"JOHN MILTON / Never stayed in a Hilton / Hotel, /which was just as well."
In 1972 -- a year before his death at age 66 -- W.H. Auden recited that whimsical poem of his on "The Dick Cavett Show." I began reading him the next day and have never stopped.
An expanded edition of Auden's "Selected Poems" is now out in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth. It's a bull market lately for such commemorations. Last year was the centennial of John Betjeman, that cuddly poet laureate of Britain, who insisted that he spent his years at Oxford having fun while his friend Auden stayed in his room writing. This may explain why Auden's collected oeuvre is hundreds of pages longer than Betjeman's.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Auden was a movable feast of contradictions. He wrote poems with classical references that grad students could sink their teeth into. But he also penned light verse and romantic poems that eloquently spoke from the heart.
Auden gracefully went out on a limb in the mid-1950s to praise as-yet-unheralded books like "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but he gracelessly heckled Anne Sexton at a poetry festival in the late 1960s. Auden, who was homosexual, married Thomas Mann's daughter Erika (who was a lesbian) in 1935 so she could escape Nazi Germany. Although they never lived together, they also never divorced and remained friends for life. Auden left England in 1939 for the United States and became a citizen in 1946. However, he cheekily insisted, "I'm not an American; I'm a New Yorker."
In the introduction to this edition, Auden's literary executor, Edward Mendelson (who also serves as editor for this volume), writes: "Auden was the first poet writing in English who felt at home in the twentieth century." W.H., W.B. and T.S. may have shared a fondness for initials, but Auden differed from Yeats and Eliot in his curiosity about the modern world, while they -- as Mendelson puts it -- "turned nostalgically away from a flawed present to some lost illusory Eden." However, later gems, like "Doggerel by a Senior Citizen," show Auden looking more backward than forward: "My Eden landscapes and their climes / Are constructs from Edwardian times / When bath-rooms took up lots of space / And, before eating, one said Grace."
Television was a newfangled commodity Auden didn't cotton to -- and with good reason. In 1964, President Johnson's campaign ran the most notorious commercial ever: a young girl plucking petals off a daisy juxtaposed with the countdown to an atomic blast. Johnson's voice-over included a line taken (and slightly misquoted) from one of Auden's most famous poems: "We must love one another or die." This was from "September 1, 1939," which portended the war in Europe. Auden was so distressed by its use in the campaign ad that he frantically began rewriting many early poems that he feared could be used for similar purposes.
"September 1, 1939" reveals the poet unforgettably addressing the forces leading to global conflict, as he sits in a dive on New York's 52nd Street and contemplates the future of the world. After Sept. 11, news outlets across the world marveled at how this 62-year-old poem suddenly seemed more prescient than ever. Towering skyscrapers are seen not just as a triumph of human engineering but also as targets for our enemies by symbolizing the power of imperialism. And in what became one of his most quoted lines, Auden chillingly noted, "I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return." (If you want to bet which Auden poem will next seem like it's ripped from today's headlines, put your money on "Partition." Written in 1966, it's about the British in 1947 creating the separate states of India and Pakistan. If Iraq is eventually divided into three separate countries, copies of this lesser-known, sobering poem will fly across the Internet. Regrettably, "Partition" -- and the aforementioned "Doggerel by a Senior Citizen" -- are not in this new collection.)
Although this edition is somewhat expanded, it doesn't seem that different from Auden's last "Selected Poems," much in the way that albums re-released with "newly remastered" tracks don't sound all that different from the originals. But that's beside the point. There is never a bad time to promote Auden, which also happened in 1994 with the eloquent use of "Funeral Blues" in the film "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Its deployment there was so unforgettable that 20 years after Auden's death, 10 of his most romantic verses wound up as a bestseller, titled "Tell Me the Truth About Love."
Love was one of his favorite subjects, though the longtime object of his affection, poet Chester Kallman, often seemed a great deal more like Mr. Wrong than Mr. Right. In "The More Loving One," Auden poignantly addresses his often unrequited passion: "How should we like it were stars to burn / With a passion for us we could not return? / If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me." In "Fleet Visit," he wrote of young American servicemen on shore leave. As P.G. Wodehouse frequently did, Auden adroitly embraces elements of both high and low culture: "The sailors come ashore / Out of their hollow ships / Mild-looking middle-class boys / Who read the comic strips; / One baseball game is more / To them than fifty Troys."
Also included here is the contemplative "Archeology." In a line that the history-obsessed British comedian Eddie Izzard would surely covet, Auden wryly observes: "Knowledge may have its purposes / But guessing is always / more fun than knowing." *