‘So Huge a Phallic Triumph’: Why Apollo Had Little Appeal for Auden

Edward Mendelson in the New York Review of Books:

In 1969, W.H. Auden wrote a skeptical poem about the moon landing after he had declined a request to write a celebratory one.

As Apollo 11 was heading for the moon, the editors of The New York Times decided to celebrate the landing, scheduled for a few days later, by printing a poem about it on the front page. In an article twenty years later, A.M. Rosenthal, then the managing editor, recalled the editors’ thinking:

What the poet wrote would count most, but we also wanted to say to our readers, look, this paper does not know how to express how it feels this day and perhaps you don’t either, so here is a fellow, a poet, who will try for all us.

Rosenthal continued, “We called one poet who just did not think much of the moon or us.” Rosenthal didn’t name names, but it was widely known in literary New York that the uncooperative poet was Auden. Someone at the Times, possibly Rosenthal, had offered to commission him to write a poem about the meaning of the event, and Auden had replied that it would have no meaning at all.

More here.