Interviews

W. H. Auden, The Art of Poetry No. 17

Interviewed by Michael Newman

W.H. AUDEN

What’s that again?

INTERVIEWER

I wondered which living writer you would say has served as the prime protector of the integrity of our English tongue . . . ?

AUDEN

Why, me, of course!

—Conversation, Autumn 1972

 

He was sitting beneath two direct white lights of a plywood portico, drinking a large cup of strong breakfast coffee, chain-smoking cigarettes, and doing the crossword puzzle that appears on the daily book review page of The New York Times—which, as it happened, this day contained, along with his photo, a review of his most recent volume of poetry.

When he had completed the puzzle, he unfolded the paper, glanced at the obits, and went to make toast.

Asked if he had read the review, Auden replied: “Of course not. Obviously these things are not meant for me . . .”

His singular perspectives, priorities, and tastes were strongly manifest in the décor of his New York apartment, which he used in the winter. Its three large, high-ceilinged main rooms were painted dark gray, pale green, and purple. On the wall hung drawings of friends—Elizabeth Bishop, E. M. Forster, Paul Valéry, Chester Kallman—framed simply in gold. There was also an original Blake watercolor, The Act of Creation, in the dining room, as well as several line drawings of male nudes. On the floor of his bedroom, a portrait of himself, unframed, faced the wall.

The cavernous front living room, piled high with books, was left dark except during his brief excursions into its many boxes of manuscripts or for consultations with the Oxford English Dictionary.

Auden’s kitchen was long and narrow, with many pots and pans hanging on the wall. He preferred such delicacies as tongue, tripe, brains, and Polish sausage, ascribing the eating of beefsteak to the lower orders (“it’s madly non-U!”). He drank Smirnoff martinis, red wine, and cognac, shunned pot, and confessed to having, under a doctor’s supervision, tried LSD: “Nothing much happened, but I did get the distinct impression that some birds were trying to communicate with me.”

His conversation was droll, intelligent, and courtly, a sort of humanistic global gossip, disinterested in the machinations of ambition, less interested in concrete poetry, absolutely exclusive of electronic influence.

As he once put it: “I just got back from Canada, where I had a run-in with McLuhan. I won.”

 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve insisted we do this conversation without a tape recorder. Why?

W. H. AUDEN

Because I think if there’s anything worth retaining, the reporter ought to be able to remember it. Truman Capote tells the story of the reporter whose machine broke down halfway into an interview. Truman waited while the man tried in vain to fix it and finally asked if he could continue. The reporter said not to bother—he wasn’t used to listening to what his subjects said!

INTERVIEWER

I thought your objection might have been to the instrument itself. You have written a new poem condemning the camera as an infernal machine.

AUDEN

Yes, it creates sorrow. Normally, when one passes someone on the street who is in pain, one either tries to help him, or one simply looks the other way. With a photo there’s no human decision; you’re not there; you can’t turn away; you simply gape. It’s a form of voyeurism. And I think close-ups are rude.

INTERVIEWER

Was there anything that you were particularly afraid of as a child? The dark, spiders, and so forth.

AUDEN

No, I wasn’t very scared. Spiders, certainly—but that’s different, a personal phobia which persists through life. Spiders and octopi. I was certainly never afraid of the dark.

INTERVIEWER

Were you a talkative child? I remember your describing somewhere the autistic quality of your private world.

AUDEN

Yes, I was talkative. Of course there were things in my private world that I couldn’t share with others. But I always had a few good friends.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing poetry?

AUDEN

I think my own case may be rather odd. I was going to be a mining engineer or a geologist. Between the ages of six and twelve, I spent many hours of my time constructing a highly elaborate private world of my own based on, first of all, a landscape, the limestone moors of the Pennines; and second, an industry—lead mining. Now I found in doing this, I had to make certain rules for myself. I could choose between two machines necessary to do a job, but they had to be real ones I could find in catalogues. I could decide between two ways of draining a mine, but I wasn’t allowed to use magical means. Then there came a day which later on, looking back, seems very important. I was planning my idea of the concentrating mill—you know, the platonic idea of what it should be. There were two kinds of machinery for separating the slime, one I thought more beautiful than the other, but the other one I knew to be more efficient. I felt myself faced with what I can only call a moral choice—it was my duty to take the second and more efficient one. Later, I realized, in constructing this world which was only inhabited by me, I was already beginning to learn how poetry is written. Then, my final decision, which seemed to be fairly fortuitous at the time, took place in 1922, in March when I was walking across a field with a friend of mine from school who later became a painter. He asked me, “Do you ever write poetry?” and I said, “No”—I’d never thought of doing so. He said: “Why don’t you?”—and at that point I decided that’s what I would do. Looking back, I conceived how the ground had been prepared.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of your reading as being an influence in your decision?

AUDEN

Well, up until then the only poetry I had read, as a child, were certain books of sick jokes—Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, Struwwelpeter by Hoffmann, and Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes. I had a favorite, which went like this:

Into the drinking well

The plumber built her

Aunt Maria fell;

We must buy a filter.

