Comments on The Poet & the City

BY TUUR GHYS

I found The Poet & The City a very interesting essay. When I say we suffer from idea poverty in CAST I long for text like these that insert new ideas in every paragraph. I will start, however, with a skeptical remark before singling out some interesting points.
I think it is in our interest that we value Auden as an authority on poetry, not on other domains. Instead of hoping to learn about the historical, political and cultural from him, we should use our knowledge of that situation to understand him. Like Auden writes himself: “Poets are, by the nature of the interests and the nature of artistic fabrication, singularly ill-equipped to understand politics or economics”(p. 85).  Ironically the next issue he discusses is politics. Which brings me to the remark that the element of humor is introduced in this essay, a welcome element that makes reading more pleasant.

On p. 73 he builds an argument around the distinction between workers and laborers in relation to the goods they produce. I indentify this as a classic Marxist argument. We don’t know (yet) how big his knowledge of Marxism was, but this argument is a clear example of a Marxist principle written in Auden words – the point he makes here is not his original idea/point.  

In this essay Auden explores how the poet lost his status in society over time, and what the role of the poet is today. In my view this cumulates on pp. 78-80, where he describes the “four aspects of our present Weltanschauung which have made an artistic vocation more difficult than it used to be”(p. 78). I find this part very fascinating as it connects to one of my core interests in cultural studies: how the changes (and more specific losses), of certain social constructions, ideas and beliefs affect the survival of identities and figures in culture. In Auden’s case this is the figure of the poet. He succeeds in accurately pointing out which cultural changes affected the poets status – impressive.  

When he reflects on the low social utility of the poet today, Auden briefly reflects on the role of poets in propaganda and Russia. For those we read Dutch, I want to offer a reference to the book Ingenieurs van de ziel (Westerman, 2008). It mainly deals with the role of writers in Stalin’s Soviet Union, named after Stalin’s statement that poets are ‘the engineers of the soul’. Maybe Auden underrates the reality of the importance of the engineers because he is on the west side of the wall. On p. 88 (and earlier on p. 81) Auden notes that artists are mainly concerned with individual persons, and better not try to write on groups or statesmen. This contrasts with many artists from the ‘socialist camp’ in his time that did manage to make art on these topics – if it is good art is a different question. One name that comes to mind of a poet that can praise larger entities than the individual is Pablo Neruda.  I wonder if Auden is either ignorant of his work (this would be strange as they are both giants), or simply opposes it.

While less of a personal concern to me, as a group we are interested in Auden’s attitude towards science, a topic that also surfaces in this essay. At many points Auden blames science for the loss of certain beliefs or the disappearance of social constructions that marginalized the poet in modern times. From this essay one gets the impression that modern science made earning a living quite hard for poets. On the other hand Auden also recognizes (respects?) the position of scientists in society: “The true men of action in our time, those who transform the world, are not the politicians and statesmen, but the scientists” (p. 81). This recognition of science’s power combined with a certain hostility towards it is in line with what we have read by Auden so far.

As a last remark I would like to make the gable/guess that Auden had a troublesome/hate relationship with statistic. On p. 88 he rages against them, and I remind him making a similar point in the Poem The Shield of Achilles (1955).

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