Famed Poet Auden Urges Authenticity, Plays Game of Life Seeking "Good Art"

by Betty McElrey, published in the November 19, 1971 issue of the Phoenix

"I don't ever remember having been bored, ever." W.H. Auden's declaration about himself is an observable truth. If talking with Auden reveals anything, it is simply an awareness of his unflagging interest in life. Writing poetry is the result of this preoccupation and his attempt to communicate it.

Of course, Auden's attempts are of a different magnitude than ours. His fame and literary reputation have been growing since he published his first volume of verse at age 23. Nevertheless, Auden communicates life to people through his writing, "a dialogue between the poet and reader, but with the poet out of the picture."

Since he cannot be part of the picture, Auden stresses the need for the poet to be authentic, to write in his own hand. Authenticity, he said, should not be confused with self-expression, the mistake of the Romantics.

Knowing the Rules

He continued, "I want a reader to be able to say 'I always knew that, but didn't realize it until I read this.'" Self-expression and sincerity are not enough. "Good art," Auden maintained, "is a source of joy." As such it can help us "to enjoy life or...to endure it a little better."

For all of his willingness to be philosophical and general about poetry, however, Auden is rather reluctant to speak of life and his experiences in the same way. His poetry speaks for itself - and does so in a particularly compelling manner when he reads it.

Auden's fascination with crossword puzzles, detective novels, and with "sticking to the rules of the game" when writing poetry is symptomatic of the nature of his life. Auden knows exactly what time it is; he knows the rules and the game.

Both poems and life "are never finished," he says, "but only abandoned." Auden has been too interested to want to abandon either, and is constantly tidying up, yet at the same time he is most interested "in what you're going to do next."

Auden's views on politics and pot are footnotes to his ideas about poetry. He asserts that one cannot write good political poetry. Politics is a self-conscious, necessary evil.

The business of governing should be dealt with as quickly as possible, so as to get on with the real business of life. "But there's always somebody on a committee who just loves it and draws out meetings unbearably."

Although Auden believes that art cannot change the course of history, he does not consider this a failure. '"Poets are not the legislators of the world." Auden is not giving us laws, but words to be "modified in the guts of the living."

On the subject of drugs Auden speaks from experience. His criticisms of marijuana use are that it reduces coherence, inflates egos, and for the young especially, prevents one from discovering his own identity. Artistically, he found the experience uncommunicatable and hence useless. With LSD, "nothing happened."

Other interesting trivia gleaned from the poet in his private talks include: "every girl and boy of sixteen should be given a cookbook; I hate cameras, they turn all fact into fiction; I wouldn't know what to do in a contemporary literature course"; and that, in regard to being a poet, "I had no regrets once I started."

Auden, at sixty-four, is still striving, still playing the game for mortal stakes. He writes as he lives; to see him and to hear him is to have an unexpected chance to feel his authenticity and witness his communication.


Phoenix archive < Famed Poet Urges Authenticity > A gift from Auden

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