Of course I read a good deal about geology and lead mining. Sopwith’s A Visit to Alston Moor was one, Underground Life was another. I can’t remember who wrote it. I read all the books of Beatrix Potter and also Lewis Carroll. Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” I loved, and also Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. And I got my start reading detective stories with Sherlock Holmes.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read much of Housman?

AUDEN

Yes, and later I knew him quite well. He told me a very funny story about Clarence Darrow. It seems that Darrow had written him a very laudatory letter, claiming to have saved several clients from the chair with quotes from Housman’s poetry. Shortly afterwards, Housman had a chance to meet Darrow. They had a very nice meeting, and Darrow produced the trial transcripts he had alluded to. “Sure enough,” Housman told me, “there were two of my poems—both misquoted!” These are the minor headaches a writer must live with. My pet peeve is people who send for autographs but omit putting in stamps.

INTERVIEWER

Did you meet Christopher Isherwood at school?

AUDEN

Yes, I’ve known him since I was eight and he was ten, because we were both in boarding school together at St. Edmund’s School, Hindhead, Surrey. We’ve known each other ever since. I always remember the first time I ever heard a remark which I decided was witty. I was walking with Mr. Isherwood on a Sunday walk—this was in Surrey—and Christopher said, “I think God must have been tired when He made this country.” That’s the first time I heard a remark that I thought was witty.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have good teachers?

AUDEN

Except in mathematics, I had the good luck to have excellent teachers, especially in science. When I went up for my viva, Julian Huxley showed me a bone and asked me to tell him what it was. “The pelvis of a bird,” I said, which happened to be the right answer. He said: “Some people have said it was the skull of an extinct reptile.”

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever taught writing?

AUDEN

No, I never have. If I had to “teach poetry,” which, thank God, I don’t, I would concentrate on prosody, rhetoric, philology, and learning poems by heart. I may be quite wrong, but I don’t see what can be learned except purely technical things—what a sonnet is, something about prosody. If you did have a poetic academy, the subjects should be quite different—natural history, history, theology, all kinds of other things. When I’ve been at colleges, I’ve always insisted on giving ordinary academic courses—on the eighteenth century, or Romanticism. True, it’s wonderful what the colleges have done as patrons of the artists. But the artists should agree not to have anything to do with contemporary literature. If they take academic positions, they should do academic work, and the further they get away from the kind of thing that directly affects what they’re writing, the better. They should teach the eighteenth century or something that won’t interfere with their work and yet earn them a living. To teach creative writing—I think that’s dangerous. The only possibility I can conceive of is an apprentice system like those they had in the Renaissance—where a poet who was very busy got students to finish his poems for him. Then you’d really be teaching, and you’d be responsible, of course, since the results would go out under the poet’s name.

INTERVIEWER

I noticed that in your early works, there seems to be a fierceness toward England. There’s a sense of being at war with where you are—and that this is lacking in poems you’ve written here in the United States, that you seem more at home.

AUDEN

Yes, quite. I’m sure it’s partly a matter of age. You know, everybody changes. It’s frightfully important for a writer to be his age, not to be younger or older than he is. One might ask, “What should I write at the age of sixty-four,” but never, “What should I write in 1940.” It’s always a problem, I think.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a certain age when a writer is at the height of his powers?

AUDEN

Some poets, like Wordsworth, peter out fairly early. Some, like Yeats, have done their best work late in life. Nothing is calculable. Aging has its problems, but they must be accepted without fuss.

INTERVIEWER

What made you choose the U.S. as a home?

AUDEN

Well, the difficulty about England is the cultural life—it was certainly dim, and I suspect it still is. In a sense it’s the same difficulty one faces with some kinds of family life. I love my family very dearly, but I don’t want to live with them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see any demarcation between the language you have used since you came to America, and the language you used in England?

AUDEN

No, not really. Obviously you see little things, particularly when writing prose: very minor things. There are certain rhymes which could not be accepted in England. You would rhyme “clerk” and “work” here, which you can’t in England. But these are minor—saying “twenty of” instead of “twenty to” or “aside from” instead of “apart from.”

INTERVIEWER

How long have you lived here, and where in America were you before taking this apartment?

AUDEN

I’ve been here since ’52. I came to America in ’39. I lived first in Brooklyn Heights, then taught for a while in Ann Arbor, then at Swarthmore. I did a stint in the army, with the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. The army didn’t like our report at all because we proved that, in spite of all of our bombing of Germany, their weapons production didn’t go down until after they had lost the war. It’s the same in North Vietnam—the bombing does no good. But you know how army people are. They don’t like to hear things that run contrary to what they’ve thought.

INTERVIEWER

Have you had much contact with men in politics and government?

