W.H. Auden and the Temple of Doom

Based on true events.

A few years ago, in my home town, I made the unfortunate decision to attend a local poetry reading. While I ordinarily would decline such invitations, a mutual friend was reading some of his works and my inviting friend was insistent. I capitulated, to my peril.

The affair had all of the odious trappings of modern day poetry readings: ‘poems’ amounting to little more than shouting into microphones, endless posturing and affectation, no sense of subtlety or nuance, and a moronic ‘MC’ who actually heckled his own supporters. It was all I could do to remain until the mutual friend read his work, but remain I did to hear him read.

I liked what I heard of him well enough, and congratulated him upon his reading, which was by far the best of the evening. We didn’t know each other well, but agreed to be in touch by email where I would send him a few pieces of mine. I emailed him and attached a few things, nothing which I’ve published, and an unfinished piece which I’m still working on. In a few days he responded that he thought that my works were song lyrics, and not poetry. I began to laugh upon reading this, but I was of course, also irked. Had he not known that I had long been a musician, I find it doubtful that he would have made such an assertion. I’d known enough of him to know he was a bit on the arrogant side, but this comment took the proverbial cake. Nevertheless, I entertained his lack of understanding and thought that I might in some way enlighten him, and also get to the bottom of his ignorance.

I asked him to elaborate, and further inquired if he was familiar with the works of W.H. Auden. The work I sent him had in particular been an attempt at the style of Auden, who is one of my most beloved writers. He replied that he just thought that my work ‘seemed’ like song lyrics (a most flimsy explanation….”Seems,” madam? Nay, it is; I know not “seems.”), and that he was unfamiliar with Auden. This was a truly sad, but not unexpected, discovery. Suffice it to say, I left him humbled in his ignorance. That a modern writer of poetry could be unfamiliar with the works of Auden, one of the great poets of the last century, is a regrettable but all too common thing in our times. How can someone with such a dearth of understanding proclaim to the world to be a poet, and meanwhile misinterpret rhymed couplets as mere song lyrics? And let me be the first to say that in many a song lyric I have found more poetry than at said poetry reading.

I think the lack of understanding of what has come before explains much of what bothers me about modern ‘poets’, and also modern ‘composers’, and ‘artists’. Namely, that they are out of touch with the roots of the arts they claim to employ and enrich. They do neither. How can one be a poet if one has not labored in the study of what has come before? And while I don’t proclaim knowledge of all poets, in all ages, and all forms, I’m not quick to dismiss something which I don’t fully understand. That would be the height of ignorance.

In music, if one has not studied Bach, how can one claim to be a composer? If one cannot draw figures and forms properly, how can one claim to be an artist? Time and again we are confronted with people who claim to be blazing some new way forward, yet who have little understanding of the past. Most are blazing nothing but our eyes, and ears with their mediocre offerings and making themselves look foolish in the process.

To learn by attempting the style of a master who has gone before is more and more a lost art. This is unfortunate. Too many are obsessed with being original and with setting themselves apart from the field. To set oneself apart is easy. To produce work of quality and lasting beauty is an altogether different matter.

 

 

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