Tag Archives: poetry

Humphrey Carpenter – W. H. Auden: A biography

In Lower Sixth, my English class trooped down to Newcastle’s Theatre Royal to see the new play by Alan Bennett, The Habit of Art. It was a play within a play: a fly-on-the-wall insight into rehearsals of Caliban’s Day, with its uptight, upcoming author looking on. The lead actor, Fitz, plays an old W. H. Auden, who is living out his last years in his alma mater of Christ Church, Oxford. He receives a series of visitors, including his former collaborator Benjamin Britten, a male prostitute, and an earnest young BBC journalist called Humphrey Carpenter.

Ten years later, I spent half a euro on Carpenter’s biography of Auden, not expecting that I would ever read it. Yet last month I did, building on the summer in which I finally ‘got’ Auden’s poetry. Auden disapproved of poets’ biographies, arguing that, unlike with “a man of action,” there was nothing about a poet’s life that a reader could possibly need to know. But he might have approved of Carpenter’s, which in the classical biographer’s tradition is sober, egoless (with one sole mention of “the present author”) and not over-familiar – “Wystan” cedes to “Auden” from the second chapter onwards, when the subject moves into adolescence. Ethically, the book lives up to its (fairly) morally upstanding – and intensely moralistic – protagonist.

Image credit: Oxford University Press

In many ways, Auden must have been a biographer’s dream: generous with his time, a bundle of quirks and eccentricities strapped into the strictest routine, and a font of “memorable speech,” his own definition of poetry. His personal magnetism pulled sundry characters into his orbit, and the book has some great names, like Edward Upward and Nob Snodgrass. Poets of varying quality soon fell under the umbrella of “the Auden school,” from the tall, curly-haired Stephen Spender to Louis MacNeice, who described the former as “a towering angel not quite sure if he was fallen.”

Whatever Spender’s condition, Auden certainly saw himself as fallen in some way. He once said that “Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue.” But he himself did a pretty good job of disproving this. There was none of the self-regarding bard in him. One of his colleagues at the BBC, where he contributed to a few documentaries, admitted that he “kept bringing [the most beautiful verse], and – the cheek of us, in a way – we turned down so much.” Auden would say “All right, that’s quite all right. Just roll it up and throw it away.” He set no store by poetry’s post-Romantic elevation; he preferred the then (and still) unfashionable Pope and Dryden, whom he named as “the ideal poet to read when one is weary, as I often am, of poetry with a capital P.” In his later years, he reiterated a line quoted in Bennett’s play: “nothing I ever wrote saved one Jew from extinction or shortened the war by five seconds.” And as if to make up for this, his biography is littered with acts of charity, such as paying the school fees of two impoverished teenagers in Kirchstetten, the little Austrian town to which he retired. He had never met the boys in question.

Carpenter presents a picture of a man ruled by the clock and by notions of what a respectable person should be and should do, yet who frequently flummoxed all expectations. In 1935, his longtime friend and sometime lover Christopher Isherwood wrote to him on behalf of Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas: she was seeking a British passport as a way out of Hitler’s Germany. Auden replied with a telegram: DELIGHTED. After the wedding, he commented: “I didn’t see her till the ceremony and perhaps I shall never see her again. But she is very nice.” In fact, he and the Manns saw each other many times more over the years, with Auden fond of saying: “The most boring German writer? My father in law!”

A marriage of convenience is one thing, but the reader will be surprised to learn of Auden’s actual sexual affairs with women. He described himself as “quite ambidextrous,” and generally enjoyed his fair share of “copotomy and sodulation,” which Carpenter accounts for with a perfectly straight face. Neither prurient nor prudish, about the facts-of-life he is simply matter-of-fact, and that was probably quite a brave thing to be back in 1981. Even more so when we consider D. J. Taylor’s recent column in the Times Literary Supplement, which notes that it wasn’t really until the turn of the millennium that homosexuality became openly mentionable in obituaries, having previously lurked under the euphemism “he never married.” Which Auden, of course, did.