AUDEN

I have had very little contact with such men. I knew some undergraduates, of course, while I was at Oxford, who eventually made it—Hugh Gaitskell, Crossman, and so forth. I think we should do very well without politicians. Our leaders should be elected by lot. The people could vote their conscience, and the computers could take care of the rest.

INTERVIEWER

How about writers as leaders? Yeats, for instance, held office.

AUDEN

And he was terrible! Writers seldom make good leaders. They’re self-employed, for one thing, and they have very little contact with their customers. It’s very easy for a writer to be unrealistic. I have not lost my interest in politics, but I have come to realize that, in cases of social or political injustice, only two things are effective: political action and straight journalistic reportage of the facts. The arts can do nothing. The social and political history of Europe would be what it has been if Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, et al., had never lived. A poet, qua poet, has only one political duty, namely, in his own writing to set an example of the correct use of his mother tongue which is always being corrupted. When words lose their meaning, physical force takes over. By all means, let a poet, if he wants to, write what is now called an “engagé” poem, so long as he realizes that it is mainly himself who will benefit from it. It will enhance his literary reputation among those who feel the same as he does.

INTERVIEWER

Does this current deterioration and corruption of language, imprecision of thought, and so forth scare you—or is it just a decadent phase?

AUDEN

It terrifies me. I try by my personal example to fight it; as I say, it’s a poet’s role to maintain the sacredness of language.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think the present condition of our civilization will be seen by the future, if there is one, as a prewar decadence?

AUDEN

No, I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact of another war. But in the old days people knew what the words meant, whatever the range of their vocabulary. Now people hear and repeat a radio and TV vocabulary thirty percent larger than they know the meaning of. The most outrageous use of words I’ve ever experienced was once when I was a guest on the David Susskind TV program. During a break he had to do a plug for some sort of investment firm, and he announced that these people were “integrity-ridden”! I could not believe my ears!

INTERVIEWER

You have said bad art is bad in a very contemporary way.

AUDEN

Yes. Of course one can be wrong about what is good or bad. Taste and judgment can differ. But one has to be loyal to oneself and trust one’s own taste. I can, for instance, enjoy a good tear-jerking movie, where, oh, an old mother is put away in a home—even though I know it’s terrible, the tears will run down my cheeks. I don’t think good work ever makes one cry. Housman said he got a curious physical sensation with good poetry—I never got any. If one sees King Lear, one doesn’t cry. One doesn’t have to.

INTERVIEWER

You have said that the story of your patron saint, Wystan, was rather Hamlet-like. Are you a Hamlet poet?

AUDEN

No, I couldn’t be less. For myself I find that Shakespeare’s greatest influence has been his use of a large vocabulary. One thing that makes English so marvelous for poetry is its great range and the fact that it is an uninflected language. One can turn verbs into nouns and vice versa, as Shakespeare did. One cannot do this with inflected languages such as German, French, Italian.

INTERVIEWER

In the early thirties, did you write for an audience that you wanted to jolt into awareness?

AUDEN

No, I just try to put the thing out and hope somebody will read it. Someone says: “Whom do you write for?” I reply: “Do you read me?” If they say, “Yes,” I say, “Do you like it?” If they say, “No,” then I say, “I don’t write for you.”

INTERVIEWER

Well, then, do you think of a particular audience when writing certain poems?

AUDEN

Well, you know it’s impossible to tell. If you have someone in mind . . . well, most of them are probably dead. You wonder whether they’ll approve or not, and then you hope—that somebody will even read you after you’re dead yourself.

INTERVIEWER

You have always been a formalist. Today’s poets seem to prefer free verse. Do you think that’s an aversion to discipline?

AUDEN

Unfortunately that’s too often the case. But I can’t understand—strictly from a hedonistic point of view—how one can enjoy writing with no form at all. If one plays a game, one needs rules, otherwise there is no fun. The wildest poem has to have a firm basis in common sense, and this, I think, is the advantage of formal verse. Aside from the obvious corrective advantages, formal verse frees one from the fetters of one’s ego. Here I like to quote Valéry, who said a person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difficulties inherent in his art and not if his imagination is dulled by them. I think very few people can manage free verse—you need an infallible ear, like D. H. Lawrence, to determine where the lines should end.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any poets you’ve read who have seemed to you to be kindred spirits? I’m thinking of Campion here, with whom you share a great fascination with metrics.

AUDEN

Yes, I do have several pets, and Campion is certainly among them. Also George Herbert and William Barnes, and yes, all shared a certain interest in metrics. These are the poets I should have liked to have had as friends. As great a poet as Dante might have been, I wouldn’t have had the slightest wish to have known him personally. He was a terrible prima donna.

INTERVIEWER

Can you say something about the genesis of a poem? What comes first?

AUDEN

At any given time, I have two things on my mind: a theme that interests me and a problem of verbal form, meter, diction, etc. The theme looks for the right form; the form looks for the right theme. When the two come together, I am able to start writing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you start your poems at the beginning?

