WEB EXTRA: Birthday Blues, or Stop all the clocks, it’s W.H. Auden’s birthday

W.H. Auden was known for his muffled speech. “If there are any of you at the back who do not hear me, there is no use raising your hands because I am also near-sighted,” he once told an audience.

Auden himself couldn’t appear at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s reading last Tuesday night, having died in 1973. Instead, the National Endowment of Arts assembled a group of scholars and poets to honor the poet’s 100th birthday. Chairman Dana Gioia stressed that the event was not a memorial but a party (the kind of party where people sit quietly while other people read verse).

Political columnist Christopher Hitchens might have been the best-known guest, but in the world of poetry William Logan is at least as controversial. As Gioia noted, while Auden was honored with an adjective (Audenesque) Logan is the only poet given the distinction of a verb (Loganizing) for his pugnacious reviews.

In a New York Review of Books critique of Mendelson’s Later Auden, Logan wrote, “Mendelson manages to do what I’d have thought impossible – he makes Auden dull.” But there was no sign of rancor between them at the event. There wasn’t much opportunity. None of the speakers bothered with an introduction, and none of them attempted interpretation or commentary. Each spoke a little about their personal affection for the poet, recounting Auden sightings like aging Beatles fans comparing concert notes. Then they recited poetry, sometimes from memory.

Edward Mendelson read two corporal poems: “In Praise of Limestone” and “The Willow Wren and the Stare.” Only the occasional facts he threw out during his reading suggested that he was the literary executor of Auden’s estate and his primary biographer.

Even Hitchens did his best to avoid pontificating, and he almost succeeded. His politics came out in his selection of poems: “Partition,” a poem about India that he introduced with the comment, “I fear that we may soon be needing a poet who can illustrate the tragedy of a faraway nation divided and amputated” and “The Ogre,” about Communist dictatorship.

Many of the selections were ones Auden had chosen to suppress. “If he had a moral issue with a particular line” he would keep a whole poem from publication, Gioia explained. He himself read “September 1, 1939” a suppressed poem that reappeared in the wake of September 11.

Not all the choices were obscure. “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” was read, appropriately, by Irish poet Eavan Boland. She admitted that she preferred Yeats, but spoke admiringly of the “prescient grace that this great English poet paid tribute to this great Irish one.” Logan read “Mus?e des Beaux Arts,” which he described as “the Auden you learn at your mother’s knee, if your mother knows Auden.”

Logan also chose from Auden’s less famous humorous poems, including “Nonsense Song” (“Her nose is like an Irish jig, / Her mouth is like a ‘bus”). “Fun seems to me the great underrated literary virtue,” Gioia said. “If we learn anything, it’s through delight.”

The last reader of the evening, Todd Scofield, did a dramatic performance out of “The Sea and the Mirror” Auden’s poetic commentary on the Tempest. It was a fitting selection, not only because Mendelson considers the poem Auden’s masterpiece, but because Scofield is appearing as Caliban in ‘The Tempest” at the Folger Theatre this May.

The event concluded with the playing of a tape recording of Auden himself (“smuggled” from the U.K. by Hitchens) reading “On the Circuit,” a poem about public lecturing. Mumbly, yes, and a little hard to follow. But if you looked at the audience, instead of the tape recorder on stage, for a second you could imagine that this was a birthday party, and not a memorial.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.