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This article is taken from PN Review 181, Volume 34 Number 5, May - June 2008.

On the Circuit Again: Auden on TV M.C. Caseley

The South Bank Show (ITV); Tell Me the Truth About Love (BBC)


In his recent centenary year, W.H. Auden was the subject of column-inches in the newspapers, conferences and readings; surprisingly, his familiar, shambling figure has also appeared in our living rooms on our TV screens. His is a particularly media-friendly type of poetic celebrity, but why is this? More importantly, how has Auden been presented to us, and does it affect how we read his poetry?

Auden belongs to a small group of poets for whom media shorthand can create an accessible 'thumbnail sketch' for that mythic creature, the 'average viewer'. Here are a few examples: Philip Larkin (librarian, porn fan, Hull, bicycle clips), Ted Hughes (crows, Plath's suicide, awful laureate poems), John Betjeman (Metroland, old churches, Leamington Spa). In each case, these metonymies offer those viewers interested in the individual (but not necessarily au fait with the poetry) a way in without too much effort required: Auden's might read 'left-wing Cambridge / 1930s/ Spain'. Necessarily, they also file down the awkward complexities of untidy lives and simplify in a way which may prove unhelpfully reductive, or even dishonest.

Other poets' lives don't lend themselves to this kind of process: MacNeice, for instance, a figure of some stature also belonging to 'the Auden group', doesn't seem to have been considered by the programme-makers in the same way. Does this indicate that he is ...

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