AUDEN

Usually, of course, one starts at the beginning and works through to the end. Sometimes, though, one starts with a certain line in mind, perhaps a last line. One starts, I think, with a certain idea of thematic organization, but this usually alters during the process of writing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any aids for inspiration?

AUDEN

I never write when I’m drunk. Why should one need aids? The Muse is a high-spirited girl who doesn’t like to be brutally or coarsely wooed. And she doesn’t like slavish devotion—then she lies.

INTERVIEWER

And comes up with “moon-faced Nonsense, that erudite forger,” as you said in one of your “Bucolics.”

AUDEN

Quite. Poetry is not self-expression. Each of us, of course, has a unique perspective which we hope to communicate. We hope that someone reading it will say, “Of course, I knew that all the time but never realized it before.” On the whole I agree here with Chesterton, who said, “The artistic temperament is a disease that affects amateurs.”

INTERVIEWER

Many poets are night workers, manic, irregular in their habits.

AUDEN

Sorry, my dear, one mustn’t be bohemian!

INTERVIEWER

Why do you disapprove of the recent publication of Eliot’s Waste Land drafts?

AUDEN

Because there’s not a line he left out which makes one wish he’d kept it. I think this sort of thing encourages amateurs to think, “Oh, look—I could have done as well.” I think it shameful that people will spend more for a draft than for a completed poem. Valerie Eliot didn’t like having to publish the drafts, but once they were discovered, she knew they would have to come out eventually—so she did it herself to ensure that it was done as well as possible.

INTERVIEWER

But isn’t there some truth to be had from the knowledge that a poet does quite literally start in the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart?”

AUDEN

It may be necessary for him to start there, but there is no reason for others to pay it a visit. Here I like the quote of Valéry, which says that when people don’t know anything else they take their clothes off.

INTERVIEWER

In your Commonplace Book you’ve written: Behaviorism works—so does torture.

AUDEN

It does work. But I’m sure if I were given Professor B. F. Skinner and supplied with the proper drugs and appliances, I could have him in a week reciting the Athanasian Code—in public. The problem with the behavioralists is that they always manage to exclude themselves from their theories. If all our acts are conditioned behavior, surely our theories are, too.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see any spirituality in all those hippies out on St. Marks Place? You’ve lived among them for some time now.

AUDEN

I don’t know any of them, so how could I tell? What I do like about them is that they have tried to revive the spirit of carnival, something which has been conspicuously lacking in our culture. But I’m afraid that when they renounce work entirely, the fun turns ugly.

INTERVIEWER

Your new poem “Circe” deals with this subject, particularly:

She does not brutalize her victims (beasts could

bite or bolt). She simplifies them to flowers,

sessile fatalists, who don’t mind and only  

can talk to themselves.

Obviously you know that generation better than you admit.

AUDEN

I must say that I do admire the ones who won’t compete in the rat race, who renounce money and worldy goods. I couldn’t do that, I’m far too worldy.

INTERVIEWER

Do you own any credit cards?

AUDEN

One. I never use it if I can help it. I’ve used it only once, in Israel, to pay a hotel bill. I was brought up believing that you should not buy anything you cannot pay cash for. The idea of debt appalls me. I suppose our whole economy would collapse if everyone had been brought up like me.

INTERVIEWER

Are you a good businessman—do you drive a hard bargain, and so forth?

AUDEN

No. That’s not a subject I care to think about.

INTERVIEWER

But you do get what you can for your poetry. I was surprised the other day to see a poem of yours in Poetry—which only pays fifty cents a line.

AUDEN

Of course I get what I can—who wouldn’t? I think I got my check from them the other day and used it up before I noticed I’d gotten it.

INTERVIEWER

Are you a gourmet?

AUDEN

I’m very fond of my food. I’m lucky when I’m in Austria because my friend Mr. Kallman is an expert chef, so I’m rather spoiled in the summer. It’s different here where I live alone. Sometimes when one is cooking for oneself, one gets a craze for something. Once I had a craze for turnips. But with solitary eating one doesn’t like to spend much time and simply gobbles it up fast. Certainly I like good wine, but I don’t make a thing of it. There’s a red table wine, Valpolicella, which I like to drink both when I’m in Austria and when I’m here. It travels much better than Chianti, which, when you drink it here, always tastes like red ink.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever miss a meal while in the process of writing?

AUDEN

No. I live by my watch. I wouldn’t know to be hungry if I didn’t have my watch on!

INTERVIEWER

What are the worst lines you know—preferably by a great poet?

AUDEN

I think they occur in Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts, in which Napoleon tries to escape from Elba. There’s a quatrain which goes like this:

Should the corvette arrive

With the aging Scotch colonel,

Escape would be frustrate,

Retention eternal.

That’s pretty hard to beat!

INTERVIEWER

How about Yeats’ “Had de Valera eaten Parnell’s heart” or Eliot’s “Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings”?

AUDEN

Those aren’t bad, really, just unintentionally comic. Both would have made wonderful captions for a Thurber cartoon. As an undergraduate at Oxford I came up with one: “Isobel with her leaping breasts/Pursued me through a summer . . .”

