W.H. Auden Introduces His Theory of Poetry

published in the March 15, 1950 issue of the Phoenix

Wystan Hugh Auden, the noted poet and former Swarthmore faculty member, spoke last Thursday night to a near capacity audience in Clothier on Nature, History, and Poetry. After setting up his own critical terms and definitions necessary to the exposition of the topic, Mr. Auden proceeded to explain how the three, Nature, History, and Poetry, are related in his theory of the nature of poetry.

Unfortunately Auden does not conceive the problem as a simple one, and the complexity of the terminology involved and the different facets of the problem left the greater part of the audience in a state of confusion. For those who did not understand, we are told the speech was enlightening.

System of Evaluation

The speech was divided into two rather distinct parts. First of all, Auden set up his system of evaluation of poetry in terms of natural events, historical events, the crowd, community, and society of these related events. Auden touched on the problem of the distinction between "the law of" or descriptive law, and the "law for" or prescriptive law. This highly theoretical part of the speech showed how the crowd of impressions of certain natural events put together in the right way made up the "community." The basic problem in understanding this mentally exhausting and rigorous explanation was one of making unity out of complexity which is also the problem for the poet at work.

The Poetic Process

After he had woven his way between these stepping stones and departure points, Auden proceeded to the second part of his topic which was the poetic process. In showing how the poet writes, Mr. Auden used one of his own poems, Prime. This part of the speech most of the audience could understand. It was enlightening to see how Auden's mind traveled, how he decided on changes, and the use of internal rhyme. The poetic process, as explained to the audience, can be aptly expressed by the quotation from Auden [sic; this quotation is from E.M. Forster] "How do I know what I mean until I see what I say." The chief difficulty for the audience at this point was one of reconciling his theoretical system, which he set up to explain the nature of poetry, with his remarks on how he writes poetry. Again, this was the problem of the new terminology which is not at all readily applied by the neophyte. The fact that Auden's mind did not work in conventional patterns was the cause for the confusion. It was more than obvious that the speech was not carelessly put together, as were the speaker's lecture notes, and we feel sure that when the speech does come out in print, the nature of poetry as seen by W.H. Auden will be more readily understandable.


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