Before settling into a cosy High Church Anglicanism, Auden spent most of his pre-war life hunting for a bedrock of beliefs, which in physical terms gave him itchy feet. Like many Britons, he pitched into the Spanish Civil War, which he found a static, disillusioning limbo. In 1938 he and Isherwood sailed for China, whose creaky coalition of Nationalist and Communist government was held together only by war with Japan. It was all a bit of a jolly to the travellers, who immediately had business cards made with their names transcribed into Chinese phonetics: ‘Y Hsiao Wu’ and ‘Au Deng’. Au Deng sought out the fighting wherever it was thickest, seemingly impervious to danger. As Isherwood wrote to Spender, “Auden knows he won’t be killed, because Nanny would never allow it, and it Can’t Happen Here.”

My summer reading of Auden’s poetry left me with the strong impression of a poet who declined after the War, an impression shared by most of his contemporaries (Carpenter repeatedly begs to differ, but one wonders if he really believed his own defence). He succumbed to the ageing poet’s cardinal sin of tampering with their earlier work, invariably for the worse; and struck one of his most famous poems from his anthologies altogether. Thankfully, ‘September 1, 1939’ was already out there in the world, long past being reeled back in. And no wonder, given the first stanza:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

It may start in a dive in Fifty-Second street, but by line four the poem has soared to what Carpenter calls Auden’s “hawk’s vision,” with “a low dishonest decade” in his sights. It’s a lesson to all poets who fight shy of absolute values and moral judgements. And the final stanza is a lesson to all poets who kid themselves that the words they write make a greater difference than the lives they lead.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Auden never reconciled himself to the last line, thinking “that’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” In later versions, he changed it to “We must love one another and die.” Geoffrey Hill, as one of Auden’s successors as Oxford Professor of Poetry, ventured that Auden had forgotten his original motive: “He meant to die spiritually, and that seems to me an entirely acceptable sentiment.” But Auden eventually came to think the poem riddled with “dishonesty,” and completely disowned it. Its very mention would probably earn Carpenter a black mark, in his book. But then, good biographers spare no blushes, and Carpenter is a very good biographer. He also wrote Lives of Tolkien, Britten, Evelyn Waugh, Ezra Pound, John Murray, and one presumes that they are all as clear, as readable and as unconceited as Auden: A biography. As Bennett notes in the preface to The Habit of Art, he deserves a biography all to himself.

by Harry Cochrane

Edward Thomas: Adlestrop – close reading

Edition: The Quince Tree Press. Drawing by Peter Newcombe

This is not quite my favourite Edward Thomas poem, but it’s probably his most famous, and maybe his most “Thomasian”. It shows his gift for counterposing the barest of statements – “It was late June”, “Someone cleared his throat” – with something rather stranger-sounding. Would anyone say “one afternoon / Of heat” rather than “one hot afternoon”? But would anyone argue that “one hot afternoon” is better? If the adjective “hot” rarely packs much of a punch, the noun “heat” still stirs the senses; you can feel it rise off the platform, off the page.

Then we have “Unwontedly”, which plays eye off against ear. For me, it’s homophonous with “unwantedly”, and to the audience at the poetry reading, that makes perfect sense. No one likes it when a train stops for no obvious reason; it’s a thing unwanted. But “unwontedly” – and for all I know Thomas may have made an aural distinction (unwohntedly?) – is a peculiar word, never used now, if it ever was. I suspect that it sounded old even in Thomas’ day. “The train was not wont to stop there” we might still say, but there’s something about “wont” that resists being applied to a machine. This range of timbre is widespread in Thomas’ poetry. He often sustains a fairly neutral tone before lurching back in time with an archaism, as in that flaccidly Georgian line here: “No whit less still and lonely fair”.

There are two other quintessentially Thomasian qualities to this poem. One is the furtiveness of the form. I first read “Adlestrop” in my AS Level English class, and nobody pointed out that it rhymed. I can easily believe that no one noticed. I certainly didn’t, and the reason is because Thomas’ rhythms work against his line breaks. He doesn’t go pounding to the end of a line; he rarely hits the rhyme hard. In the first stanza, “heat” absorbs some of the stress from “afternoon”; later “name” springs straight into “willows”. Thomas lived in an age of poets who wore their forms on their sleeves, like sergeant’s stripes, while the mechanics of his poetry often seem accidental, or better, organic. Thus “Adlestrop” approximates the rhythms – if not the vocabulary – of a real human voice.

