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

Part two: what a poet can do, political poetry, favorite (and "unfavorite") poems, corrections and collaborations

How has your conception of what a poet is and what he can do changed?

I think what Dr. Johnson said about writing is true of all the arts: "The aim of writing is to enable readers a little better to enjoy life or a little better to endure it." The other thing that the arts can do is that they are the chief method of communicating with the dead. After all, Homer is dead, his society completely gone, and yet one can appreciate it. Without communication with the dead, a fully human life is not possible.

Does that represent a change for you from writing in the thirties?

No, not a bit. If you are talking about the engagé thing, it's fine. Write a poem if you feel moved to because of the circumstances. But what you must not imagine is that you can change the course of history by doing so. I wrote several things about Hitler in the thirties, but nothing that I wrote prevented one Jew being gassed or shortened the war by five seconds. I think that you would have to say that the political and social history of Europe would be what it has been if Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Mozart, Beethoven, Michelangelo - whom you will - had never lived. We should have missed a lot of fun, but the political and social history would have been the same. Because when it comes to social and political evils, only two things are effective: One is political action, of course, and the other is straight journalistic reportage of the facts. You must know exactly what happened. This has nothing to do with poetry. It is a journalist's job which, of course, is very important.

Is there any good political poetry that you know of?

Directly political? I rather doubt it. I may be wrong, but at any rate if there had been, all the issues have evaporated. If you take some of Dryden's poems which certainly deal with political figures, it is enormous fun to read, but, of course, you have to look up who the people are in the notes.

What about twentieth-century poetry?

I can't think of much. For example, Brecht is a very good lyrical poet. I don't think the plays will do quite, and the reason is that his natural sensibility was deeply pessimistic and even Christian, and he harnesses on to an optimistic philosophy of Marxism, and I feel it doesn't work. For example, you take Mother Courage. Apparently we are supposed to think that is what life is like under capitalism - what life is like, period. Brecht apparently wanted you not to like Mother Courage, but, in fact, when you see the play, you do.

Do you have favorite poems that you have written?

No, one has unfavorites. The thing one gets tired of - they may be quite good - is the old warhorses, things you find in anthologies and refuse to read. Anthologists and frightfully lazy people; they all copy each other.

When you look back at some of the old warhorses, say the thirties' poems, do you still feel intimately in touch with them?

Yes, they seem all right, I think, but you are naturally much more interested in what you are doing at the moment than in what you have done.

How do you decide what you are going to do?

Two things happen. At any given moment, I have two things on my mind: one, a subject or subjects that interest me and, two, certain formal problems - they may be metrical, they may be diction, or whatever. The formal interest looks for the right subject to incorporate; the subject looks for the right form. When these things come together, then you are able to write something.

The ideal reaction one hopes to get from a reader is, "Oh, I knew that all the time but never realized it before." The thing that poetry certainly is not is self-expression. All you can say is that you think each of us as a person has a unique perspective on the work. One thinks one is saying something about reality common to all of us and sufficiently interesting to want to share it with other people.

Do you think you can have a good poem which expresses something to the poet but which fails to communicate to the reader?

If it fails to communicate, there is something wrong with it. If somebody asks what a poem means, I say it is not good asking me. What a poem means is the result of a dialogue between the words on the page and the particular reader who happens to be reading it. We all have different experiences. The poet is out of the picture altogether.

Do you ever find yourself going back and correcting?

Oh, yes, because I agree very much with Paul Valéry, who said: "A poem is never finished; it's only abandoned." It isn't that one revises ideas, but one is aware that the language isn't right. Is it too vague or is unmusical. You feel "I want to tighten it up." One can never tell how good or bad something one writes is, but what one can tell - not always at once but sooner or later - is whether a poem is authentic, that is, really written in one's handwriting or forgery. There are poems of mine which I regard as forgeries. For all I know the poem may be quite good, but I shouldn't have written it.

Name one.

Oh, "September 1, 1939." The rhetoric is far too inflated.

I have been reading some of the things you wrote in collaboration. Like Delia.

Chester Kallman and I have done four libretti: one for Stravinsky, three for Henze, and now we have just done one based on Love's Labour's Lost for Nicholas Nabokov. I think the premiere is going to be in Spoleto next year. That's enormous fun. What people don't realize is that in collaboration, if it works, you form a single writer who is different from either writer alone.

Because sometimes I wonder if I am copying something out and attributing it to you that...

Often the critics get it wrong, which is exactly what we want. The interesting thing about libretti, Chester Kallman and I have found, is that if you have to write an aria or an ensemble, you naturally have an embryonic idea of a tune in your mind. Naturally you don't say a word about this. Every time Stravinsky or Henze gave us the kind of thing we had in mind, which is interesting because it shows that somehow or another words can suggest musical things.