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

Part three: teaching poetry, languages and translation, the joy of great art

What kind of approach do you think should be taken toward teaching poetry?

I don't know how much you can teach at all. You can get people to read and tell them something about the technique. In the end, most people do two things: First of all, they find models when they are young. My first model was Thomas Hardy. And the other thing is that with your fellow students who are writing you can look at each other's work. You really want it to be better and are willing to give it the attention grown-up people are willing to give only their own work.

I very much doubt whether the thing can be taught. There was a time, of course, if you take Welsh bards, when this was a profession like being a doctor where you served an apprenticeship. Here you have to serve your apprenticeship privately.

What do you think should go on in English classes?

Academic courses. I have always refused to have anything to do with contemporary literature. I just gave a course in eighteenth-century literature. One thing that puzzles me is that students now want courses in contemporary literature. When I was a student contemporary literature was something we looked at for ourselves and I think we were reasonably informed. We wouldn't have dreamt of going to a teacher and saying, "We want to have a course."

Did you ever regret becoming a poet, particularly in your early years?

No, not when I started, I must say. I started in rather an odd way. Psychologically I think I can understand it now. In March 1922, I was walking across a field - I was in boarding school - with a friend of mine (a fellow who turned out to be a painter later), and he asked me if I ever wrote poetry. I said no, that thought had never occurred to me, and he said why don't you.

I can still remember the last line of the first poem I ever wrote, about a town in the Lake District. The last line ran: "And in the quiet oblivion of thy waters let them stay." I can't remember who "they" were.

Has anyone ever suggested that you translate Wagner?

No, the thought has occurred to me but on the whole late libretti are very difficult to do. You can do Mozart and that period, but from middle Verdi on it is very difficult to do. Because by that time the voice line and the words are very closely connected in a way that earlier they weren't. Of course, with TV they may have to do it, but I have always said to people. "Look here, if you are going to the opera, take a libretto with an English text to find out what is happening. After all, in any case whatever the language is you are only going to hear about half the words."

If you had a chance to be born again and to be able to write in any language as a native...

I would choose English. I am fascinated with other languages, such as German, for there are certain things that you can do in German which you can't do in English. I think we are frightfully lucky because being a mongrel language, we have this enormous vocabulary. And then because it is an uninflected language, you can turn nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns in a very nice way: the line of Shakespeare's "The hearts that spaniel'd me at heels," which you couldn't do with an inflected language.

And then we have this lovely, rich vocabulary. I couldn't live without two copies of the thirteen volumes of the OED, one here and one in Austria. By far the best one-volume dictionary is Chambers. Obviously, if you are going to be a poet, one of the first requirements must be a passionate love for your mother tongue.

Is German the language of other poets that has affected you most?

Probably, I should think. I know German and Italian very well. Icelandic has influenced me, and Anglo-Saxon.

Can a vision obtained in the arts be applied to more concrete kinds of...

If you mean that it would change your course of conduct, this I don't believe.

Does that go for all art, all poetry?

All art. It was only the Romantics who started this ridiculous idea. When Shelley said, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," it isn't true. It is the secret police.

Do you think that is life?

Just say you want to help people enjoy life a little better than without it. Any great art certainly fills you with joy. There are certain things it would be quite impossible to write about because reality is too awful. I don't think you could write a decent poem or play about Auschwitz. The facts are far too awful. Any more than I think you can write a good poem about Good Friday. People have tried. None of them work.

What do you think is the source of that joy?

Search me. I don't know. When you are listening to Mozart, you are filled with joy. Why, I haven't the faintest idea. I don't think anybody knows. It is just a common-sense experience.