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