Auden and Poggioli

This lovely remembrance by Sylvia Poggioli of her father, the literary scholar Renato Poggioli, features a letter to her father from W. H. Auden, and the handwritten poem he submitted for publication in the journal Professor Poggioli edited, Inventario. Sylvia Poggioli speaks of her discovery as “a true literary find,” but the letter might be better described as a biographical find, since the poem itself has not been unknown: it’s duly recorded in Bloomfield and Mendelson’s W. H. Auden: A Bibliography, 1924-1969 (1972).

Also, it’s not quite right to say, as Poggioli does, that “Auden later included these verses in a much longer piece, perhaps one of the most powerful poems of the mid-twentieth century, The Age of Anxiety”: he had already written the stanzas as part of The Age of Anxiety and was simply excerpting them for Poggioli’s journal, something he did with several other chunks of that longest of his poems. Auden truthfully told Renato Poggioli that it was an “unpublished poem,” but it would be published, along with the rest of The Age of Anxiety, just a few months later.

The thought that first comes to my mind when looking at the above image is the devout wish that Auden had always taken so much care to make his handwriting legible. Alas for my eyes, which have spent so many hours poring over his notebooks, he did not.

“not to waver with the wavering hours”

I’ve just been teaching Horace’s Epistles, and it strikes me that Horace ought to be the man of our social-media moment — the man who shows us another and better way.

In the first of those Epistles, Horace writes to his patron Maecenas — the one who bought him his Sabine farm that allows him to escape the noise and frenetic activity of Rome — to describe what he’s up to:

… my ambition to advance myself
In the sort of project that, if carried out
Successfully, is good for anyone,
Whether rich or poor, and its failure is bound to be
Harmful to anyone, whether he’s young or old. 

This “project” is, he says, to “devote myself entirely to the study / Of what is genuine and right for me, / Storing up what I learn for the sake of the future.” (I am quoting from David Ferry’s wonderful translation.) He needs to be on his farm to pursue this project, because life in the city, with its constant stimulation, creates too much agitation. And as he writes to another friend, Julius Florus (I.3), “if you’re able to learn to do without / Anxiety’s chilling effect, you’ll be able to follow / The lead of wisdom up to the highest reaches.”

Later (I.18) he exhorts Lollius Maximus to “interrogate the writings of the wise,”

Asking them to tell you how you can
Get through your life in a peaceable tranquil way.
Will it be greed, that always feels poverty-stricken,
That harasses and torments you all your days?
Will it be hope and fear about trivial things,
In anxious alternation in your mind?
Where is it virtue comes from, is it from books?
Or is it a gift from Nature that can’t be learned?
What is the way to become a friend to yourself?
What brings tranquility? What makes you care less?
Honor? Or money? Or living your life unnoticed?
Whenever I drink from the cold refreshing waters
Of the little brook Digentia, down below
Our local hill town, what do you think I pray for?
“May I continue to have what I have right now,
Or even less, as long as I’m self-sufficient.
If the gods should grant me life, though just for a while,
May I live my life to myself, with books to read,
And food to sustain me for another year,
And not to waver with the wavering hours.” 

The “wavering hours” waver because they’re charged with the nervous energy that comes from a too-busy life, a life of agitation and anxiety. As a youth Horace studied philosophy in Athens, and there he would have learned about the inestimable value of ataraxia — a peaceable and tranquil spirit. Because if you don’t have that, then you become a victim of your circumstances — and, especially in our time, a victim of propaganda.

Reading old books is a very valuable thing, because it takes you out of the maelstrom of “current events”; and it’s especially valuable to read old books like those by Horace because they will tell you quite directly how vital it is for you to learn this lesson.

the devil’s bargain: part 1


So wrote R. P. Blackmur, an eminent poet and critic from Princeton University, writing in the Sewanee Review in 1945. His essay is called “The Economy of the American Writer: Preliminary Notes,” and his chief question is whether it is possible for literary writers to make a living. Plus ça change, oui? An essay very much worth reading for anyone, but especially for people who think that the problem of the aspiring-artist-piecing-together-a-rough-living is a phenomenon of the millennial generation.

Anyhow, Blackmur is concerned because he has run some numbers.


In these circumstances, where can the necessary money — money sufficient to allow artists to pursue their art full-time (or nearly so) — come from?

