What W. H. Auden Can do for You by Alexander McCall Smith

Auden via Smith

In a primary school in a small country town on the Adelaide Plain in South Australia in 1960-something, poetry was a page of writing, usually with a rhyming pattern of a-a-b-b or, if we were good, a-b-a-b, given to us students at Friday’s last session. The copies were made on that ancient, clumsy, messy, clanky machine: the Gestetna. Each student had a poetry exercise book, blank not lined. We had to carefully smear Clag on the back of the poetry page and stick it nicely, no splodges, onto the right hand side of a double page in our poetry exercise book. On the blank left-hand page we had to draw something inspired by the poem. No matter what the poem was about, spring, the Queen, a train, elephants, I always drew a two dimensional, two-storey house as big as the page would allow; so big in fact that the smoke coming from the chimney – there was always a smoking chimney – had nowhere to go except, unrealistically, down the side of the page towards the ground. The teacher never made a comment about this.

No attempt was ever made to make us think that we could possibly write a poem. I didn’t write one but I learned one: a poem of the “A starling, a silly little darling, such a pretty sight to see” variety. I recited this poem to my parents one day in the car on the way to Adelaide, that little flat city that was the capital of the state and, to me, the centre of the universe. My stepfather said nothing: he was deaf. My mother said something nice to me, which I liked. I liked it very much even though my mother’s praise was usually of the “That’s nice, dear, but don’t get too big for your boots” variety. Somehow I understood that she thought that I had written it. I didn’t know how to tell her that I hadn’t and, besides the warmth of praise, even meagre praise, was something rare and utterly delightful. I let her believe that I had written it and felt guilty for years to come, especially since she made me write it down and submit it to my monthly children’s magazine, and in which it was printed. I thought the police would arrive any day and take me away and do what they did to little boys who told lies, claimed other people’s words as their own, and thought poems were things to be proud about.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with poetry ever since: I love mine but hate everyone else’s. I thought for a long time that my schoolteachers weren’t telling me something: like a missing bit from an IKEA pack. However then I thought that maybe I was not getting something so I read a lot of poetry and from all those years only three have gained some traction in my satisfaction bank: Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover, a narrative poem of sacrificial love but, as I understood later, extremely misogynistic; William Carlos Williams’ To a Poor Old Woman which is simple-sad but strong and showed me that poetry doesn’t need punctuation if the lines are the right length; and Clive James’ Japanese Maple which is about approaching death which is apt since he’s dying (talk-about write what you know!).

Anyway, imagine my expectation when I saw Alexander McCall Smith What W. H. Auden can do for you (2013) on a friend’s bookshelf. Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for in this little book.

Mr. McCall Smith (or is it simply Mr. Smith?) obviously loves poetry and has been reading it since he was 15 and he also obviously loves Auden, although he seems eager to point out that his little tome is not a hagiography. Auden has often been criticized for using words simply for effect and without real regard to their meaning; a criticism McCall Smith agrees with. Here is a quote from his Letters from Iceland (1937).

And the traveller hopes; ‘Let me be far from my

Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;

The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;

And North means to all: Reject!’

The curious line “and the ports have names for the sea” is actually a misprint: he meant ‘poets’ but ‘ports’ was printed. Auden left it in. He liked the sound of it. The other line of interest is “Let me be far from my physician.” McCall Smith is critical of this word too, but as I read the first line the surprise certainly came with the word ‘physician’. I was expecting ‘mother’ or ‘country’ or ‘crowds’ (as McCall Smith suggests) but with the surprise came understanding. I read it as ‘far from all that is safe and fixable.’ McCall Smith thought it may stand “for all that is overly fussy and cosseting in modern society.” The point here is that, no matter what Auden meant, and what he meant is really irrelevant: meaning is in the mind of the reader. I’m sticking to my ‘safe and fixable.’

McCall Smith makes it clear that Auden’s homosexuality was reflective of his time which was full of perverse contradictions: single sex boarding schools which thrust a single sex together while punishing single sex itself, which is itself reflective in the hypocrisy of calling moneyed schools ‘public’ as if their money was for all, which it wasn’t. Such a system, a bed of oppression and treachery, not surprisingly, also produced spies. And intellectuals who in their declining years re-embraced Christianity, as did Auden. All this is mirrored in his choice of subjects, Freud, limestone, Iceland, Spain, Hitler, Rome, love – sexual and not, dreams, birds, water, fascism, and vales but not mountains.

Knowing something of the poet, and his times, helps in understanding his poetry; even an older Auden disowned the words of his younger self. Thank god he told us. McCall Smith also states that influences of time and place can’t be ignored. He identifies two great influences on artistic endeavour in the twentieth century: war and Freud… Now, hang on! All I’m looking for is an ‘in’ to the appreciation of poetry and here, Auden’s in particular. I, nor anyone, have the time for an academic investigation to eek out meaning to the words I’ve just read.

In the musical theatre characters sing when the emotion, or action, expressed is bigger than the text, when just words are not enough. Similarly it seems with poetry: it’s louder, stronger, more complex, more succinct, and usually more effective than mere words. To write about political decline, as he did in The Fall of Rome, less is more:

The piers are pummelled by the waves;

In a lonely field the rain

Lashes an abandoned train;

Outlaws fill the mountain caves.



Fantastic grow the evening gowns;

Agents of the Fisc pursue

Absconding tax-defaulters through

The sewers of provincial towns.



Private rites of magic send

The temple prostitutes to sleep;

All the literati keep

An imaginary friend. …



Caesar’s double-bed is warm

As an unimportant clerk


On a pink official form…

The imagery here is singular but powerful: an abandoned train; fantastical evening gowns; tax-defaulters fleeing through sewers; private rites of magic; sleeping leaders; and an unimportant and disillusioned clerk. These are four of the six verses in the poem; Edward Gibbon’s  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire stands at 12 massive tomes With Auden you don’t get the history, but you get the idea.

What I take from this book is the affirmation that if a poem doesn’t speak to you, read it again, really listen to what the words, and, more importantly, the words together, conjure, and what you think it means is what it means, but if you still can’t hear anything, put it back and read something else.

W. H. Auden
British poet, Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973)

Oh, and in 1940-41 W. H. Auden lived in Brooklyn Heights in a house, that has become known as the February House, with Benjamin Britten, Jane and Paul Bowles, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee. What a Sunday-lunch gathering that would be!

For more insight into poetry John Goodman succinctly explains obscurity in poetry, not forgetting that obscurity as a fad in art comes and goes. You can read his article here.

And you can listen to Auden himself reading his As I Walked Out One Evening (1937) here.