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

Part four: audience; novels; war poetry; Frost, Eliot, and Dickinson; advice to fledgling poets; wit and poetry

What are your thoughts on the function of poetry to the masses?

I would say none. Because first of all you always think of yourself as addressing one person, and masses is a meaningless term really, as it is normally used. I would say the majority of people don't read poetry at all if you are going to talk in purely numerical terms. But you certainly don't think of yourself - I don't think anyone does - as addressing a mass.

You don't write for a certain audience?

No. How can you know? You write for whoever happens to enjoy what you write. If they enjoy it, you say, "I write for you." If they don't, "I don't write for you," quite clearly. After all, you don't know them. The only people you can consciously think of are the dead. People you admire. Would they approve? Because you also hope to write for people who are not yet born. What one aims at is trying to make a verbal object which will be on hand in the world and is, therefore, free from the cycle of birth and death. The word poetry comes from the Greek word and means to make and in the medieval period they didn't call themselves poets; they called themselves makers.

Have you ever been tempted to write a novel?

Never. I wouldn't know how to write a novel. I have thought of doing a detective story.

Do you like novels?

Some. I am very fond of Dickens, and I'm fond of Trollope, and Jane Austen. And people like Rollo Fairbanks I am particularly fond of. And P.G. Wodehouse. I like novels, on the whole, to be rather short and funny. There are exceptions, of course. Proust, you know, has to be long. And Collette I enjoy very much. She is very odd because she is one of the very few Mediterranean writers who have a feeling for what we in England or America would call nature. She is marvelous on cats and flowers and things.

Have you taken much, if any, direction from Robert Frost?

Oh, I have learned a lot from Frost. I got on to him quite early. Because when I was in school I got interested in an English poet who was killed in the First World War called Edward Thomas. I discovered that Thomas had been persuaded to start writing poetry late in life by Frost, so then I thought I must get Frost. I bought him when he was really not very well known and I have always admired his work enormously.

Is there anyone writing poetry today that you particularly admire?

I never will talk about contemporary writers who are alive for two reasons: First of all, because people always secretly hope you will say something malicious, and, secondly, it suggest that poetry were a horse race where you could put people 1, 2, 3, 4. You can't. If anyone is any good, he is unique and not replaceable by anybody else. You can say there is a difference between a major poet and a minor poet. This is not an aesthetic judgment. This doesn't mean that the poems of a minor poet are any worse. I think I would say the difference is - Housman would be an obvious example of this. You take two poems of his written at different periods and without outside information you are asked to say which was written first, and you can't tell. While with a major poet, you do see consistent development and change; they do move on. Say Eliot, for example, where you can see the changes that happen. It has nothing to do with the actual quality of the work.

What do you think of the war poetry of Wilfred Owen?

Not very much. Of course, he was a great hero of my boyhood.

What I mean to ask more directly is can one write about war well?

I think he managed. Just as I think David Jones's book In Parenthesis is a marvelous book about war. When it came out in 1937 it was hardly noticed. Surprisingly little poetry came directly out of the last war. Very little. Partly because of new things like the use of the airplane; probably the pilots didn't have the literary capacity to describe what these new experiences were. One would love to have known, but I can't think of one that could tell you something about aerial warfare and you'd say, "Oh, my God, I hadn't realized that!"

What makes it possible to write good war poetry and not to write good political poetry?

Search me. Just on the evidence it would seem to be so.

Do you think something like Catch 22 or The Naked and the Dead captured the war?

I wouldn't know. They didn't interest me very much. I may be wrong. I am not very good on novels unless they are funny.

Have there been times you thought that an allusion or reference in your poetry was too contemporary and therefore you wrote it out?

Not too contemporary, no. Of course, it is a terrible problem for any modern writer now. If you take the early epic poets, one half their work was done for them because everyone knew the names they used. I remember - I think in 1934 - I wrote a poem in which I mentioned Greta Garbo, thinking she was a household name. After the war when Richard Hogarth in England did a selection of stuff of mine, he gassed her name. I think probably TV has brought her back again. Even Milton could assume that his readers would know any reference to the Bible or classical mythology. Now there is awfully little you can count on in the way of people knowing proper names.

In the same vein, what do you think about the use of vast erudition in poetry like The Wasteland?

That is perfectly all right. There isn't that much. Actually I think he should have had no notes or more extensive ones. He said himself he only put them in because they needed a few more pages for printing - that was his own story.

Talking about Eliot, I had a ghoulish experience. I think he died on January 4, 1965. I was spending that winter in Berlin. At the beginning of December 1964, the BBC came to me and I had to tape an obituary. It is bad enough to have to write one but to have to talk about somebody who happens also to be a personal friend in the past when you know he is alive is rather ghoulish.

Have you ever been at all interested in Emily Dickinson's poetry?

Oh, yes. I remember I was at Oxford when they published her first volume, and we were all very impressed. The other thing that came out then was Bridges' selections from Gerard Manley Hopkins.

What kind of advice would you give to somebody beginning to write poetry?

It would be different for every case because you would have to see what their interests were, what poets they were interested in as models and so on and then you could go on from there. I don't think there is any general advice you could give which would apply to every person, except love the language.

Would you suggest imitating different styles?

Choose your model. I wouldn't say imitate so and so. I would say find out whom you want to model yourself by. The thing is that some people - I would say Eliot is one and Gerard Manley Hopkins is another - you cannot imitate without just producing pastiche, Eliot water or something. It is very interesting with Eliot when you think of his position. It is very rare when looking at the poetry written by younger people that you say, "Oh, he has been reading Eliot." You say people have been reading Yeats or Rilke. He is a very idiosyncratic poet and very idiosyncratic poets usually are not people to take as models because it won't be as good as the original and you won't get anything of your own out of it. You want people who are near enough to you in spirit and at the same time different.

Eliot, I think, said that a bad or minor poet imitates and a great poet...

Steals. Of course, Eliot was deliberately being a little shocking. He had that side of him. He loved explosive cigars and cushions that made noises when you sat on them and so on, which made him say things like Milton is no good.

Have you read Groucho Marx's collected letters?

My favorite crack of Groucho's is in A Day at the Races when he is feeling a girl's pulse and he says, "Either she is dead or my watch has stopped."

Do you think wit is an important part of the poet?

It is a quality I value. Not all poets have it but some have, and when it is there, I think it is very nice to have.

Are there any poets you regard as particularly witty?

I think you would have to say Pope is witty. Swift is quite witty too.

Do you think Eliot is witty?

Not particularly. There are witty things there but I wouldn't call him, as a poet, a wit. You get comic poets like Ogden Nash, who are obviously very witty and good.