Scene4 Magazine - Special Issue - Kathi Wolfe - January 2013 |

January 2013

Originally Published April 2007

Happy Birthday, Wystan

Dear Wystan:

Sitting here, sipping a beer. Sending you my best wishes on the centennial of your birth (February 21, 1907). Sure, I don't know you well enough to call you Wystan. I've only met you through your poems. Yet, like so many of your readers, I feel as if we're on a first-name if we're friends chatting about God, opining about Freud or gossiping at a dinner party. After all, through your work, you've been so intensely...intimately present in our private and public lives.

It is a cold, sunny Sunday morning in Manhattan in December 1989. My partner Anne and I stand before our friends on the top floor of a theater on 49th Street. Our friend, the late Al Carmines, a minister and composer, blesses us in a commitment ceremony. We're not sure how we feel about God; but we want to affirm our love for each other. Who else would we turn to but, you, Wystan? You, who thought of your long-term relationship with Chester Kallman as a marriage. We recite from "But I Can't," your fabulous villanelle, "There are no fortunes to be told, although/Because I love you more than I can say,/If I could tell you I would let you know."

Fast forward to a snowy night in Cleveland in January 1991. Anne and I, like everyone we know, are scared. The first President Bush is about to invade Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. We don't want to be at war. Anxiety hangs in the air like kudzu on an unruly vine.

We switch on the radio to get the news. The newscaster (rightly) says that your poetry perfectly captures the nation's mood. He reads from your poem "The Age of Anxiety: a Baroque Eclogue," (written from 1944-1946 and set in a New York bar), "When...armies organize with their embossed debates the ensuing void which they can never consecrate, when necessity is equated with horror and freedom with boredom, then it looks good to the bar business."

Edward Mendelson, the literary executor of your estate, writes in the introduction to the new edition of "W. H. Auden: Selected Poems" (Vintage. February 2007), "His {Auden's} poems derive much of their unique emotional power from his realization that the only way to be universal is to be individual..." Your poem known as "Lullaby" is a terrific example of how you do this. "Lay your sleeping head, my love,/Human on my faithless arm;" you wrote, referring to your gay lover. Yet this poem (using beautiful language about love and a one night stand) resonates with many of us, whether we're gay or straight.

You'd be happy to know that your centennial hasn't been forgotten. Numerous events have been held to celebrate your birth–in Manhattan, Chapel Hill, N.C., New Haven, Conn. and your birthplace York, England. More festivities to honor you will take place in June and July.

On February 27, I went to a b-day bash for you held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Given your affinity for the Bard, you'd have loved the Elizabethan decor. The event was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Folger, Poetry Daily Magazine and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities–Center for the Book.

You would have liked the informality and celebratory nature of the gathering. You once remarked, "A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep." You'd be pleased to know that no pomposity marred the festivities. NEA chair and poet Dana Gioia, Edward Mendelson, poet and critic William Logan, poet Eavan Boland and author Christopher Hitchens spoke briefly about you and your work and then read from your poetry. Hitchens, ever the raconteur, even smuggled in a recording of you reading your poem about being on tour "On the Circuit." A roomful of us Americans in our Capital city chuckled as we heard you recite, "The Bible is a goodly book/I always can peruse with zest/But really cannot say the same/for Hilton's Be My Guest."

Born in York, England, you came to New York in 1939 and became an American citizen in 1946. At the Folger, Gioia said of you, "Auden doesn't belong to either England or America. He belongs now to the English language and everyone who speaks it." You wouldn't have been surprised by all the celebrations held in your memory, Gioia pointed out, because, he noted, you were "a famous poet from the start." When your tutor at Oxford met you, Gioia said, he gave you "the conventional advice you'd give a teenager who told you he wanted to be a poet." You interrupted the instructor, Gioia said, to tell him, "No, I mean a great poet!"

Your work is loved and admired for not only its emotional power but for its intelligence, wit and talent. "A poet feels as he's writing poems that there are many small puzzles that take a certain amount of force, and ingenuity, intelligence even talent to solve," Logan said, at your birthday do. He added, "When you read Auden, you feel that if there were nine ways to skin a cat, Auden knew 12."

You thought of "a poem as direct address"–as part of a conversation between the poet and each individual reader, Mendelson told us as we listened to your poems. Yet, he added that you didn't think of a poem as "an art object to be admired in isolation."

When my partner Anne died two weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, your "Funeral Blues" seemed to be addressed to me. Like the narrator of the poem, I, too, wanted to say, "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,/Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,/Silence the pianos and with muffled drum/Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come."

After 9/11, your poem "September 1, 1939" became our national anthem. I know this is one of the poems that you later took out of editions of your collected work. But, sorry Wystan, at this time, we just need it too much. Nothing captures the spirit of Manhattan or the country in this post 9/11 era as much as your lines "I sit in one of the dives/On Fifty-Second Street/Uncertain and afraid/As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade:" Your line "we must love one another or die," seemed to you, upon reflection, to be obvious--a bad flight of rhetoric. Yet, in our current "age of anxiety," beset by terrorism and war, your injunction is a mantra for survival.

Your work had many voices (conversational, didactic and epistolary, among others), my friend George Bahlke told me in a telephone interview. George, a professor emeritus at Hamilton College, edited a volume of critical essays on your work (G.K. Hall. 1991). You were "ultimately a comic poet," he said, because you had hope for humanity and recognized that comedy and profundity could coexist.

I realized how right George was about your sensibility when I read the New York Times recently. In honor of your centennial, the Times reported, a stanza from your poem "O Tell Me the Truth About Love" will soon be put on subways in New York. Straphangers will enjoy your lines on love, "When it comes, will it come without warning/Just as I'm picking my nose?/Will it knock on my door in the morning,/Or tread in the bus on my toes?/Will it come like a change in the weather?/Will its greeting be courteous or rough?/Will it alter my life altogether?/O tell me the truth about love."

There's nothing more profound or comic than that.

from one of your many readers.

W. H. Auden: Selected Poems edited by Edward Mendelson (Vintage) was reissued in February 2007. This edition contains an expanded introduction by Mendelson and the original versions of some 30 poems that Auden later revised.

W.H. Auden: Collected Poems edited by Edward Mendelson (The Modern Library) has been reissued in conjunction with Auden's centennial. The volume contains the poems that Auden wished to preserve, with his final revisions.

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©2007,2013 Kathi Wolfe
©2007,2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives




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