Thursday, August 31, 2017

Consolation, Poetry



Usually when I teach the British poetry of the 20th Century, my students respond wholeheartedly to Auden for a number of reasons. Coming as he does in the syllabus right after Eliot's "The Waste Land," Auden is a great alternative for those who took Eliot to be the harbinger of catastrophe, and a nice change, anyway, for those who couldn't even get through "The Fire Sermon." The class appreciates Auden's exploration of the artist's relationship to suffering, even though "Musée Des Beaux Arts," though moving, is in part a comment on our ability to avoid others' catastrophes if those catastrophes interfere with our own needs. The students appreciate the near-eviscerating truth-telling in the poem "Lullaby": Auden's mortal creatures, all of us, as simultaneously beautiful and guilty? None of the students can quite overlook the second line, in which the speaker calls for his lover, who's sleeping, to rest his head, "Human, on my faithless arm." It slays them. Students are fond of enchantment, usually, quite the opposite of Auden, who said the proper effect of art is "to disenchant." That would have bugged them earlier in the semester, yet they don't resist him; the students are ready for him, almost too ready. 

I wonder if they'd come to Auden differently if we moved in a random way through the poetry, and viewed his work after say, Wordsworth's daffodils. Would we be so prepared to see the uncertainty, the clarity of flaw in the world arranged in neat, unpanicked sheets of stressed and non-stressed lines, to hear such a dry illumination of the human condition? I think Eliot did something amazing to poetry when he wrote "The Waste Land," though perhaps not the something he set out to do. James Merrill said, "All of Auden's poems were written on paper on which the tears had dried." My students are ready to move out of the abstract, out of what they appreciate as Eliot's real chaos, into attempting a shape—but with a kind of awareness that the poem has to survive. It was the middle of the twentieth century, after all, and mere consolation, already out of fashion, helps no one.



Image of paper via A Moment of Silence.

1 comment:

  1. "Would we be so prepared to see the uncertainty, the clarity of flaw in the world arranged in neat, unpanicked sheets of stressed and non-stressed lines, to hear such a dry illumination of the human condition?"


    Amy,

    I'm not so sure that it's the order of the poems that matters so much as it is the impact of the arrangement in a workshop/classroom. I think I personally can benefit from the collection of ideas, ideals, themes, form, etc. more than I can a full collection of work in many cases. This is why anthologizing is important.

    However, having not read Auden or Wordsworth and having gravitated toward mid-20th confessional poets, I'd invite you to challenge my assumptions. Send me a few poems to look at.

    -Chelsea

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