The Whirr and Chime of W. H. Auden

In Slate, Stephen Metcalf, Meghan O’Rourke and Aidan Wasley discuss Auden at 100. Metcalf:

Meghan and Aidan,

Aidan—you sly devil. Would American poetry have been what it was without Auden, the transplanted Brit? The answer is: No, on two accounts. First, without Auden there could be no James Merrill, Auden’s most obvious heir as a great and lightsome technician, as a master of The Tradition, and as a semi-closeted gay man (and native-born American, son of old Charlie Merrill himself). But another of Auden’s legacies is less often discussed. From 1951 to 1959 Auden awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize, a critical career-maker given each year to an American poet under 40. His chosen recipients were: Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, Edgar Bogardus, Daniel Hoffman, John Ashbery, James Wright, John Hollander, and William Dickey. I can only say, having now re-read this list—holy shit.

Meghan, your reading of “The Fall of Rome” is lovely and deft. I would add: Isn’t it odd that this wasn’t the poem the liberal artsies seized upon after 9/11? I mean, “Outlaws fill the mountain caves”? Hello? “Fantastic grow the evening gowns”? The final stanza has always been a corker for me, in that way you indicate: It brings something very real and terrifying up only to half-consciousness, where it most retains its power to terrify. So what about those reindeer? “Altogether elsewhere, vast/ Herds of reindeer move across/ Miles and miles of golden moss,/ Silently and very fast.” Rome is rotting from within, but its powers of disruption are centrifugal, and so vast that even at a seemingly unconnected periphery, there is evidence of panic and flight. This is the poem we ought to be reading now as the Imperium of Overconsumption begins to unbalance every last ecosystem.

[September 1, 1939 still made more sense after 9/11, but it wasn’t a perfect description either.]