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This review is taken from PN Review 166, Volume 32 Number 2, November - December 2005.

SMACKS AT AUDEN Randall Jarrel on W.H. Auden, edited by Stephen Burt (Columbia University Press) $22.50

Randall Jarrell's view of W.H. Auden's oeuvre recalls those Elvis fans who think the King was really good only when recording for Sam Phillip's Sun label in Memphis. Once he signed with RCA the slippery slide to Hollywood and Las Vegas had begun. So they barely rate any of Presley's most famous and successful performances. Jarrell is positive here, with minor reservations, about Paid on Both Sides and, also with reservations, Poems (1930). These 1951-2 Princeton lectures might then seem a compulsively detailed prefiguring of Larkin's 1960 'What's Become of Wystan?' review, and Adam Gopnik in his foreword alludes to the Larkin piece - accusing it, predictably but not quite correctly in this case, of philistinism. It's Larkin, remember, who calls Auden 'unserious' in his comparison of poetry to crossword puzzles. There are numerous resemblances between the two poets' diagnoses, but Jarrell only touches in passing on an 'English Auden' and an 'American' one. Rather, there's 'Good Auden' (effectively a 1920s poet), and the variously complex matters that damage, to varying degrees, almost all the rest. In this Jarrell and Basil Bunting find themselves in perhaps surprising agreement.

Rather too much of the six lectures, for my taste, is taken up with the history of ideas. Since most of Auden's are period and personal hybrids of theory about evolution, sexuality, politics and history, the wonder is that anyone could produce even the simulacrum of a good poem with ...


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