<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <b>A Way of Happening</b> <p> Auden's American Presence <p> <p> In May of 1946, a young American poetry critic offered this enthusiastic review of <i>For the Time Being</i>, Auden's second published volume since moving to the United States seven years before: <p> Auden's poetry has always aroused much interest, the more so because Auden's personality and technique and opinions have been so flexible. He has been consistently evolving toward disciplined, responsible utterance, and away from slipshod emotional crisis, overconscious penitence, tender despondency and nostalgia. <i>Another Time</i> and <i>New Year Letter</i> assume power as statements of transition to mastery of personal sorrow and insight into general terror. The tentative accomplishment of this maturity, in <i>For the Time Being</i>, set it apart as one of the few great works of poetry of our time, rivalled only by Eliot's last book of poetry and his plays. A definitive review of <i>For the Time Being</i> is impossible; it is the kind of book that reviews the reviewer: it is too intelligent in thought and perfected in technique to allow immediate formal judgment. A full appreciation, exegesis and criticism must be left to the literary studies which will come. <p> <p> This admiring assessment is illuminatingly representative of its literary moment, both encapsulating Auden's unquestioned importance in the American postwar poetic landscape, and framing a number of the major critical narratives that had assembled around the famous émigré poet in the years following his arrival in New York in 1939. The case for Auden's poetic "flexibility" and his "transition" from the "emotional crisis" of his 1930s lyrics to the "disciplined, responsible utterance" of his new American mode had been fiercely and influentially argued throughout the decade—often with a sharp edge of disappointment and disapproval— by Auden's most committed critic, Randall Jarrell, whose 1941 essay, "Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden's Poetry," began with a waggish misquoted epigraph from Heraclitus: "We never step twice into the same Auden." The reviewer's assertion of Auden's place as peer and successor to Eliot was similarly by then a critical commonplace, as expressed five years before by Malcolm Cowley, summarizing the literary consensus on the transatlantic trade of the American Eliot for the British Auden: "It's as if we had sent T. S. Eliot to England before the war on a lend-lease arrangement. Now, with Auden, we are being repaid in kind." Louise Bogan had affirmed this ascendancy in the pages of <i>The New Yorker</i> in 1945 with the tone of a critic observing the undisputedly obvious: "Auden, it has sometime been apparent, has succeeded Eliot as the strongest influence in American and British poetry." And Karl Shapiro, in his <i>Essay on Rime</i> in the same year, noted the same self-evident phenomenon: "The man whose impress on our rhetoric / Has for a decade dominated verse / In London, Sydney and New York is Auden." <p> Auden's post-immigration "mastery of personal sorrow and insight into general terror," as the 1946 reviewer puts it, further recalls and confirms Delmore Schwartz's hope for Auden's poetic future, anxiously voiced in 1939 just as the world was plunging into war and Auden was embarking on his new American life, that "[I]t may be that with an immense gift for language one can survive social catastrophe, international terror, and the solicitations of the Ego," while also articulating the mood of the immediate postwar moment in which the terrible "insight into general terror" brought by the war was answered by the fervent wish that its conclusion suggested some larger historical "mastery" over future such horrors. Additionally, the reviewer's confidence that a "full appreciation" of Auden's work would depend upon the academic "exegesis" of future "literary studies" tellingly reflects Auden's prominent place—as critic, contest judge, assigned text, and itinerant faculty member on campuses across the country—in the burgeoning mid-century institutionalization of poetry in the academy, in which a new generation of American students was being introduced to the thorny abstrusities of modern poetry through the rationalizing methodologies and "formal judgment" of the New Critical classroom. <p> Titled "... 'This Is the Abomination,'" taking its quotation from the introduction to the Christmas oratorio "For the Time Being" (one of the two long poems in the book of that name, "The Sea and the Mirror" being the other) in which the Narrator asserts his age's collective dread of the existential "Void," the review's summation of Auden's cultural relevance and influence could have appeared in any number of mainstream literary journals of the time, for whom Auden's importance to the American scene went largely unquestioned. Read through the prism of subsequent literary history, however, the identity of its author acquires a resonant irony. This tribute to Auden wasn't penned by a poet or critic of the then-presiding literary generation of Jarrell, Bogan, Shapiro, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, or Elizabeth Bishop, each of whom acknowledged in their careers the impact of Auden's 1930s lyrics in particular on their own poetic sensibilities, but who had come to artistic maturity prior to his arrival in America. Rather, it reflects the perspective of a younger generation, one whose poetic education had begun amid the war and its aftermath, during a crucial moment in American poetic history when Auden was both an essential book on the shelf and a very active and powerful living presence in the American literary establishment. Its