One of the things that may irritate a post structuralist reader about Auden is that he delights in “knowing” things-even those things which are ugly and disastrous to know. For example, his greatest praise of old masters: “About suffering, the old masters they were never wrong.” Auden likes being right. He likes being elegant. He likes making a point in as clever a way as possible. He even likes his ambiguity to be gin clear. This annoys readers, especially those who come out of the post modernist wood work to feed on endless non-commitments, non-linearity, statements that dissolve and are contradicted or made impotent by the sheer process of deconstructing one’s deconstructions. Stevens claimed that a great disorder is an order (well ahead of chaos theory). Post structuralism with its absolutist hatred of saying anything is, well, to put it in the language of my forbears: fucking boring. Auden, at his worst, is also a bore. He can be pedantic, over bearing, a spewer of opinions, a snob, a writer of high falutin doggerel. At his best, he is the greatest poet to come out of the formalists, and for the same reason Ashbery is probably the greatest poet to come out of the post structuralists: because he is good at saying what he enjoys saying, because he takes great delight in his own utterance for its own sake, because no old bone wearies him if he can find a happy way to chomp on it. This is no small virtue. If a poet is not enjoying his own spew, what damned good is he? Auden’s ability to wrap things up annoys a reader only if that reader is deaf to the sonic joy of Auden cracking wise. The pleasure in Auden is not in what he says, or even in how he says it, but in the sheer pleasure he takes beyond how or why—a pleasure that, in his best poems, becomes a palpable presence throughout. When I want to witness a poet enjoying himself I turn to Ashbery or Auden. With great craft and skill, they sit in their respective sand boxes, and both are infantile in the best sense. At any rate, lets inspect one of Auden’s more famous poems,the imitation ballad, “As I Walked Out One Evening.”
As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol street,
The crowds upon the pavement
were fields of harvest wheat.
And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
“Love has no ending.”
We are in traditional ballad country the second Auden writes “As I Walked Out One Evening” (see “The Streets of Laredo”). He is not mocking the structure or form of the ballad (except perhaps the way a lover would tease his beloved); he is reveling in the cliche. He trusts his own ability to have fun with cliché (something Ashbery also trusts). He is using what is called “eights and sixes,” a tetrameter line followed by a trimeter; and, to give it the “feel” of an informal ballad, he is augmenting or truncating the syllable count, dabbling in hypercatalectic, and acatalectic lines (one syllable more or one less). But of all the fun he is having in these first two stanzas, I’m sure nothing pleased him more than the wrench rhyme, worthy of a hip-hop MC of: “sing/ending.” Auden, in the next two stanzas, delights in one of the oldest tricks in the book: adynaton, the lover’s appeal to the impossible, the great brag of the lover plighting his troth:
“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the River jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
“I’ll love you till the ocean
is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.
“The years shall run like rabbits,
for in my arms I hold
The flower of the ages,
and the first love of the world.’
First, note the vowel rhyme of hold and world. And as for the adynaton,such wonderful boasts no longer exist in our poetry, which shows its sad and tragic “humility” to be far more arrogant and stingy than this delight in the lover’s form of boasting hyperbole. Only in songs does this sort of boast still thrive, for example, when Tom Waits insists: “I’d shoot the moon for you.”
Auden can’t let the lover triumph. Modern nihilism must rear its ugly head, or is it modern? The doom of all young love is a common subject of Latin and Greek, and almost all ancient world poetry. Auden knows the difference between originality and novelty. Novelty can only be interesting once, the first time. Originality is that which is suddenly ancient, and anciently sudden. Orignality has a nomative power, and can be intersting and pleasurable again and again because it manages to touch upon origins as well as news. The worst that can be said for pre post modern poetry is that it lacks the surprise of novelty. The worst that can be said for post modernist poetry is that it opts for novelty and confuses it with originality. I do not believe in cliched tropes. A trope can be tired and hackneyed only if the poet lacks the energy to enliven it. Carpe diem is still trembling in the shadows, waiting to be felt up by a daring poet. At any rate, Auden takes great delight in disillusioning the lover. Some of those stanzas:
“In head aches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
Tomorrow or today.
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
The images here would be surreal if they were not used to a purpose, but they are far from the effect of surreality which is to tweak the unconscious, the intuitive or sensing faculties—the irrational. This is the rational, didactic use of absurdity through thought and feeling to make a point, and the point is pretty much the same point made when Nash informs us that “Helen’s dust” stops up a bung hole: love is doomed and time ravishes even the most powerful passions.
This aint news, but it is a ritual of “giving the bad news.” which we can tell the poet puts all his craft and pleasure toward. A ritual can be beautiful, even pleasurable by dint of the joy and liveliness with which we perform it, and invest our time in it. To say a truth over and over again is to find the ritual that will make that truth, however awful, portable, and somehow, even more than bearable.
What Auden does in the final stanza, after having time destroy the lover’s troth, is return us to the cosmic impersonality of the river:
It was late, late in the evening.
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.
This gives the poem the sufficient modernist chill it needs to be more than merely an imitation of ballads, but the real worth of it lies in Auden never believing for a minute that the tropes can be exhausted. How can one exhaust the ancient fear and fever of the blood, the dread and hopelessness of “I’ll love you forever?” Be careful, students, that your sophistication and stupidity in the dadaist, slacker, cynical, “non-linear” sense does not blind you to the pleasures of true nihilism: yes, I know, I know, and on the thousandth point of knowing, my heart still breaks.