But what really defines “Adlestrop” as a Thomas poem is its mystery. You can see the shimmering mirage generated by the “afternoon of heat”. Why has the train stopped there? No one seems to know; the throat-clearing smacks of embarrassment. We picture the terrible awkwardness among passengers when something out of the ordinary occurs: eyes are not met, words are not exchanged, everyone looks stiffly forward or down. If the poem is to be believed, train travel in Thomas’ day was not much more sociable than it is now. Even moving, trains are eerie things. The driver is unseen and almost always unheard. But there’s another mysterious person in the frame, or just out of it: who is the speaker speaking to? Who, and what, is he answering with that ‘Yes’?

The poem is a picture of stillness and tension in a haze of summer heat. And somehow, Thomas conjures that stillness with sharp, precise verbs. Most English writing, at some point or other, falls back on that dreadful, nasally -ing suffix, be they present participles, gerunds or continuous forms. “Adlestrop” doesn’t contain a single -ing. After the initial “I remember”, it has only the past simple: “drew”, “hissed”, “cleared”, “left” “came”, “saw”, “sang”. Sharp verbs, crisp as a winter’s morning; yet soft, apart from the always-sinister “hissed”. They don’t disturb the stillness; they slice straight through it.

What mars it, just a touch, is the last line. “Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire” locate the poem in a way that it didn’t need; gives us a point of reference that checks the bewilderment. The reader isn’t meant to know the name “Adlestrop”; the speaker doesn’t seem to, when the train draws up. It’s like Porlock: one of those places whose fame rests solely on a work of literature, otherwise not quite of this world. Knowing that Adlestrop lies in Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire spoils – ever so slightly – the riddle.

by Harry Cochrane

John Berryman – John Berryman (Poet to Poet Series)

I’ve owned this slim little book for nearly seven years, and it still has the paper price tag on the back: £3.99. Those were the days. I bought it after a night of undergrad boozing chez my friend Tristram, whose bookshelves I had combed in conspiracy with another friend, Thea. Thea pulled out this very edition of John Berryman – I remember being struck by the stack of shot glasses on the cover – and told me that I had to read him. The Dream Songs especially.

Credit: Faber and Faber

And though 58 Dream Songs (chosen from 385 of them) make up about three-fifths of the book, it was Berryman’s sonnets that I first latched on to. At this point in life I was devoted to poetic form, slavishly so, and that devotion struggled to find a place for The Dream Songs’ histogrammic six-line stanzas, sometimes rhymed and sometimes not. The sonnets attracted me by virtue of their shape – time was when everything I wrote was a sonnet – but they were sonnets with a voltage that I had rarely felt:

All we were going strong last night this time,
the mots were flying & the frozen daiquiris
were drowning, supine on the floor lay Lise
listening to Schubert grievous and sublime,
my head was frantic with a following rime:
it was a good evening, an evening to please,
I kissed her in the kitchen – ecstacies –
among so much good we tamped down the crime.

The weather’s changing. This morning was cold,
as I made for the grove, without expectation,
some hundred sonnets in my pocket, old,
to read her if she came. Presently the sun
yellowed the pines & my lady came not
in blue jeans & a sweater. I sat down and wrote.

For years I wished that the book gave me more than a tiny window onto Berryman’s sonnets (21 out of 115), but over time I have come to think Michael Hofmann’s selection near-faultless. It’s surpassed only by his introduction, possibly the finest poet-to-poet preface that I’ve ever read. Hofmann admits that “any selection of Berryman has, to some extent, to oppose itself to the worst tendencies of the poet. There will be a little denial in it, and a little false innocence”. Otherwise one gives too much space to Berryman’s most irresponsible speech-acts, like this:

The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business… being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer… I hope to be nearly crucified.

Berryman suffered the worst possible ordeal at the age of eleven, when he saw his father walk out into the garden and shoot himself in the head. The sins of the father did not die with him: instead, the son inherited the urge to self-destruct. This translated into alcoholism, the extra-marital affair chronicled in the sonnets, and finally his own suicide, when he jumped from a bridge over the Mississippi.

