The Age of Auden: Postwar Poetry and the American Scene

In June 1940, a question was asked in the House of Commons about W H Auden's departure for America the previous year. Would the 33-year-old poet be summoned back for wartime service? The minister who responded managed to get his famous young men confused, and replied that H W Austin, the tennis player, had promised to return if called. The poet, however, had not, and did not return.

What Auden was trying to escape when he crossed the Atlantic was his English fame. After a decade in which he had defined the avant-garde poetics and left-wing politics of a generation, he feared the compromises of official war culture. Entering middle age in the United States, he became a different poet - more conversational, more philosophical, more formally conservative and more openly homosexual.

It is also generally agreed that his poetry became less interesting. Philip Larkin, an ardent admirer in the 1930s, asked of the later work, "What's become of Wystan?" And the poet-critic Randall Jarrell was so merciless about the "comfiness" of the American Auden that his target concluded, in a characteristic paradox, that "Jarrell is in love with me".

Aidan Wasley's book aims to demonstrate Auden's importance to a generation of American poets who came of age in the 1940s. It doesn't lead the reader to a new appreciation of his later poetry, but it does make a case for its quietly American qualities. Wasley returns repeatedly (too often, ultimately) to the first poem that the Englishman wrote after moving to the US, "In Memory of W B Yeats", with its defiantly anti-political assertion that "poetry makes no­thing happen".

The Age of Auden explores the poem's counter-assertion that poetry is "a way of happening" - in this case, a way of life that Auden exemplified to his admirers from a New York apartment. The first chapter takes this phrase as its title, and its survey of the 1940s and 1950s American scene contains the book's most valuable literary history.

Wasley has tracked allusions to Auden - the young Sylvia Plath's "perfect poet" - across a wide range of occasional writing, including a little-known review by a 19-year-old Allen Ginsberg. The mostly reverential timbre of these comments, even from the would-be rebels of the Beat generation, seems remarkable when they are read en masse. But Wasley also shows how Auden's eminence was "useful" to those who wanted an establishment figure to attack ("his very skill seems to defeat him", as William Carlos Williams put it in 1948).

Auden was also a poet "for use" to the undergraduate John Ashbery, who wrote his Harvard senior honours thesis on Auden's poetry. Was­ley unearths the essay and shows convincingly how it foreshadows the "didactic" ambition of the American's dreamlike verse. He also astutely hears Auden in Ashbery's habitual adjustment of common phrases, as well as his use of the voice of the love poet. This chapter should be on everyone's Ashbery reading list.

It also risks making Ashbery a more boring poet than he is, however, by quoting passages that recall the later Auden's lecturing tone, rather than those that continue to reinvent the excitement and strangeness of the early work. This mismatch between the two halves of the canon is a problem that embarrasses the whole book. Among all the heartfelt, second-rate elegies for Auden the "kind man", none seems to say that the poetry continued to matter as it had done. As the Yeats elegy puts it, in America "he became his admirers" - but not in a good way.

Wasley's own thesis attempts to embrace the comfiness of the later Auden by arguing that he offered mid-century American poets an escape from the verse wars of modernism with a "humane, socialised, non-agonistic . . . construction of poetic influence in terms of friendship and social manners". It is a model that also allows the critic to construct literary influence in rather vague metaphorical terms, as in the unconvincing chapter on Adrienne Rich, to whom Auden is "a kind of poetic parent", but not obviously a lasting exemplar.

Although The Age of Auden begins with a "startlingly diverse range" of poets, it is too prepared to wish away the cultural strife that gives rise to great and different literature. Auden wrote in the 1960s that "a poem which was really like a political democracy . . . would be formless, windy, banal and utterly boring". To figure his career in the States as a happy ending to the problems that preoccupied T S Eliot and Ezra Pound as Americans in pre-war Europe is to miss the historical and aesthetic reasons why more restless poets such as Robert Creeley felt "Auden and co" were not the ones "to bring the guts back to the wasteland".

Similarly, Wasley's final analogy of Auden's poetic influence with sex ("a human relation governed by civility and certain social rules") is curiously bland. Jack Spicer once noted that it was Auden's "sexual adventures" around the universities of America which kept him from complete academic respectability. Yet The Age of Auden does not even mention the privately circulated erotic poem "The Platonic Blow", of 1948. A group of young New York poets later pirated it in the short-lived periodical Fuck You: a Magazine of the Arts - having recognised that it was, as they said, "magnificent". l

Jeremy Noel-Tod teaches at the University of East Anglia and runs the Lyre, a poetry blog

The Age of Auden: Postwar Poetry and the American Scene
Aidan Wasley
Princeton University Press, 280pp, £24.95

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis