An hour of questions and answers with Auden (November 15, 1971)

Part one: remarks on teaching and Dr. Spooner, influences, free verse

I hear it's terrible now, that honors seminars meet in the evening and go on forever. When I was here I had one from half past one in the afternoon until six. There was coffee rationing and so one had to serve beer at four o'clock.

We had a group of Chinese students here who were going to MIT and wanted to brush up their English. They were awfully difficult because if you ask a Chinese, "Have you understood?" he has to say "yes" because it is considered rude to say "no." So how you discover whether they have understood is complicated.

Funny thing, in 1952 I was teaching at the University of Texas and I gave a lecture on Tolkien. People thought I was pulling their leg or they thought I made him up. We know what happened later so it is rather amusing.

When I was an undergraduate, you could still see Dr. Spooner around the streets. He didn't make many Spoonerisms, but his conversation could be very odd indeed. "I want you to come to tea next Monday to meet Mr. Castin." "But I am Mr. Castin." "Come all the same!"

You once said that you thought Dante, Langland, and Pope were the three major influences and most important poetic figures for you. Would you please comment on that?

They vary at different times. Pope has always been, but at the moment I would say that my two chief models are Horace and the classical Goethe of the middle period - "Metamorphosis of Plants" and that sort of thing. I have always loved Horace, but when I was young, I knew I couldn't use him yet. Now I can. This is a funny thing that happens with writing: You can get an idea for a poem that you have to turn down for one or two reasons: I am sorry, no longer; or I am sorry, not yet.

What about free verse?

There are a few people like D.H. Lawrence, who have to write in free verse. I think they are a minority. Anyone who has played a game, whether it is bridge or baseball, knows you can't play games without rules. You can make the rules what you like, but your whole fun and freedom come from working within these. Why should poetry be any different? One of the things you so often notice when looking at a lot of poems in free verse is that you can't tell one author from another, far from thinking one more original. With rules it is so much more fun because they impose some kind of metrical quality, and they often suggest all kinds of things you haven't thought of before. It does free one a bit from the fetters of oneself.

Don't you think one has to work harder to make good free verse?

No, there are very few people who do it. You have got to have a marvelous sense of line endings. So often I can see no reason why the thing isn't printed as a prose poem. This you do feel with Lawrence; the lines end exactly right.

What makes something a prose poem?

It is written out in prose. An obvious example is the Illuminations of Rimbaud, a very clear example of a prose poem which is written out as prose and separated by paragraphs but is undoubtedly poetry.

Is there any one French poet of that period you like a lot?

Rimbaud I like. Mallarmé I am not very fond of. But then I am rather a Francophile. I think it is the only language which the sixteenth-century humanists managed to ruin. They tried with English and failed; they tried with Italian and failed; but I think they did succeed with French.