Those catastrophic tendencies find voice in the Dream Songs’ protagonist Henry, who comes and goes, twirling around Berryman’s own biographical trajectory. But whether writing about his own implosions or the implosions of others, Berryman usually resists (self-)pity, which of course makes him the more harrowing. The Dream Songs include a handful of elegies for Delmore Schwartz, the Brooklyn poet who crashed and burned and became an Adonian martyr figure among Berryman’s circle, inspiring the title character of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. In Dream Song 149, however, grief is “too astray [perhaps in the sense of ‘wild’] for tears”:

This world is becoming a place
where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die?
I don’t suppose
in all them years a day went ever by
without a loving thought for him. Welladay.
In the brightness of his promise,

unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual
blazing with insight, warm with gossip
thro’ all our Harvard years
when both of us were just becoming known
I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref
and grief too astray for tears.

I imagine you have heard the terrible news,
that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,
in New York: he sang me a song
‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz
Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’
when he was young & gift-strong.

The poem is studded with allusions to the greats. “Can Delmore die?” picks up Shakespeare’s “Can Fulvia die?” (Antony and Cleopatra), while “Harms & the child I sing” grotesquely inverts the opening three words of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Arms and the man I sing” (arma virumque cano). But the poem’s pathos plays along the language of dead platitudes: “I imagine you have heard the terrible news”. And “his promise” – at how many funerals has the inadequate word ‘promise’ been trotted out? Perhaps the saddest thing, which anyone who has read Humboldt’s Gift will recognise, is that Delmore died “miserably & alone”, deserted not only by his friends but also by his talent. “When he was young” he was “gift-strong”, but his gift, like Humboldt’s, abandoned him in later life. In the next Dream Song, #150, Berryman writes “I’d bleed to say his lovely work improved / but it is not so”.

For his part, Berryman pre-empted a similar decline by sabotaging his own poetic praxis. Love & Fame (1970) reads like a man who has given up trying to make sense of life and is content to laugh at it; certainly, he’s stopped trying to shape it to a real form – the book’s quatrains seem token, almost a mockery of the verse tradition. As one Dream Song says, “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify and comfort”, a gloss that probably applies to most of the Berryman corpus. After all, what is there to understand in the opening ‘stanza’ of ‘First Night at Sea’?

I’m at a table with Canadians.
He translates Villon. Villon! What Canadian
could English make of those abject bravura laments?
He says he’ll give me a copy.

But reading with the hindsight of an age when most poets are ‘prosey’ at one point or another, these poems have a power of their own. They involve some cognitive leaps that the reader can only hope to keep up with, but they speak with a plainness alien to much of Berryman’s oeuvre, not least the sonnets. No one could call them disciplined, and my recent purchase of Berryman’s Collected Poems (everything except The Dream Songs) has shown me how uneven his body of work is, an unevenness that Hofmann does a fine job of hiding. When you have access to all the sonnets, you realise that they’re riddled with ellipses, which in my view represents a failure of syntax. Indeed, most of Berryman’s poems smack of something unfinished, unconsummated; however astonishing they are, very few of them invite the word ‘perfect’. One that might, though, is Dream Song 145:

Also I love him: me he’s done no wrong
for going on forty years – forgiveness time –
I touch now his despair,
he felt as bad as Whitman on his tower
but he did not swim out with me or my brother
as he threatened –

a powerful swimmer, to      take one of us along
as company in the defeat sublime,
freezing my helpless mother:
he only, very early in the morning,
rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window
and did what was needed.

I cannot read that wretched mind, so strong
and so undone. I’ve always tried. I – I’m
trying to forgive
whose frantic passage, when he could not live
an instant longer, in the summer dawn
let Henry live on.

That brutal, tight-lipped terseness, “did what was needed”. And the compression – not “I’m trying to forgive him / whose frantic passage”; just “I’m trying to forgive / whose frantic passage”. No words more than necessary, as necessity is the argument that Berryman puts for his father, who “could not live an instant longer”. It relieves his father of the guilt of choice, perhaps so the son can lay the questions to rest. All attempts to “read that wretched mind” have failed, though “I’ve always tried”. Is there a poem more simple and devastating?

Well, maybe. Maybe the last poem in this little book:

He Resigns

Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts.
Her having gone away
in spirit from me. Hosts
of regrets come and find me empty.

I don’t feel this will change.
I don’t want any thing
or person, familiar or strange.
I don’t think I will sing

any more just now;
ever. I must start
to sit with a blind brow
above an empty heart.

by Harry Cochrane