Most of my books are in piles or boxes up in the attic I haven’t finished converting to a workspace, and it’s driving me nuts. I’ve got more than 2000 of them — a pitiful remnant of my library just prior to the end of my first marriage — and only about 150 are easily accessible right now. I feel blind and stupid without them, and I think that’s one reason I’ve been so inactive here and as a poet.
Now that I’m semi-connected again, the net is helping some, but when Slate takes the opportunity of Auden’s 100th birthday to carry a wonderful conversation about the poet, I feel I can’t respond adequately without at least rereading some of his poetry and glancing through The Dyer’s Hand and A Commonplace Book. And I can’t. Nevertheless …
“September 1, 1939” is, of course, one of the topics of the conversation, both because Auden repudiated the poem and because after 9/11 it became one of the most widely read and quoted poems in English. The other major talking points are the degree of Auden’s Americanness and his intellectual and pprosodic virtuosity, the latter of which the three correspondents (Stephen Metcalf, Meghan O’Rouke, and Aidan Wasley) seemed to think was almost as much a weakness as it was a strength. Wasley, the only academic of the three, begins the final post this way:
Emily Dickinson said she knew she’d read a real poem when it felt like the top of her head had been taken off. And you both aren’t alone in your sense that sometimes the experience of reading Auden, especially the later Auden, can feel more like an academic seminar than an encounter with the brain-blowing sublime.
But this week Christopher Hitchens began another Slate article (on Ayaan Hirsi Ali) by quoting “September 1, 1939,” saying that recent commentary on her book Infidel had the brought to mind the line “The Enlightenment driven away” — a line he calls “very strong and bitter.”
And it is very strong and bitter, but I wonder how many people are capable of reading it that way, and just how it is one becomes so capable?