Ian Sansom on Auden

Recently finished September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem, writer and teacher Ian Sansom (of the delightful Mobile Library mystery series) giving a quirky, personal and finally quite illuminating take on the famous Auden poem (perhaps infamous, as Auden himself more or less disowned it). Lots of bits for commonplacing, but I particularly liked this passage, riffing on how Auden is addressing the average man in the street:

“…Of course, things could be even worse for the ‘average.’ A recent paper published in the Journal of Positive Psychology analysing the appearance and frequency of words related to moral excellence and virtue in American books published between 1901 and 2000 found a decline in the use of general moral terms such as ‘virtue’ and ‘conscience’. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that we no longer have a shared moral framework, but it may mean that we’re beginning to lack the vocabulary to describe it.)

Our changing understanding of what it might mean to be ‘average’ perhaps indicates a crisis in how we think and talk about the social contract, about how we think and talk about each other–what makes us similar, what binds us together, and what constitutes a culture, a democracy and a commonweal.

And that crisis, I think, is already apparent in Auden’s use of ‘average’.

It is both the glory and the shame of poetry that its medium is not its private property, that a poet cannot invent his words and that words are products, not of nature, but of a human society which uses them for a thousand different purposes.'  (Auden, 'Writing')

(Now, I am perfectly aware that all this might sound like just so much hogwash and hooey, an example of what the late great Gilbert Adair liked to refer to as ‘the Tardis doctrine of criticism’, the ludicrous idea that ‘within a single detail, a detail as humble and as measurable as a telephone booth, there may be contained a whole world’, but I suppose I am a bit of a critical Whovian and I happen to think that ‘average’ is one of those telephone booth-type words, or a trapdoor, or a portal; I think it leads to all sorts of strange and dark places.)

Matters Musical

There is such a wealth of music online now, but I’ve been taking in Igor Levit’s daily house concert, a graduate course in Beethoven, and marvelous pianism despite less than ideal recording circumstances.

And among many collaborative bits I’ve heard online recently, this performance of the opening of the CPE Bach Magnificat from Salzburg is particular hoot. (As the friend who sent it suggested, PDQ Bach’s spirit was clearly involved as well).

A Voyage Around My Room

I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought, just now, of the small genre of stories of being cooped up. There are several I have encountered over the years, including “Voyage Around My Room” of Xavier de Maistre, written in 1790, while he was house arrest in Turin. Nice Guardian article here, and the opening of the book below. You can read the whole thing on various public domain sites.

What is more glorious than to open for one’s self a new career, — to appear suddenly before the learned world with a book of discoveries in one’s hand, like an unlooked for comet blazing in the  empyrean! No longer will I keep my book in obscurity. Behold it, gentlemen; read it! I have undertaken and performed a forty- two days’ journey round my room. The interesting observations I have made, and the constant pleasure I have experienced all along the road, made me wish to publish my travels; the certainty of being useful decided the matter. And when I think of the number of unhappy ones to whom I offer a never-failing resource for weary moments, and a balm for the ills they suffer, my heart is filled with inexpressible satisfaction. The pleasure to be found in travelling round one’s room is sheltered from the restless jealousy of men, and is independent of Fortune.

The opening of Voyage autour de ma chambre
A rather fancier room than I am traveling around. “Drawing Room of the Plas. Spa” by Julien Muère, and in the Met collection.

James Schuyler On Things Left Undone

A short poem from the least known of the “New York School” poets, James Schuyler. He’s the one I have connected with most recently; his personal, inward looking poems are like journal jottings (a trait Frank O’Hara had as well).

Salute by James Schuyler

Past is past, and if one
remembers what one
meant to do and never did, is
not to have thought to do
enough? Like that gather-
ing of one of each I
planned, to gather one
of each kind of clover,
daisy, paintbrush that
grew in that field
the cabin stood in and
study them one afternoon
before they wilted. Past
is past. I salute
that various field.

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