From our vantage point, perhaps the most interesting point here is Blackmur’s uncertainty about the most likely source of support for artists: will they find their place in the world of the university, or in the world of the non-profit foundation? We know how it turned out: while foundations do still support artists of various kinds, universities have turned out to be the chief patrons of American artists — especially writers.

Blackmur sees that even at his moment support for writers and artists is drifting towards the university; he’s just not altogether happy about that. He’s not happy because he has seen that “the universities are themselves increasingly becoming social and technical service stations — are increasingly attracted into the orbit of the market system.” Social and technical service stations: a prophetic word if there ever was one. The universities have in the intervening seventy years become generous patrons of the arts; but what is virtually impossible for us to see, because we can’t re-run history, is the extent to which the arts have been limited and confined by being absorbed into an institution that has utterly lost its independence from “the market system” — that has simply and fully become what the Marxist critic Louis Althusser called an “ideological state apparatus,” an institution that does not overtly belong to the massive nation-state but exists largely to support and when possible fulfill the nation-state’s purposes.

One of my favorite things about W. H. Auden is his tendency, when he has something very serious to say, to cast it in comic terms. In 1946 Auden wrote a poem for the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. It is called “Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times,” and you may listen to the poet read it here. As Adam Kirsch has noted, Harvard had played an important role in the war:

Twenty-six thousand Harvard alumni had served in uniform during the war, and 649 of them had perished. The University itself had been integrated into the war effort at the highest level: President James Bryant Conant had been one of those consulted when President Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. William Langer, a professor of history, had recruited many faculty members into the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Now that the Cold War was under way, the partnership between the University and the federal government was destined to grow even closer. 

But as Kirsch only hints, Auden was deeply suspicious of the capture of intellectual life by what, fifteen years later, President Eisenhower would call the “military-industrial complex”; and he presented his poem as a direct, if superficially light-hearted, attack on that capture. For Auden, Conant was a perfect embodiment of the “new barbarian” who was breaking down the best of Western culture from within. (See more about this here.)

Soon after his return from Harvard, Auden told his friend Alan Ansen, “When I was delivering my Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge, I met Conant for about five minutes. ‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself. And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”

first of a series of posts

investigating the poetry MOOC

Ah, the poetry MOOCs are coming — the exciting world of online education is spreading beyond the STEM disciplines and into the humanities! Let’s investigate.

Elisa New of Harvard is offering one on Poetry in America. It appears that the course is quite consciously Harvard-centric:

“I wanted to do this course using all of the resources of Harvard, its libraries, archives, museums, its students on camera, experimenting with making this a course that uses what the University offers, but for a reason — and that reason is that the history of American poetry and Harvard’s history are so completely intertwined,” she said.

“There are some major poets who didn’t spend time at Harvard, but the list of major American poets who did spend time at Harvard is very, very long. We have their manuscripts. They taught here. Buildings are named after them. So this is a perfect place as a base for the course.”

“There are some major poets who didn’t spend time at Harvard.” Some.  

I’m just going to set that aside.

So what’s this course going to be like? Well, um, “The course is broken down into modules.” Right: modules. “The course combines interactivity, video, traveling, and an element of surprise, said New.” The “traveling” seems to be done by New:

“We filmed here at Harvard, in Cambridge, on Cape Cod,” she said. “I’ll be filming in Washington, D.C., Manhattan, California, even Vermont to talk about [Robert] Frost.”

Also, New filmed Michael Pollan reading a poem about corn. “I’m drawing in teachers and students in a variety of ways.” But this is not all about celebrity poetry readings:

Communication will be essential, New said. “This is a course about conversation between people about poetry. It’s not just about me lecturing. It’s about how you can huddle around a poem with a bunch of other people and get to know them, and the poem better. For me, that’s the center of what humanistic inquiry is,” she said.  

Hmmm. “Huddle around a poem with a bunch of other people and get to know them, and the poem better” — those environments used to be called classrooms, didn’t they?

As far as I can tell, it’s impossible to discover either from the article I’ve been quoting or from HarvardX’s page about the course what any of this means: interactivity, traveling, huddling, conversation, “drawing in teachers and students in a variety of ways.” One might think that HarvardX would inform people of what the course expectations are in inviting them to register, especially since registrants are asked to decide whether they want to “Simply Audit This Course” or “Try for a Certificate,” but no: you are merely told that if you “participate in all of the course’s activities and abide by the edX Honor Code” and “if your work is satisfactory, you’ll receive a personalized certificate to showcase your achievement.”

