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.)