author? A nineteen-year-old Columbia undergraduate named Allen Ginsberg. <p> Reading the young Ginsberg in praise of the American Auden's "disciplined, responsible utterance" and rejection of "slipshod emotional crisis" provokes a startling—and amusing—clash of literary stereotypes: Ginsberg, the shaggy antiestablishment rebel whose poems would famously bring defiantly undisciplined utterance and emotional crisis firmly into the literary and pop-culture mainstream, exalting Auden, the high culture, high church, establishment formalist who, in the same year as Ginsberg's review, was telling an audience of Harvard undergraduates to "Read <i>The New Yorker</i>, trust in God; / And take short views" [<i>CP</i>, 339]. But such disruptions in the settled narratives of literary history, in which presumptively oppositional poles of American poetic culture are seen in surprising alliance, far from being quirks of individual poets like Ginsberg's biography and artistic development, are in fact characteristic—if not definitional—of Auden's role in postwar American poetry. In many ways, Auden served an entire generation of poets like Ginsberg, who grew into their own very distinct voices during his American career, as a "whole climate of opinion," as Auden himself described Freud in one of his earliest American poems. Indeed, it's possible to argue that no writer had as pivotal and wide-ranging an influence on postwar American poetics as Auden. As judge for the Yale Younger Poets contest, Auden shaped national tastes and crowned many of that generation's most important writers. As an openly gay artist of stature, he provided a model for living and writing emulated by many others, including Ginsberg. By critiquing Modernist ideas of the poet's role in society, he forged new ideas about national and individual artistic identity, without which the contemporary American poetic scene, in all its variegated modes and traditions, is almost unimaginable. And his pedagogical and personal connections with countless young poets he encountered in New York, on his summer island home of Ischia, on the lecture circuit, or through his various visiting academic positions at universities across the country, made him a towering, vibrant force throughout American poetic culture from the 1940s through the 1960s. It also illustrates how many of the critical narratives of postwar American poetry—which customarily frame the period in terms of competing camps of formalism versus experiment, establishment versus avant-garde, feminist or gay versus masculinist, West Coast versus East—are complicated by Auden's appearance and influence across all these regional, cultural, stylistic, and gender divides. <p> When Auden arrived in the United States in 1939, he left behind his public career as activist poet and lyricist of the English Left. The first poem he wrote in America was "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," in which he sounded his famous retraction of an <i>engagé</i> and ideological art: "Poetry makes nothing happen." I want to argue that Auden's extensive and largely unexplored impact on the postwar generation of American poets helped not only to define the terms by which these younger poets framed their own work and careers, but also offered a new and influential model for understanding what it meant to write poetry in America after World War II and after Modernism. In particular, Auden's redefinition of his own poetic identity following his emigration from England helped to shape American poetry in terms of what Auden called "the burden of choice": How to select an inheritance from the myriad possibilities opened up in the wake of Modernism's shattering of notions of a unified native tradition. By framing his post-1939 poetry—in the affirmative conclusion of the Yeats elegy—as "a way of happening," Auden inaugurated a poetic vision of post-Modernist America as an open, inclusive text defined not in terms of shared ideals of national, ideological, or historical inheritance, but by the freedom, and necessity, to choose among the kaleidoscopic range of formal, cultural, or transnational poetic identities made available by the collapse of those earlier ideals. Under Auden's influence, both as a maker of poems and as a shaper of careers, the terrain of American poetry expanded to accommodate poetic experiences and voices as diverse as John Ashbery's continental language experiments, James Merrill's Dantean adventures at the Ouija board, and Adrienne Rich's politically engaged insistence on the power of poetry to effect social change, to name just three of Auden's most important and stylistically distinct inheritors, each of whom will be discussed at greater length in later chapters. And as we will see with these three poets, along with Ginsberg and a broad range of other younger American writers who would go on to demarcate the democratic and demotic vistas of American poetry in the second half of the twentieth century, it was with Auden's crucial help that their own individual negotiations with the burden of personal and artistic choice in the wake of Modernism and war allowed them to find their own poetic "ways of happening." <p> <p> * * * <p> One key to how Auden's influence was felt by younger poets can be found in Ginsberg's description of <i>For the Time Being</i> as "the kind of book that reviews the reviewer." Among the most notable aspects of Auden's importance for his American successors was the way in which so many of them saw their own multitudinous, very different American selves reflected back at them in the words of this transplanted Englishman. In terms similar to those of Auden's Yeats elegy, in which the dead poet's "words are modified in the