Think what a marvelous cartoon Thurber could have done to that! Whoops! Whoops! Whoops!

INTERVIEWER

What’s your least favorite Auden poem?

AUDEN

“September 1, 1939.” And I’m afraid it’s gotten into a lot of anthologies.

INTERVIEWER

Of which poem are you proudest?

AUDEN

It occurs in my commentary on Shakespeare’s Tempest, a poem written in prose, a pastiche of the late Henry James—”Caliban’s Speech to the Audience.”

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever finished a book you’ve hated?

AUDEN

No, I’ve skipped . . . actually I did, once. I read the whole of Mein Kampf because it was necessary to know what he thought. But it was not a pleasure.

INTERVIEWER

Have you reviewed a book you’ve hated?

AUDEN

Very rarely. Unless one is a regular reviewer, or one is reviewing a book of reference where the facts are wrong—then it’s one’s duty to inform the public, as one would warn them of watered milk. Writing nasty reviews can be fun, but I don’t think the practice is very good for the character.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the nicest poetic compliment you’ve ever received?

AUDEN

It came in a most unusual way. A friend of mine, Dorothy Day, had been put in the women’s prison at Sixth Avenue and 8th Street for her part in a protest. Well, once a week at this place, on a Saturday, the girls were marched down for a shower. A group were being ushered in when one, a whore, loudly proclaimed: “Hundreds have lived without love, But none without water . . .” A line from a poem of mine which had just appeared in The New Yorker. When I heard this, I knew I hadn’t written in vain!

INTERVIEWER

Have you read any books on women’s lib?

AUDEN

I’m a bit puzzled by it. Certainly they ought to complain about the ad things, like ladies’ underwear, and so forth.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any essential differences between male and female poetry?

AUDEN

Men and women have opposite difficulties to contend with. The difficulty for a man is to avoid being an aesthete—to avoid saying things not because they are true, but because they are poetically effective. The difficulty for a woman is in getting sufficient distance from the emotions. No woman is an aesthete. No woman ever wrote nonsense verse. Men are playboys, women realists. If you tell a funny story—only a woman will ever ask: “Did it really happen?” I think if men knew what women said to each other about them, the human race would die out.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think it would be better if women ran the human race?

AUDEN

I think foreign policy should definitely be taken out of men’s hands. Men should continue making machines, but women ought to decide which machines ought to be made. Women have far better sense. They would never have introduced the internal combustion engine or any of the evil machines. Most kitchen machines, for example, are good; they don’t obliterate other skills. Or other people. With our leaders it is all too often a case of one’s little boy saying to another, “My father can lick your father.” By now, the toys have gotten far too dangerous.

INTERVIEWER

Have you known any madmen?

AUDEN

Well, of course, I’ve known people who went off their heads. We all have. People who go into the bin and out again. I’ve known several people who were manic-depressives. I’ve often thought a lot of good could be done for them if they would organize a manic-depressives anonymous. They could get together and do each other some good.

INTERVIEWER

I don’t think it would work.

AUDEN

Well, everybody has their ups and downs!

INTERVIEWER

If you were to go mad, what do you think your madness would be?

AUDEN

I couldn’t imagine going mad. It’s simply something my imagination cannot take. One can be dotty—but that’s different! There’s a very funny book called The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, about a hospital in which there are three gents, all of whom believe themselves to be the Lord. Which is common enough, except in the case of one—who had actually found a disciple!

INTERVIEWER

What about collaboration? Did you ever go through your poems with T. S. Eliot?

AUDEN

No, one can’t expect other people to do such things. He was very good to me; he encouraged me. He wasn’t jealous of other writers. I had met him just before I left Oxford. I’d sent him some poems, and he asked me to come to see him. He published the first thing of mine that was published—it was “Paid on Both Sides”—which came out in The Criterion in ’28 or ’29.

INTERVIEWER

Was Isherwood helpful at this time?

AUDEN

Oh, enormously. Of course one depends at that age on one’s friends; one reads one’s work, and they criticize it. That’s the same in every generation.

INTERVIEWER

Did you collaborate with him at this point, at Oxford?

AUDEN

The first time I collaborated with Isherwood must have been in ’33 or ’34—The Dog Beneath the Skin. I’ve always enjoyed collaborating very much. It’s exciting. Of course, you can’t collaborate on a particular poem. You can collaborate on a translation, or a libretto, or a drama, and I like working that way, though you can only do it with people whose basic ideas you share—each can then sort of excite the other. When a collaboration works, the two people concerned become a third person, who is different from either of them in isolation. I have observed that when critics attempt to say who wrote what they often get it wrong. Of course, any performed work is bound to be a collaboration, anyway, because you’re going to have performers and producers and God knows what.

INTERVIEWER

How do you look back now on the early plays you wrote with Isherwood?

