great man himself saw as a solution to his situation. Us mere mortals (well, me, anyway) couldn't get away with it, and I would never even think of it, so your description shows really how clever he was, if rather a lost soul. It wouldn't have been much of a life for Auden at that stage of his existence, I suspect.

Thank you - great article, and very thought provoking about many things!

Katherine | 05 March 2009  

Igor Stravinsky once said that one day they would iron out Auden's face so they could see what he really looked like.

The collective anecdotes about Auden in that last year at Oxford before his death (1973) are generally interpreted as those of someone who lived in a different Oxford, the Oxford of his youth. Those at Christ Church did not appreciate the old-worldliness he brought to the place. One discernible behavioural pattern by this time though was how often he repeated his jokes in one day.

The same is not true of his poetry coffee house meetings. In my reading of this period, it is worth remarking how many young poets sought out Auden for comments on their work and views of the art itself. "Few bothered" is not the picture I gain from the records.

The man was sick and lonely. He should have been treated with much greater understanding than he was at Oxford. But if you want to appreciate what Oxford gave to Auden and Auden gave to English, read the poetry! The University did not write the corpus.

Philip Harvey | 07 March 2009  

Very good

Md. Bakirul Islam | 10 October 2009  

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