Alexander McCall Smith on why W H Auden still matters

W H Auden, who died 40 years ago this month, is one of the most humane, loving, direct and affecting poets of all time, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

 
That unmistakable voice: grey, shambling and covered in ash, Auden the man found it was the effect of his words that mattered.
Photo: Jerry Cooke/Corbis
 
He wrote a poem in praise of limestone. He wrote a poem about Sigmund Freud. He wrote poems about cats and opera, about the minute organisms that live on human skin. He wrote an achingly beautiful love poem, a lullaby that stands among the gentlest and most forgiving poetry of the 20th century. Years after his death, when the World Trade Center towers were brought to the ground, traumatised New Yorkers faxed each other copies of a poem he had written for an earlier and greater crisis, “September 1, 1939”. They took comfort in his words even if many of those who received them must have had no idea who he was.
 
My own discovery of W H Auden came in the early 1970s, when I was living in Belfast and working at Queen’s University. I picked up an edition of his collected shorter poems – many of which are, in fact, rather long. It was done on impulse, as many of our personal literary discoveries are, but I immediately felt that the voice I heard in the poems was speaking directly to me. That may sound like solipsism, but it is just what a great poet often does: he or she is there in the room with you, at your elbow, addressing you in particular. You can hear the voice. For me, some of the attraction of Auden was the hint of the political in the backdrop to his earlier work; to read him in the midst of the Northern Irish Troubles seemed somehow right.
 
A few months later, when I was back in Edinburgh, Auden arrived to give a public reading in George Square. I was in the second row and watched as the great poet shambled in, flanked by committee members of the Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse. He was a terrible mess: a shapeless grey suit, stained and covered, as far as I could work out, in cigarette ash, complemented by a pair of ancient carpet slippers and that face, famously lined with what he called its geological catastrophe. The same face has been described as looking like a wedding cake left out in the rain. But there he was, and he mounted the platform to read – or rather to recite, as he needed no notes. And at that moment there was an involuntary intake of breath from the audience. His flies were undone.
 
Not that it mattered. Auden’s words, particularly when we hear them delivered in that curious mid-Atlantic accent that he developed after he left England for the United States, have an electrifying beauty and, in the case of so much of his work, profundity. It is this combination of lyricism and intellectual depth that makes him, I think, the most engaging of 20th-century poets.
 
From that early encounter with his work, I developed an increasingly strong interest in his writing. I began to travel with a collection of his poems in my suitcase; lines of his verse came back to me at odd moments; I started, I suppose, to look at the world through what might be described as an Audenesque set of spectacles. I taught our daughter, then aged four, to recite his ballad “As I Walked Out One Evening”. She enjoyed it. We are all pushy parents in one way or another, and may as well admit it.
 
When I started to write novels set in Edinburgh, the characters in these books – unsurprisingly, perhaps – began to show an interest in Auden. In particular, Isabel Dalhousie, the central character in my Sunday Philosophy Club series, thought about Auden rather a lot – and quoted him, too. A couple of years after the first of these novels was published, I received a letter from his literary executor, Edward Mendelson, who is a professor of English at Columbia University in New York. Unlike those writers who appoint coevals to look after their work, with the result that their executors either predecease them or do not last much longer, Auden made the wise move of appointing a young man to watch over his literary legacy.
 
Mendelson was then a junior academic at Yale – and this gave him the opportunity to devote much of a long and distinguished career to producing commentary on Auden’s writing. It transpired that he was a reader of my Botswana novels and he wrote to me to tell me that, in his opinion, Auden and Mma Ramotswe would have agreed on practically every subject. However, what particularly pleased him, he said, was the attachment my other fictional characters had to the poet.
 
The letter led to a friendship. I then wrote Professor Mendelson into an Isabel Dalhousie novel, creating a scene in which he comes to Edinburgh to deliver a public lecture on the sense of neurotic guilt in Auden’s verse. A year later, we translated fiction into reality by bringing Mendelson to Edinburgh to deliver before a real audience the lecture that he had previously given to a group of fictional characters. Such is the interest in Auden that almost 400 people came to hear him speak.
 
That is not bad for a poet who died 40 years ago this month. What explains the continuing appeal of his work? The language he used probably goes some way towards it. Auden had an ear for the rhythmic possibilities of English – at one time or another he used virtually every metre available to a poet writing in English. It is the syllabic verse, though, that he consistently used for so many of his later poems that has the strongest and most consistent appeal. It appears effortless – rather like the steady flow of a clever lecture – but it is really very skilfully constructed and has an extraordinary capacity to resonate with the reader. Yes, we think. This is exactly how it is. This is true.
 
There is also an intense humanity about Auden’s poetry. He comes across as a man of great sympathy, kindness and understanding. He is forgiving; he knows that we are rather weak, frightened creatures, afraid of the dark, but we need not be frightened, he says, because we can create for ourselves the just city for which we yearn. In his earlier work, he believed that this could be done by political engagement. He travelled to wars, to Spain and to China, witnessing the unfolding tragedies of fascism and militaristic aggression. Later, though, he eschewed politics and became something of a Horatian poet, celebrating the importance of the local, the domestic, the personal domain of culture. In that sense, there are several different Audens and one can take one’s pick according to one’s mood and needs.
 
For me, his most affecting poems are those in which he is talking, in one way or another, about love, even if he may not use the word directly. “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” is about freedom and the ability to be ourselves, yet it is also about the corrosive and limiting effects of repression and hate. Even when he writes about water, as he does in the bucolic “Streams”, he ends up talking about how we all need something to cherish and love. That can be anything, he explains in another poem called “Heavy Date”. “When I was a child”, he writes in that poem, 
 
. . . I
Loved a pumping-engine,
Thought it every bit as
Beautiful as you. 
 
There may be a sexual joke here. It does not matter: the point is that we can love anybody and anything – what counts is that we open ourselves to love.
 
It may be that the love is not returned. Most of us have experienced unrequited love – a bitter pill to swallow. But Auden has advice there, too. If equal affection cannot be, he writes, let the more loving one be me. Like just about everything he wrote, that helps.
 
Alexander McCall Smith’s “What W H Auden Can Do For You” will be published by Princeton University Press on 22 September 

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump