Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Poem is Never Finished, Only Abandoned: W.H. Auden at Work

W.H. Auden—what's not to love? And I don't just love Auden's writing, I love the enormous body of writing about him—memoirs, critical analyses, scholarly exegesis, scandalous gossip, the lot.  That's why I was very happy to write something about Auden at Work—a book of essays edited by Bonnie Costello and Rachel Galvin—for Essays in Criticism.  It's called "Never Finished, Only Abandoned." Here's how it starts:

A browser among library shelves, glimpsing the title Auden at Work pressed between the spines of other volumes, might well pull it down with the hope of discovering anecdotes about Auden’s writing process written by those who knew him well. These, after all, can be quite enlightening. What reader of Auden wouldn’t be grateful to come across something like Christopher Isherwood’s observation about the young Auden at work?
When Auden was younger, he was very lazy. He hated polishing and making corrections. If I didn’t like a poem, he threw it away and wrote another. If I liked one line, he could keep it and work it into a new poem. In this way, whole poems were constructed which were simply anthologies of favorite lines, entirely regardless of grammar or sense. This is the simple explanation of Auden’s celebrated obscurity.
Even glimpses of the poet’s immediate writing environment can be revealing, if perhaps more of the man than of the works. Auden’s one-time American student Charles H. Miller puts us squarely in the scene of creation when he describes Auden’s New York apartment as ‘a cave’ filled with clutter, with manuscripts jumbled among books and bits of clothing, all topped by an ashtray with ‘a final cigarette stub issuing a frail plume of smoke from the top of the heap, signature of a dying volcano’. The whole ‘Auden-scape’, Miller continues, reeked of ‘stale coffee grounds, tarry nicotine, and toe-jam mixed with metro pollution and catshit’.

Intimate reminiscences were not, however, what Bonnie Costello and Rachel Galvin were after when they sat down to edit Auden at Work. Their introduction places heavy emphasis on the idea of genetic literary criticism, a form of analysis that treats the text as an ongoing compositional process, rather than as the fixed result of the author’s intention. Following Paul ValĂ©ry, Costello and Galvin envision composition ‘as a dance, as fencing, as the construction of acts and expectations’, and the published text as ‘the footprints on the ground after the dance is over’. Auden, whose revisions to such poems as ‘Spain’ and ‘September 1, 1939’ are among the most famous, or infamous, in the history of English poetry, is certainly a prime candidate for genetic criticism.

The rest is available in print, or online (starting at the bottom of page 356 in the pdf version).