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David Orr: Lost in the Archives, Spring 1974

April 18, 2011 | by

W. H. Auden.

The best thing about The Paris Review, aside from the editors’ formidable liquor stash, is the magazine’s sense of history. Sure, there are older American literary journals (The Yale Review was founded, no joke, in 1819), but The Paris Review has had a consistent idea of itself for longer than many publications that predate its debut in 1953. Of course, that consistency makes some aspects of the magazine vulnerable to, oh, for example, parody. But it also makes The Paris Review’s archive a useful tool with which to survey an art—and one’s personal response to that art—over several decades. So for the next month or so, that’s what I’ll be doing for the gracious and impeccably shirted Lorin Stein, and the equally gracious (and presumably impeccably shirted) Thessaly La Force.

Let’s begin at the beginning, which for me was the spring of 1974.

In the poetry world, this was a season of uncertainty and transition, as seasons in the poetry world so often are. The popularity of the “deep image” style associated with James Wright and W. S. Merwin was just beginning to wane; John Ashbery was on the brink of arriving at his full prominence (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror would complete the only hat trick in the history of the major poetry awards in 1975); and W. H. Auden, whose hand both stirred and hindered several currents in American poetry, had died only a few months earlier. In fact, Auden is the subject of the “Art of Poetry” interview in the Spring 1974 issue, lending a poignant touch to that meticulously casual series. This being Auden, things get pretty droll pretty quickly:

INTERVIEWER:  Do you have any aids for inspiration?

AUDEN:  I never write when I’m drunk.

And:

INTERVIEWER:  Have you read, or tried to read, Finnegans Wake?

AUDEN:  I’m not very good on Joyce.  Obviously he’s a very great genius—but his work is simply too long.

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