Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"No words men write can stop the war"

posted by k

Today is the 100th anniversary of W.H. Auden’s birth. As the South Bank Show on Sunday made clear, he’s still seen as a difficult figure: the poet of the left who spent the war in America. No matter that his departure was arranged in the wake of Munich nor that the decision was personal (Auden later ascribed it to a need to grow up but he’d also found a life-long partner in the young Jewish-American poet Chester Kallman); according to the thinking of the time it was the responsibility of poets to join the army or be bombed in London. Settling in New York (eventually joining the U.S. army as part of the Strategic Bombing Survey) didn’t fit the popular image of the lyric poet who should, ideally, die young.

What Auden did instead was to rethink the role of the poet and, by implication, of language itself. Before the Second World War began, Auden, who had become accustomed to speak in public on a range of subjects from documentary film to anti-fascism, discovered that he had the ability to sway an audience. The experience shocked him and may have been one of the influences on his renunciation of lyric poetry. Within the space of a single poem – “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” – he moved from the idea that Time “Worships language” to the declaration that “poetry makes nothing happen”. By 1950, in “We Too Had Known Golden Hours”, Auden observed that “words like Peace and Love,/All sane affirmative speech” had been “soiled” and “debased” by mass media and politicians, so that the only possible speech remaining was “wry” and “Ironic”. Still the “suburb of dissent” remained.

The ironic, questioning, playful voice continued until 1973, often dissenting and asking awkward questions. Auden reminds us to be mistrustful of political and media rhetoric and to avoid the easy cliché which sways opinion by avoiding thought. He reminds us too of a shared humanity.

It seems apt to recall a few of his words on what would have been Auden's 100th birthday.

“In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act. So long as artists exist, making what they please and think they ought to make, even if it is not terribly good, even if it appeals only to a handful of people, they remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous members, that Homo Laborans is also Homo Ludens.” [i.e. man who labours is also man who plays] (“The Poet & the City")

"Speech can at best, a shadow echoing
the silent light, bear witness
to the Truth it is not …" (“The Cave of Making”)

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