So what is this “Honor Code Certificate”? Following some links, I get this: “An Honor Code Certificate of Achievement certifies that you have successfully completed a course, but does not verify your identity. Honor Code certificates are currently free.” But that’s all. I even signed up for an edX account to see if by registering for the course I would learn what the expectations are for the course, but nothing is available.

Now this seems rather curious: If an institution tells people that they can either audit a course or take it for an “Honor Code Certificate,” shouldn’t that institution offer some information up front about what the difference is? What the expectations are? That no such information is offered tells us, I think, just how seriously we are to think of the educational value of this kind of “course”: it has none. Basically, people will watch a few videos. It’s telling that the course page says that it will last four weeks and that the “estimated effort” is “1-3 hours per week,” which suggests that they’re not even expecting genuine conversations to develop. As little as four hours’ investment in the entire (Harvard-based) history of American poetry?

I’m not sure this qualifies even as a joke. Now, advocates for MOOCs might say that this is but an experiment, an early essay in the craft. But with some poetry websites and an email listserv I could create something more educationally interesting and ambitious than this, though the entertaining spectacle of Michael Pollan reading a poem about corn would, sadly, be lacking. With Harvard’s resources, this is what they come up with?

UPDATE: Robert Ghrist on Twitter reminds me — can’t believe I forgot this — that Al Filreis at Penn has been doing something like this for quite a while, but Al’s course is more demanding: there are actual papers to write, quizzes to take, investments in the work of others. I don’t know how well it works, or how Al might compare it to an on-campus course at Penn, but it looks like some real effort has been put in to making it meaningful.

In Memoriam Seamus Heaney

In the first section of his great elegy for William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden shows us a world in which the great poet dies quietly, away from the noise and bustle of lives that go on and on:

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

How in our busyness and our manifold occupations we cannot pause to attend to death, the passing of someone who in his own way was important — this was a theme of Auden’s in those days. In “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a slightly earlier poem, he had written of how miraculous events and terrible ones happen while no one can be bothered to look:

even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

This morning I awoke to the news that Seamus Heaney has died. Search for his name in a Twitter client and the results multiply second by second, scrolling, filling the screen over and over. But of course in any given Twitter feed the references pop up amidst the quotidian. My friend Brian Phillips offered beautiful recollections of Heaney that, as they appeared before my eyes, were punctuated by others’ tweets about Syria, comical cats, and the rigors of the morning commute. The cats go on with their catty life.

Yeats died on January 28, 1939, two days after Auden had arrived, by ocean liner, in New York City. Auden might have read about the older poet’s death in the New York Times or the Herald Tribune, or heard the news on the radio. When Dickens died in 1870, his many American fans read about it in their newspapers, but the newspapers received the information first via telegraph. Before the telegraph, international news would have traveled by ship, and the farther back you go in time the more irregular were those voyages and the more haphazard the information they carried.

I don’t know what’s better, what’s worse. Important and trivial news have always traveled together, to be sorted out differently by people with differing interests. The last time Twitter was totally overwhelmed by someone’s death was, I guess, Whitney Houston’s, and I was frustrated that day by how impossible it was to avoid hearing the same things about her over and over again unless you had a Twitter client that could mute keywords — which I had, and which I used.

There won’t be nearly as much attention given to Heaney today as there was to Whitney Houston when she passed, but there will be a good bit in my Twitter timeline, because I follow a good many literary people. I’m looking forward to it. There will be links to poems, which I will read with pleasure. There may be more stories like Brian’s. I smile to think that the world’s consumption of Guinness will receive a considerable boost today, as many dark glasses will be lifted in the poet’s honor.

This much is clear: a great poet has died, and mere hours after “his last afternoon as himself” millions and millions of people will know that it has happened. Perhaps more people will learn of Heaney’s death than of any other poet’s demise, ever. This is an odd thought that I don’t know what to do with. In any event, the poetry remains — the poetry that took long slow hours to make and rewards long slow hours of reading. And it will remain, for those who care to seek it, on pages and screens alike. “Let the Irish vessel lie, / Emptied of its poetry.”

meaning and responsibility

A long quotation here, from John Gray’s review of a new book by Brian Christian:

So, what human abilities did Christian exercise that the computers could not mimic? With a degree in computing and philosophy, he is also a poet, and summarises one of the book’s most compelling insights when he writes: “If poetry represents the most expressive way of using a language, it might also, arguably, represent the most human.” The amazing proficiency that computers display in many contexts depends on their superior ability to think digitally, using information that has been broken down into discrete bits.

