Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Speaking of Auden

I think for a lot of our generation, Auden was a god that failed and then was partially resurrected. He was one of my poetic heroes, then became someone I didn't want to be -- glib, superficial, and either wit at the expense of substance or substance at the expense of wit. Richard Hugo said it really well in his wonderful book, The Triggering Town:

When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that all music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must conform to music. If you believe the first, you are making your job very difficult, and you are not only limiting the writing of poems to something done only by the very witty and clever, such as Auden, you are weakening the justification for creative writing programs. So you can take that attitude if you want, but you are jeopardizing my livelihood as well as your chances of writing a good poem. If the second attitude is right, then I still have a job. Let's pretend it is right because I need the money. Besides, if you feel truth must conform to music, those of us who find life bewildering and who don't know what things mean, but love the sounds of words enough to fight through draft after draft of a poem, can go on writing--try to stop us.

So I -- and a lot of others I've talked to -- didn't want to be in that Auden camp. I didn't want to write about things I was sure of, and bend language to illustrate those sureties.

But hey, Auden was great, and gradually I came back to recognizing that, if never back to looking at him as a poetic role model. He wrote lots and lots of poems that had both wit and substance.

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