guts" of his surviving readers and where the poet's identity is surrendered to those who find part of their own identities in his work, countless poets of every cultural and artistic stripe saw in Auden's poems and persona what they needed to see in order to articulate who they themselves would become. To a remarkable extent, Auden "became his admirers" in the sense that so many of those he influenced found him useful in their own efforts to define themselves, often with widely diverging poetic results. Every younger poet's Auden was different. For some he was, as Ginsberg's fellow poet, friend, sometime antagonist, and Columbia classmate John Hollander would describe him, "[A] clever young uncle ... holding our hands in the dusk," a friendly teacher and elder master of the craft who could help point them on their own way. For others, he was a more distant enemy, someone whom they could distinctly and defiantly define themselves against. As the young Robert Creeley would write in 1950 to his ally in establishment-razing, Charles Olson, decrying the embrace of Auden by mainstream voices like Jarrell and Bogan: "[T]he intelligence that had touted Auden as being a technical wonder, etc. lacking all grip on the worn and useless character of his essence: thought. An attitude that puts weight, <i>first</i>: on form [...] will never get to content. Never in God's world. Anyhow, form has become so useless a term that I blush to use it." For Hollander, Auden's mastery of form and his notion of poetry's moral function made him an important mentor. For Creeley, it was precisely that emphasis on empty form, as he perceived it, as well as Auden's tweedy Englishness, that made him suspect and an embodiment of everything his poetry would oppose. But for each, Auden was <i>useful</i>, an important point of reference in their own poetic self-fashioning. <p> For Ginsberg himself over the course of his career, Auden performed both roles, uncle and enemy, sometimes simultaneously. In that early review, even as he praises Auden's formal detachment, he offers Auden as a kind of vatic voice for the predicament of the times, who can present to those who will listen "the basic psychological facts of the age." These facts include for Ginsberg a state of "formal cultural decadence" that he sees Auden identifying and analyzing and himself enlisting in battle against: <p> <p> The problems of modern men have little to do with the rather tiring abstractions of facts of historians, the externalized theories of economists, and the bestial rages of moralists, pedants and returning veterans. All theirs are useless uncontrolled reactions, by-products of ruin; at best they have a superficial descriptive value. Perhaps coherent explanation of all this circumstance would be facilitated through some sort of psychoanalytic-anthropology – a discipline which Auden has followed, to judge from his attitude, his vocabulary, and his notes to <i>New Year Letter</i>. <p> <p> In 1931, the twenty-two-year-old Auden had asked, in <i>The Orators</i>, "What do you think about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?" [<i>EA</i>, 62]. Fifteen years later, the young Ginsberg is asking the same question of his country, in which he detects a similar national pathology, and employs the older Auden to make the diagnosis. Observing Auden's characteristic mode of using the individual-focused insights of psychoanalysis to make broader generalizations of cultural malaise, Ginsberg offers his own effort at a clinical "coherent explanation" for the "ruin" of his age, taking particular note of Auden's first American long poem, "New Year Letter," whose mode of epic, epistolary self-analysis and questing after an ideal of community would find an American heir in Ginsberg's own "Howl" a decade later. <p> The review was written during an eventful time in Ginsberg's life: He had been suspended from Columbia the previous spring for scrawling obscene slogans on his dorm-room window, though he maintained his editorial position at <i>The Columbia Review</i> even while he was no longer officially a student. During that year he had worked as a welder at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, spent a few months as a sailor in the Merchant Marine, experimented with writing under the influence of Benzedrine, and lived and wrote in a chaotic upper Manhattan apartment inhabited off and on by Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and assorted friends and eccentric associates who would form the core of the nascent Beat scene. In language that prefigures the tumbling, ecstatic, and angry rhetoric of "Howl," and in images that foretell the countercultural rebellion he would go on to publicly personify, Ginsberg sees in "The Sea and the Mirror" and the oratorio that gives Auden's book its title, a clear-eyed indictment of the same forces of establishment that had kicked him out of Columbia: <p> Alas, the question of the hour is not the conflict between classes, nor that of genius versus mediocrity. All have been so completely intimidated into abdication of responsibility and in ways so obvious and in activities so self-destructive that there is no longer any real chance to face strict problems, to take decisive and valid action; in the general mass and imprecision there is no longer an overt question to precipitate an act, no direct course for a moderate sensible person to take as a choice. And as a result all our healthiest citizens are turning into hipsters, hopheads, and poets. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>THE AGE OF AUDEN</b> by <b>AIDAN WASLEY</b> Copyright © 2011 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. 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