In contrast, what is distinctive of poetry — and, for that matter, of human language in general — is the vital role of context and allusion, which cannot be broken down into separate units of information. Human conversations are not composed of a finite number of particular exchanges; they take place against a background of tacit understandings, which often make what is not spoken as important as what is said. That is one reason why artificial intelligence programs have failed to replicate the subtlety of natural languages. 

Christian notes that the ever more pervasive role of computers in our lives risks thinning out these tacit understandings. In a change that he regrets, Facebook has replaced the box in which people described their favourite activities with a drop-down menu. The assumption is that people can come to know one another by ticking a list. But what makes us individuals is not which of a limited set of activities we choose to engage in. When we describe the things we love to do we are telling more about ourselves than we know. By eliminating the option of entering our own description of our favourite activities, Facebook has emptied these activities of some of their meaning. 

Yet Facebook is no less popular. For many, it seems, the loss does not matter. In fact, one of the attractions of a life that is mediated through computers may be just this loss of meaning. Computers have been immensely liberating in all kinds of ways, but one of these is in opening up the possibility of a life composed of a succession of individual bits of information. Part of the charm of the wired life is the freedom from meaning it promises.

I have read excerpts from Christian’s book here, and read an interview with him here, but haven’t gotten to the book yet. I am all the more determined to do so now.

What I find most interesting about this passage from Gray’s review is the forthright claim that people can prefer a life drained of meaning, or at least drained of the responsibility for seeking meaning. Thinking is hard work; discovering what life is all about is a fraught and unpredictable activity; and people, by and large, are immensely lazy. (I certainly am.) How many of us can resist the draw of any technology that says, “Here, let me handle that for you”?

looking up the allusions

I want to agree with part of a recent post by Nick Carr and disagree with another part.

Here’s the part I agree with:

Kirsch says that T. S. Eliot “had to include notes” to “The Waste Land” in order to enable readers to “track down” its many allusions. The truth is different. The first publications of the poem, in the magazines The Criterion and The Dial, lacked the notes. The notes only appeared when the poem was published as a book, and Eliot later expressed regret that he had included them. The notes became, he wrote, a spur for “bogus scholarship,” stimulating “the wrong kind of interest among the seekers of sources … I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail.” By turning his allusions into mere citations, the notes led readers to see his poem as an intricate intellectual puzzle rather than a profound expression of personal emotion — a confusion that continues to haunt, and hamper, readings of the poem to this day. The beauty of “The Waste Land” lies not in its sources but in its music, which is in large measure the music of allusion, of fragments of distant melodies woven into something new.

This is exactly right. Eliot added the notes precisely because Faber wanted to print “The Waste Land” as a book and the poem simply wasn’t long enough without them. (I might add that the “bogus scholarship” that Eliot refers to is not that of his critics, but his own. He thought, perhaps unnecessarily harshly, that the notes themselves were based on limited knowledge.) And if your eyes are continually darting to and from the notes you have no chance of hearing the poem’s music, which is indeed remarkable. As Nick says later in the post, “If you see an allusion merely as something to be tracked down, to be googled, you miss its point and its power. You murder to dissect.”

But Nick goes on to comment on a poem by Yeats that subtly echoes Shelley’s poem “Alastor”:

the allusion deepens and enriches Yeats’s poem whether or not you pick up on it. What matters is not that you know “Alastor” but that Yeats knows it, and that his reading of the earlier work, and his emotional connection with it, resonates through his own lyric. Because, moreover, Yeats provides no clue that he’s alluding to another work, Google would be no help in “tracking down” the source of that allusion. A reader who doesn’t already have an intimate knowledge of “Alastor” would have no reason to Google the lines.

That last point is true, but I think it’s clearly wrong to say that “what matters is not that you know “Alastor” but that Yeats knows it.” It does matter that Yeats knows it — Yeats’s encounter with Shelley strengthens and deepens his verse — but is also matters if the reader does, because if I hear that echo of Shelley I understand better the conversation that Yeats is participating in, and that enriches my experience of his poem and also of Shelley’s. And not incidentally, the enriching power of our knowledge of intellectual tradition is one of Eliot’s key emphases.

