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This report is taken from PN Review 40, Volume 11 Number 2, November - December 1984.

Letter from New York Gwyneth Lewis
One of the standard grouches of the New Yorker about his city concerns the length of the lines which form for anything you care to think of. It's not often that you get to stand in line for a poetry reading, though, even in New York. Those of us who spent, it seemed, a good part of the week which marked the tenth anniversity of W. H. Auden's death last October standing in queues, were in one way delighted at the wait. So there's no audience for poetry in the States, is there? It was rumoured that the Academy of American Poets, which co-sponsored a reading of Auden's work at the Guggenheim Museum with the New York Institute for the Humanities, had received seven hundred phone enquiries about the two hundred seats available in the auditorium. Whether it was the prospect of seeing thirteen of the 'big names' of the American poetic establishment (a selective A-Z running from Ashbery - Walcott) all gathered together on a platform, or a dedication to Auden's poetry which drew the crowds was difficult to tell. Whatever their motives, some determined souls had started to queue for tickets by four o'clock. It was clear that this was going to be an Historic Event. I felt thoroughly humbled about my short journey from the Upper West Side when the lady standing next to me, a college professor, happened to mention that she had flown in that day from Wisconsin, just to be present at the reading. The young man standing next to her, clutching a copy of Auden's Selected Poems to his chest, was a poet from Vassar; he'd forgotten to bring his coat from Poughkeepsie, but didn't seem to mind the cold.

As soon as we had secured our tickets, I dragged the young man from Vassar to a bar on Madison Avenue, where he told me about his senior thesis on the difference between stress and rhythm in Berryman's poetry. But what did he think of Auden? Well, he was slightly suspicious of Auden's manipulative virtuosity - it was 'undemocratic' (he later retracted that view). The thing that he most admired about Auden was his authority as a pronouncer upon public mores. How was it possible for an American writer to adopt a comparable role today? American poets tend to be terribly worried about this problem, feeling that poetry should be a political force, while at the same time feeling rather desperate that nobody listens to them (hence the sneaking envy of the dissident or émigré poets from Russia and Poland). But didn't he think that Auden's 'public' voice was a tone that he employed to describe his private metaphysical convictions? Maybe. . . . But by then it was finally time to go to the reading.

Auden was in the air when we returned to the Guggenheim. As they filed past the Charles Simmons retrospective in the museum, people commented how the models of ancient eroded mesas resembled Auden's remarkable face in his old age ('my face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain' was his own description). The impressive array of poets on the stage of the auditorium were not there merely to lend their voices to Auden's poems. Each reader's selection from the poetry was as eloquent about his or her own work as about that of the poet being honoured. Auden 'became his admirers'. Joseph Brodsky, whose brainchild the whole celebration was, recited 'September 1, 1939' in his inimitable incantatory fashion. Earlier in the week Vanity Fair (a glossy publication which combines Village 'House Beautiful' features with intellectual chic, as far as I can see geared towards the kind of people who wear sunglasses on the subway while reading Artaud) had the good taste to publish a magnificent essay by Brodsky on Auden. Brodsky claims that it is largely due to Auden that what is now his 'passionate affair with the English language' began. James Merrill, gently camping it up, read from 'Letter to Lord Byron', making Auden sound, not like Brodsky's prophet, but the 'jolly priest' he is in Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover. Richard Howard, ever eager, got all excited about the words 'frore' and 'disembogueing' in 'River Profile'. Everybody was pleased when Mona Van Duyn chose to read the unrevised version of 'In Memory of W. B. Yeats', including those lines which refuse to be edited from the memory, despite the poet's cuts:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;

And, to cap it all, courtesy of the special effects department of the Guggenheim, we heard a disembodied Auden reciting 'Homage to Clio' in an English accent (which came as a surprise after hearing so many American readers). I didn't see the lady from Wisconsin afterwards to ask her whether or not her journey had been worth it, nor did I need to.

The line for the symposium on Auden, held at New York University a few evenings later, had a familiar feel to it (it was long and full of people who recognized each other from the 'poetic ' circuit all over the country). It was strange to see the old but sprightly Christopher Isherwood, along with Stephen Spender on the stage under a huge photograph of the youthful Auden (taken on the bridge over Amsterdam Avenue near Columbia University). This photograph has subsequently appeared in one of the seminar rooms at the New York Institute for the Humanities, where it is a giant, benign eavesdropper. Not so different from Auden in Merrill's ouija board poems, really. Isherwood talked of his lifelong friendship with Auden, and how he had to be very careful when reading the poet's work, lest he should instantly concur with the criticisms and start cutting lines with reckless abandon.

Perhaps the most interesting contribution to the symposium came from Ursula Niebuhr, who spoke of Auden's 'restored relation' with God from the 1940s onwards. The Niebuhrs got to know Auden when he first came to the States, and they read Kierkegaard together. Auden's relationship with God was sometimes a quirky one. Once, when asked whether he was not afraid of a plane crash when he was about to fly somewhere, he replied, 'I always tell myself that God wouldn't dare'. And he didn't, at least not that time. This talk of Auden as a saintly man was a revelation to the younger American writers in the audience, because his religious beliefs are underplayed far more in America than, say, his homosexuality. One particularly distasteful example of this was published here recently. A volume purporting to be a series of conversations with Auden took great delight in relaying information about the poet's sexual preferences. This is all part of a misguided and essentially dull attempt to find the lowest common denominator between people. Auden knew full well how his sexuality was connected to his moral beliefs, and which was the more interesting: 'Never will his prick belong/To his world of right and wrong,/Nor its values comprehend/Who is foe and who is friend.' A memorial service was held at St Mark's during the week. A plan to put on The Dog Beneath the Skin for the celebration did not come off, but Auden's work as a librettist was commemorated. The Museum of Modern Art (which has been practically closed down for renovations for two years) showed Robert Craft's film of The Rake's Progress - music by Stravinsky, libretto by Auden and Kallman. Opera purists will be able to see a stage performance of the work at the City Opera this summer.

Considering that New York is so full of the déraciné, its small, but very different areas inspire fiercely local loyalties. St Mark's Place became Auden's 'neighbourhood' in New York. His figure shuffling along the street in his slippers was a familiar sight in the area, and when he took his leave of New York in The New York Times, he expressed his wish to 'thank in particular Abe and his co-workers in the liquor store' along with his other friends in the local shops. Where he lived, however, was less important to Auden than his rigorous daily routine - up at dawn, work till tea-time, dinner with friends in the evening, and departure promptly at nine, then to bed - this was his most constant home. The last event of the week did, however, commemorate the poet's place of residence in New York by the unveiling of a plaque on the front of 33 St Mark's Place. (Trotsky's house across the road as yet sports no such trophy, nor is it likely that it ever will!). It would be hard to find a better epitaph for Auden than the words that appear on the plaque in St Mark's Place:

If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.


This report is taken from PN Review 40, Volume 11 Number 2, November - December 1984.

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