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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David Keenan's new novel is a dizzying recall of adolescence

This Is Memorial Device vividly recalls the teen years of the post-punk generation. I'm just not sure I wanted to remember.

Imagine dropping down the ­metaphysical wormhole to the scene of your adolescent self, with all your mates; with all that immortal music, sex, drugs, madness and tempestuousness. For some of us it’s a place we would rather not revisit. For the post-punk generation, David Keenan’s debut novel sends us plunging into that era anyway – violently, viscerally, surreally – in this “Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986”. Keenan’s real-life west coast Scotland is the home of a fictional dissonant, radical group called Memorial Device, whose underground misadventures are transmitted through a constellation of eyewitness accounts and psychedelic reveries from the damaged, delirious misfits in and around a band that sounded, as the narrator Ross Raymond describes it, “like Airdrie, like a black fucking hole”.

Such were the post-punk provinces across the UK, vividly realised here, populated by John Peel apostles transcending dead-end reality in bedsits wallpapered with pages from the NME and Sounds, romantic young minds consumed by Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac and H P Lovecraft. These are murky everytowns where, as Ross writes, “music deformed my life rather than just changed it”.

Keenan – an author, journalist, jazz critic, obsessive scholar of psych-folk – has a febrile imagination and his fiction debut is a fantastical meander in intense, magical-realist prose. Much like in youth itself, you’ve no idea what’s happening, or where you’re going, each chapter a crunching gear change of new characters who fizz in, dazzle, disappear and reappear. The chapter headings are filled with unfathomable imagery:

 

22. Ships Rising Up and Passing Through the Water Full of Sunlight and Memory the Tricks That It Plays: Bruce Cook on Autonomic Dreaming with Lucas and Vanity and all the baggage that comes back to haunt you like ghostly ships at the bottom of the ocean in a graveyard beneath the sea breaking free and rising to the surface.

 

This is the breathless style that dominates the book. Full stops are sporadically abandoned for chaotic streams of consciousness (Paul Morley’s sentences are tweets in comparison), like being trapped inside the amphetamine-boggled brain of Spud in the celebrated job-interview scene from Trainspotting (a struggle at times, with none of the daft jokes). With each new voice comes more forensic musical analysis, lurid recollections – of a barbaric scalping, of wanking on acid, of porn, puke, piss – and densely packed rushes of salty information. Ross’s co-author Johnny McLaughlin recalls his sexual exploits as a 17-year-old: he was “a collector . . . a gourmet, a pussy-eater (a body-gorger) (a piss-drinker, a shit-lapper), a woman-lover, a tit-biter, an auto-asphyxiator (an ass-lover, a panty-smotherer), a heel-worshipper (a hose-hugger)”. There’s as much sex here, it turns out, as music.

There are inevitable echoes of those fellow countrymen of Keenan’s, the literary dark lords Irvine Welsh and John Niven, yet little hilarity. But, mercifully, there are also passages of surrealist beauty: through prison bars, a main character is hypnotised by the moon, bathed in its “strange silver glow that made it seem like it was on fire, like ice on fire”, feeling “like a crystal ­being cleansed”. The last chapter is stunning, a soaring, existentialist, cosmic crescendo.

Memorial Device’s lead singer, the charismatic, amnesia-blighted, journal-writing Lucas, has his writing described as “a walking frame or a wheelchair, a crutch, which when you think about it is what most writing is, something to support the figure of the writer, so that he doesn’t fall back in the primordial soup of everyone else, which is no one”. Ultimately, This Is Memorial Device uses post-punk merely as its skeleton frame. It is a meditation on memory and perspective, on the magical forces of language, on the absurdity of existence and the dreadful thoughts bubbling like toxic fluid below the fragile surface of every human brain. Despite its black-humour set pieces (and a comically colossal, micro-detailed appendix, the undertaking of a madman), it’s a serious, disturbing book, free-form literary jazz for agonised over-thinkers, perhaps like the minds of intense young men.

In these creatively risk-averse times, it’s heroically bizarre, if more admirable than lovable. By the end, you’re exhausted, and happy to file it away for ever, along with the young life you no longer wish to live.

Sylvia Patterson is the author of “I’m Not With the Band” (Sphere)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan is published by Faber & Faber (298pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times