AUDEN

None of them will quite do, I think. I have a private weakness for Dogskin, which I think, if properly done, is fun, except that you have to cut all the choruses. There is some quite nice poetry in there, but dramatically it won’t do. This was something that was just selfish on my part, wanting to write some poetry which had nothing to do, really, with drama.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel that the state of the theater today is conducive to poetic drama?

AUDEN

The difficulty, I think, is that the tradition of actors and verse has been so lost. In opera, for example, the whole tradition of singing has never stopped. The trouble with people who write official poetic drama—drama written in verse—is that they can default so easily either by writing something which is so nearly prose that it might just as well be prose—or something which is not theatrical. Actually, Mr. Kallman and I had a very interesting experience. We’d done a translation of The Magic Flute for NBC television, and we decided to put the spoken interludes into couplets. Nearly everybody in the cast, of course, were singers . . . who had never spoken verse before; there was only one part played by a professional actor. With the singers, we could teach them immediately how to speak verse. The singers, who had never spoken verse before, could get it in ten minutes because they knew what a beat was. But we had awful trouble with the professional actor.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel that the conventions of acting in the American theater destroy this ability to speak a line even more?

AUDEN

They won’t keep still, of course. It’s like a football match. Poetry is very unnaturalistic. One of the great things about opera singing is that you cannot pretend it’s naturalistic.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel an opera libretto is limiting—that it requires sacrifices . . .?

AUDEN

Well, yes. Of course, you have to forget all about what you ordinarily mean by writing poetry when you’re writing poetry to be read or spoken or sung. It’s a completely different art. Naturally, one’s subordinate to the composer. And one’s judged, really, by how much one stimulates him. But that’s half the fun of it: being limited. Something you think of, which in cold blood would be absolute trash, suddenly, when it is sung, becomes interesting. And vice versa.

INTERVIEWER

Which harks back to Addison’s remark about Italian opera in London at the turn of the eighteenth century—that whatever is too stupid to say can be sung.

AUDEN

Well, it’s not quite true—particularly these days when composers are much more dependent on the quality of the libretto than they were. It has been true ever since Strauss and Hofmannsthal that the librettist isn’t a pure flunky.

INTERVIEWER

How did the collaboration of The Rake’s Progress proceed?

AUDEN

Mr. Kallman and I prepared the libretto beforehand, though I talked to Mr. Stravinsky first, and we got some idea of the kind of thing he wanted to do. What had excited him was an idea that he felt would be an interesting subject for an opera. It was the last Hogarth scene in Bedlam where there was a blond man with a sort of broken fiddle. Now, actually Stravinsky never used this, but intuitively he thought, “Now this is an interesting idea.” In the end it wasn’t used at all.

INTERVIEWER

Could you characterize your working relationship with Stravinsky?

AUDEN

He was always completely professional. He took what I sent him and set it to music. He always took enormous trouble to find out what the rhythmic values were, which must have been difficult for him, since prior to my working with him he had never set in English.

INTERVIEWER

Did you correspond as did Strauss and Hofmannsthal?

AUDEN

No. The funny thing about their correspondence—which we’re very fortunate to have—was that they chose to work through the mails because they couldn’t stand one another!

INTERVIEWER

Did you and Stravinsky discuss the work over the phone?

AUDEN

No, I don’t like the phone very much and never stay on long if I can help it. You get some people who simply will not get off the line! I remember the story of the man who answered the phone and was kept prisoner for what seemed an age. The lady talked and talked. Finally, in desperation, he told her, “Really, I must go. I hear the phone ringing!”

INTERVIEWER

What is your Hans Werner Henze opera about?

AUDEN

It’s about the early twentieth-century sort of artist-genius who, in order to get his work done, must exploit other people. A sort of real monster. A poet. It is set in an Austrian mountain inn in the year 1910. There was an amusing mix-up about its title, Elegy for Young Lovers, which appeared on a lawyer’s power-of-attorney document as Allergy for Young Lovers.

INTERVIEWER

Did you involve yourself in its production?

AUDEN

Naturally. As much as I was allowed to, which with modern stage directors is not always easy.

INTERVIEWER

Do you enjoy all the ruckus?

AUDEN

Yes, I do. I’m terribly short-tempered.

INTERVIEWER

Does poetry contain music?

AUDEN

One can speak of verbal “music” so long as one remembers that the sound of words is inseparable from their meaning. The notes in music do not denote anything.

INTERVIEWER

What is the difference in your aims when you write a piece of verse which is to be set to music? Is there a difference in your method?

AUDEN

In writing words to be set to music, one has to remember that, probably, only one word in three will be heard. So, one must avoid complicated imagery. Suitable are verbs of motion, interjections, lists, and nouns like moon, sea, love, death.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote the UN anthem to be set by Casals. What were your aims and methods there?

AUDEN

The problem in writing the U.N. theme, in which one must not offend anybody’s conception of man, nature, the world, was how to avoid the most dreary clichés. I decided that the only thing to do was to make all the imagery musical, for music, unlike language, is international. Casals and I corresponded, and he was extremely generous about altering his music if, as once or twice, I felt he had accented syllables wrongly.

