Thursday, March 10, 2011

Auden’s Whitman, &c.

In a Window

Grousing without precinct, unprepared in the lurch. A stolid half-drizzle, with fog. “One writes in order to leave off reading” (Norma Cole). Though, impertinently, a day goes by without that kind of unsully’d impingement. Just implacable reveries and minimal onslaught. Girdings up, readjustments. Looking about at the commonplaces of today’s story’d renegades, the lazy collectors and purveyors of the info-detritus, page by page (call it “conceptual”). W. H. Auden, out of “Whitman and Arnold”:
What [Arnold] said of the Romantics, “They did not know enough,” was no less true of himself. But this lack of knowledge was not, as he imagined, lack of classical and scientific book-learning, it was social isolation from “the dirt.” “Everything comes out of the dirt, everything—everything comes from the people, the everyday people,” wrote Whitman, and he was right. But so was Arnold when he attacked Whitman’s lack of discrimination. Flowers grow out of dunghills, certainly, but the flower and the dunghill are not the same thing. Whitman was so busy accepting everything, that he forgot to notice that one thing differs from another. A doctor and a disease, a gangster and a gasman, are all brute facts that have to be accepted as facts, but they differ in significance, and it is the business of the generalising intellect to fit them into an intelligible order.
(Auden’s concluding—“The dirt is getting tired of being just dirt”—provokes a gabble against a lack. That preening necessary monster of selectivity. Putting the energies of the world into some kind of integral or derivative, a seizable tracery of relation. Auden allows how “Matthew Arnold may have been a prig” and reckons up a necessity—against Whitman’s all-reaching illimit’d “congratulations”—for “Arnold’s cold accusing voice.”) Obviously, though, Auden himself quells no boundlessness within. He, too, randoms with capaciousness, cataloging:
As the gay productive months slip by, in spite of fretful discouraged days, of awkward moments of misunderstanding or rather, seen retrospectively as happily cleared up and got over, verily because of them, you are definitely getting the hang of this, at first so novel and bewildering, relationship between magician and familiar, whose deity it is to sustain your infinite conceptual appetite with vivid concrete experiences. And, as the months turn into years, your wonder-working romance into an economical habit, the encountered case of good or evil in our wide world of property and boredom which leaves you confessedly and unsympathetically at a loss, the aberrant phrase in the whole human cycle of ecstasy and exhaustion with which you are imperfectly familiar, become increasingly rare. No perception however petite, no notion however subtle, escapes your attention or baffles your understanding; on entering any room you immediately distinguish the wasters who throw away their fruit half-eaten from the preservers who bottle all the summer; as the passengers file down the ship’s gangway you unerringly guess which suitcase contains indecent novels; a five-minute chat about the weather or the coming elections is all you require to diagnose any distemper, however self-assured, for by then your eye has already spotted the tremor of the lips in that infinitesimal moment while the lie was getting its balance, your ear already picked up the heart’s low whimper which the capering legs were determined to stifle, your nose detected on love’s breath the trace of ennui which foretells his early death, or the despair just starting to smoulder at the base of the scholar’s brain which years hence will suddenly blow it up with one appalling laugh: in every case you can prescribe the saving treatment called for, knowing at once when it may be gentle and remedial when all that is needed is soft music and a pretty girl, and when it must be drastic and surgical, when nothing will do any good but political disgrace or financial and erotic failure.
A wallop out of “Caliban to the Audience” (The Sea and the Mirror), a kind of model for Ashbery’s prose doings in Three Poems. (Too, Auden’s lines out of the Ashbery-laud’d—though Auden himself call’d it “a case of the fair notion fatally injured,” an example of “good ideas which [Auden’s own] incompetence or impatience prevented from coming to much”—The Orators, “A system organizes itself, if interaction is undisturbed. Organization owes nothing to the surveyor. It is in no sense pre-arranged. The surveyor provides just news,” seem to indemnify the radically including gush. Surely Ashbery’s frequently quoted (“The New Spirit”) lines, “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me to leave all out would be another, and truer, way. . .” sups off the Auden plate. Too, there’s Auden in “D. H. Lawrence” (out of The Dyer’s Hand), planking the E pluribus unum’d particular against the welter: “Whitman looks at life extensively rather than intensively. No detail is dwelt upon for long; it is snapshotted and added as one more item to the vast American catalogue. But Lawrence in his best poems is always concerned intensively with a single subject, a bat, a tortoise, a fig tree, which he broods on until he has exhausted its possibilities.”

Broods precipitously to exhausting. The distinct become indistinct under the exam. (Fog mash-up.) Auden’s brutal quip (The Orators): “It is a sure sign of a busybody if he talks of laissez-faire.” (Or, in the conceptualist’s “universe”: “busy body.”) Off, then, into the wordless welter, where choices matter. Auden (“Prospero to Ariel”):
But now all these heavy books are no use to me any more, for
      Where I go, words carry no weight: it is best,
Then, I surrender their fascinating counsel
      To the silent dissolution of the sea
Which misuses nothing because it values nothing;
      Whereas man overvalues everything
Yet, when he learns the price is pegged to his valuation,
      Complains bitterly that he is being ruined which, of course, he is,
So kings find it odd they should have a million subjects
      Yet share in the thoughts of none, and seducers
Are sincerely puzzled at being unable to love
      What they are able to possess . . .

W. H. Auden, c. 1938