Monday, June 19, 2006

Absolutely Everything You Never Needed To Know About Modernism, Part 3

Auden was a great poet but a bad modernist. He kept on attempting obscurity and slipping into lucidity. He made rhymes accidentally, and poetry incidentally. He really couldn't help himself. His earlier poems seem to be deliberately difficult: it's as if he has to force himself to write like Eliot. His words keep on threatening to make sense. I like Auden; he's definitely not the most modern of the modernists (which to some of them may have been the most important thing), but he was certainly the most talented.
His themes are always interesting: he writes about the epic nature of teacups, and the heroic qualities of accountants. Maybe that was the difference between Auden and his contemporaries. Other modernists took the hero out of the man; Auden put the man back in the hero. He wrote about minor characters and their potential for greatness. Think about his miniature satirical masterpiece, The Unknown Citizen:

... had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

In between writing the occasional masterpiece, Auden casually penned opera librettos, offhandedly put together verse dramas, and wrote the occasional bitchy sonnet about fellow poets:

Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer;
Food was his public love, his private lust
Something to do with violence and the poor.

I'm as befuddled as anyone about Auden's earlier poems; at Uni I wrote a dissertation including analysis of his work with Benjamin Britten, Our Hunting Fathers: I still have no bloody idea what it's about. But his obscurity - and he could be very obscure - is often a teasing obscurity. And often, this obscurity itself has to be limited, for instance, by putting it in the mouth of a character:

Waking in her arms he cried,
Utterly content:
"I have heard the high good noises,
Promoted for an instant,
Stood upon the shining outskirts
Of that Joy I thank
For you, my dog and every goody."
There on the grass bank
She laughed, he laughjed, they laughed together,
Then they ate and drank:
Did he know what he meant? said the willow-wren;
God only knows, said the stare.

Which is all quite interesting, so far as it goes; the double meaning in the last line is particularly effective.
All in all, he was a smart cookie; sometimes, too smart. Nobody could understand what he was on about. But anybody who could write an entertaining, witty, and musical ten stanza poem about shit certainly had something going for him.

Next: how to become a modernist, in ten easy steps!


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