INTERVIEWER

Where did you pick up your interest in the Icelandic sagas?

AUDEN

My father brought me up on them. His family originated in an area which once served as headquarters for the Viking army. The name Auden is common in the sagas, usually spelled Audun. But we have no family trees or anything like that. My mother came from Normandy—which means that she was half Nordic, as the Normans were. I had an ancestor named Birch, who married Constable. The family, I understand, was furious that she had married a painter. I’ve seen some of his portraits of her—she must have been quite beautiful. I’ve another relative who’s married to a Hindu. This goes along better, I think, with the family line, which says that either one marries an Englishman—or one marries a Brahmin!

INTERVIEWER

And your father was a doctor?

AUDEN

Yes, he was. But at the time my mother married him, medicine was not considered one of the respectable professions. One of her aunts told her shortly before the wedding, “Well, marry him if you must, but no one will call on you!”

INTERVIEWER

You believe in class distinctions, then, social forms and formats?

AUDEN

To a degree, yes; one talks to people one has something to say to—it keeps things running a bit more smoothly. And I think the first prerequisite to civilization is an ability to make polite conversation.

INTERVIEWER

Many artists and writers either join the media or use its techniques in composing or editing their work.

AUDEN

It certainly has never tempted me. I suppose with some people like Norman Mailer it works out all right. Personally, I don’t see how any civilized person can watch TV, far less own a set. I prefer detective stories, especially Father Brown. I also don’t particularly care for science fiction. I read some Jules Verne in my youth, but I’m not very interested in other planets. I like them where they are, in the sky.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any media which to you are strictly taboo?

AUDEN

Yes: TV, all movies except the comic ones—Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers were quite funny—and rock and roll all are taboo for me.

INTERVIEWER

Newspapers?

AUDEN

They’re painful, but one has to read them to know whatever is happening. I try to get through them as soon as possible. It’s never very pleasant in the morning to open The New York Times.

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. Joyce said himself that he wanted people to spend their life on his work. For me life is too short, and too precious. I feel the same way about Ulysses. Also, Finnegans Wake can’t be read the way one reads ordinarily. You can dip in, but I don’t think anyone could read it straight through and remember what happened. It’s different in small doses. I remember when Anna Livia Plurabelle came out, published separately, I was able to get through it and enjoy it. On the whole I like novels to be short, and funny. There are a few exceptions, of course; one knows with Proust, for instance, that it couldn’t have been any shorter. I suppose my favorite modern novelists are Ronald Firbank and P. G. Wodehouse—because both deal with Eden.

INTERVIEWER

Are you aware, by the way, that you are mentioned on page 279 of Finnegans Wake?

AUDEN

That I know. I could not have given you the page number—but I have seen the footnote.

INTERVIEWER

Would you care to comment on Yeats?

AUDEN

I find it very difficult to be fair to Yeats because he had a bad influence on me. He tempted me into a rhetoric which was, for me, oversimplified. Needless to say, the fault was mine, not his. He was, of course, a very great poet. But he and Rilke had a bad effect on me, so it’s difficult for me to judge either fairly.

INTERVIEWER

What about Eliot’s influence?

AUDEN

Eliot can have very little direct stylistic influence on other poets, actually. What I mean is that it is very rare that one comes across a poem and can say, “Ah, he’s been reading Eliot.” One can with Yeats or Rilke, but not with Eliot. He’s a very idiosyncratic poet and not imitable. My work is much easier to use as a stylistic model. And I don’t say this about Eliot in any pejorative sense at all. It’s the same with Gerard Manley Hopkins—both are extremely idiosyncratic and cannot readily be adapted to one’s own sensibility. When it’s attempted, what you end up with is simply Hopkins-and-water.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think “Gerontion” is Eliot’s greatest poem?

AUDEN

Again, this idea of choosing. Why should one? Obviously, one wants a lot of them.

INTERVIEWER

Well, then, do you think “Gerontion” is a very mystical poem?

AUDEN

I’m not sure if “mystical” is quite the right word. Certainly a part of his work is based on a rather peculiar vision he’s had. That’s part of why he’s so idiosyncratic. Probably something in his early youth. Here I think a comment he made about Dante’s Beatrice is very revealing. Although Dante claimed to have been nine when he met her, Eliot was sure they must have met at a still earlier age. I think that’s very revealing about Eliot. And all those images of children swinging from apple trees . . . must refer to some very powerful early vision. But he wasn’t a confessional poet, so we don’t know who it was.

INTERVIEWER

Eliot was purportedly influenced in that direction by the poetry of St. John of the Cross, which we can safely say is mystical. Do you read him much?

AUDEN

His poetry is very remarkable, but not exactly my cup of tea. Essentially because I don’t think the mystical experience can be verbalized. When the ego disappears, so does power over language. I must say that he was extremely daring—he uses the most daring metaphors for orgasm. This probably has to do with the fact that in both cases, orgasm and mystical union, the ego is forgotten.