So I would argue that the reader of “The Waste Land” who comes to it already knowing something about Shakespeare, Augustine, Buddhist teaching, Dante, the Grail legends, and the Upanishads is going to hear its music better than the reader who doesn’t know any of that stuff — which raises some questions about when and in what circumstances teachers should try to teach that poem.

But it’s also worth remembering that poems can be read more than once. Maybe the first time I read a difficult poem I won’t get much out of it because I’ll be reading the notes, or googling the allusions. But if I study carefully, and have a decent memory, then maybe when I come back to that poem later, more experienced and better informed, I’ll be able to drink very deeply from its well. The teaching of literature is often, or should be, preparing students for future readings.

(P.S. I’ll get back to The Whale and the Reactor soon.)

poetry on page and screen

Here’s a really thoughtful post by Siobhan Phillips on the highly fraught relationship between e-readers and verse. Phillips wants to argue that poetry’s concern with lineation and space ought to cause us to rethink what books and texts are. Poetry is not just a problem for e-reading, but a challenge to us to reconsider what we think is intrinsic, and what extrinsic, to a text, especially a literary text.I was thinking along similar lines when I was working on Auden’s Age of Anxiety, because Auden was so concerned about the appearance of his work on the page. He frequently quarreled with his American publisher, Random House, about the appearance of his books. “It isn’t that I don’t realise that, as such things go, the fount [font] is well designed,” he wrote to Bennett Cerf in 1944. “It’s a matter of principle. You would never think of using such a fount for, say, ‘The Embryology of the Elasmobranch Liver’, so why use it for poetry? I feel very strongly that ‘aesthetic’ books should not be put in a special class.” And then, in 1951, he told Publishers Weekly, “I have a violent prejudice against arty paper and printing which is too often considered fitting for unsalable prestige books, and by inverted snobbery I favor the shiny white paper and format of the textbook. Further, perhaps because I am near-sighted and hold the page nearer my nose than is normal, I have a strong preference for small type.” Nick Jenkins, a wonderful Auden scholar, has written: “In 1946, when he told Random House what he wanted for The Age of Anxiety, he loaned them his copy of A Treatise on a Section of the Strata from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Cross Fell, with Remarks on Mineral Veins, by Westgarth Forster, a book originally published in 1821 but that he seems to have owned in the third edition of 1883, and instructed them to copy its appearance. They did. A Treatise on a Section of the Strata had been set in Scotch, an extremely popular 19th century typeface, and the Kingsport Press in Tennessee used the Linotype version of Scotch for Auden’s book.” (We couldn’t use it for our edition, though.)

The photo above is from my copy of the first edition of the poem.

Tetris and tetrameter

See those four numbers? Those are the four beats. Four stresses, as we say in the meter business. Tetrameter. Four. “Tetra” is four. Like Tetris, that computer game where the squares come down relentlessly and overwhelm your mind with their crude geometry and make you peck at the arrow keys like some mindless experimental chicken and hurry and panic and finally you turn your computer off. And you sit there thinking, Why have I just spent an hour watching squares drop down a computer screen?

Paul Chowder, the narrator of Nicholson Baker’s new novel The Anthologist. He needs to write his introduction to an anthology of poetry but gets distracted, by life and sometimes by other things.

Pound and Fenollosa

About ninety-five years ago, the American poet Erza Pound, then living in London, received the manuscript of an essay called “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” He was immediately and lastingly fascinated, and for most of the rest of his life would think of Chinese writing as the perfect union of word and image, and would think of the essay as “a study of the fundamentals of all aesthetics.” The essay was written by Ernest Fenollosa, an American scholar who had taught most of his career in Japan and who had recently died — Pound got the manuscript from his widow. Pound would edit and publish Fenollosa’s essay a few years later, but would also devote a great deal of energy over the next few decades to translating Chinese poetry according to Fenollosa’s aesthetic and linguistic principles. (A few manuscript images from Pound and Fenollosa may be seen here.) However, it seems that Fenollosa didn’t understand Chinese very well, and by following him Pound was led into all sorts of errors. He also came to share Fenollosa’s curiously Japan-centered view of China — for instance, he always referred to that prince of poets Li Bai as Rihaku, which was the name by which the Japanese knew him. None of his translations are accurate in any meaningful sense, but it must nevertheless be said that simply as English poems they are exceptionally beautiful, as beautiful as anything as Pound ever wrote. The most famous of them, justly so, is this one: The River-Merchant’s Wife: a Letter While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back. At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out? At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead. You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.