INTERVIEWER

Do you spend much time on affairs of the Church?

AUDEN

No—apart from going on Sundays.

INTERVIEWER

But you do have a reputation in theological circles; you’ve had some doings with the Guild of Episcopal Scholars.

AUDEN

Oh, that just had to do with some advice they wanted on the revision of the Psalms. Actually, I’m passionately anti-liturgical reform, and would have The Book of Common Prayer kept in Latin. Rite is the link between the dead and the unborn and needs a timeless language, which in practice means a dead language. I’m curious to know what problems they are having in Israel, where they speak what was long an unspoken language.

INTERVIEWER

Do you speak Hebrew?

AUDEN

No, I wish I knew it. Obviously it’s a marvelous language. Something else I wish we had in my church is the Seder. I’ve been to one or two and was enormously impressed. We don’t have anything like that. The Last Supper is a communal thing, but not a family thing.

INTERVIEWER

What about the rites of marriage?

AUDEN

Well, I’m perfectly congenial to the idea of weddings, but what I think ruins so many marriages, though, is this romantic idea of falling in love. It happens, of course, I suppose to some people who are possessed of unusually fertile imaginations. Undoubtedly it is a mystical experience which occurs. But with most people who think they are in love I think the situation can be described far more simply, and, I’m afraid, brutally. The trouble with all this love business is one or the other partner ends up feeling bad or guilty because they don’t have it the way they’ve read it. I’m afraid things went off a lot more happily when marriages were arranged by parents. I do think it is absolutely essential that both partners share a sense of humor and an outlook on life. And, with Goethe, I think marriages should be celebrated more quietly and humbly, because they are the beginning of something. Loud celebrations should be saved for successful conclusions.

INTERVIEWER

What is that big book over there?

AUDEN

It’s Goethe’s autobiography. It’s amazing. If I were asked to do an autobiography of my first twenty-six years, I don’t think I could fill up sixty pages. And here Goethe fills up eight hundred! Personally I’m interested in history, but not in the past. I’m interested in the present and in the next twenty-four hours.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the name of your cat?

AUDEN

I haven’t got any now.

INTERVIEWER

What about Mosé?

AUDEN

Mosé was a dog.

INTERVIEWER

Who was Rolfi Strobl?

AUDEN

Our housekeeper’s dog, an Alsatian. There must have been a bitch in the neighborhood because the poor thing ran out on the autobahn one day and was run over. We had a very funny experience with Mosé one time. We had gone to Venice for the opening of The Rake’s Progress, which was being broadcast over the radio. Mosé was staying with some friends at the time, who were listening in. The minute my voice came over the airwaves, Mosé’s ears perked up, and he ran over to the speaker—just like His Master’s Voice!

INTERVIEWER

What happened to your cats?

AUDEN

They had to be put away because our housekeeper died. They, too, were named from opera, Rudimace and Leonora. Cats can be very funny, too, and have the oddest ways of showing they’re glad to see you. Rudimace always peed in our shoes.

INTERVIEWER

And then there’s your new poem, “Talking to Mice.” Have you any favorite mythological mice?

AUDEN

Mythological! What on earth could you be referring to? Are there any, aside from Mickey Mouse? You must mean fictional mice!

INTERVIEWER

I must.

AUDEN

Oh yes, there’re the mice of Beatrix Potter, of which I’m quite fond.

INTERVIEWER

How about Mickey?

AUDEN

He’s all right.

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe in the Devil?

AUDEN

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

In Austria you live on Audenstrasse. Do your neighbors know who you are?

AUDEN

My neighbors there know I’m a poet. The village I live in was the home of a famous Austrian poet, Josef Weinheber, so they’re used to having a poet around the place. He committed suicide in ’45.

INTERVIEWER

How about your neighbors here?

AUDEN

I don’t know. My stock went up last year, I know. There was a feature on me in the Daily News—which everyone here seems to read. After that they figured I must be somebody. It was very nice to get all that attention.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think writers receive more respect abroad than here?

AUDEN

I wouldn’t say so. I’ve told people I’m a medieval historian when asked what I do. It freezes conversation. If one tells them one’s a poet, one gets these odd looks which seem to say, “Well, what’s he living off?” In the old days a man was proud to have in his passport, Occupation: Gentleman. Lord Antrim’s passport simply said, Occupation: Peer—which I felt was correct. I’ve had a lucky life. I had a happy home, and my parents provided me with a good education. And my father was both a physician and a scholar, so I never got the idea that art and science were opposing cultures—both were entertained equally in my home. I cannot complain. I’ve never had to do anything I really disliked. Certainly I’ve had to do various jobs I would not have taken on if I’d had the money; but I’ve always considered myself a worker, not a laborer. So many people have jobs they don’t like at all. I haven’t, and I’m grateful for that.

 

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton