On Wednesday, W.H. Auden’s 100th birthday, I went only slightly out of my way in order to drive down Auden Street, a north-south thoroughfare here in Houston. The neighborhood is known as University Place and is located slightly west of the Rice University campus.
I have visited two cities, Paris and San Francisco, that make a dedicated effort to publicly memorialize writers. During my first visit to the former, I stayed in a small hotel just off the Rue de Hector Berlioz – a composer, yes, but his memoirs are delightful. In Paris, the cemeteries are tourist attractions for book lovers. Here lie Baudelaire, Proust and Beckett. And San Francisco has streets named for Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, Frank Norris, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac, among others. I didn’t say good writers, though the city boasts a Joseph Conrad Memorial Triangle (a small park formed by the intersection of three streets).
Houston is an unlikely site for literary commemorations, but Auden Street is intersected by Browning Street, Arnold Street, Marlowe Street, Coleridge Street, Tennyson Street and Milton Street. Nearby are Byron Street, Ruskin Street, Wordsworth Street, Shakespeare Road, Dryden Road, Addison Road, Goldsmith Road, Watts Road and Sheridan Road. I’d be grateful to an enterprising reader who could tell me which developer or city father with a literary bent came up with the names and had the muscle to make them official.
Normally, naming anything after a well-known person, whether airport or bingo hall, seems dubious, smacking of a cult of personality, such as existed until recently in Turkmenistan. Before his death in December, the nation’s beefy-faced despot, President for Life Sapurmurat Niyzov, plastered his name and image across everything in the country. I was reminded of what Vladimir Nabokov said when an interviewer asked him to describe his “political creed”:
“It is classical to the point of triteness. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me. My desires are modest. Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size. No torture and no executions. No music, except coming through earphones, or played in theaters.”
What would he make of today’s omni-present music, most of it awful, not to mention pictures and chatter, equally awful? No, keep the names of politicians – the acknowledged legislators, so to speak – off the highways and convention centers. But a poet? A harmless, droning arranger of words whose verse “makes nothing happen?” I confess to an obscure tingle, a minor jolt of pleasure, when I see the name “Auden” or “Dryden” on a street sign, especially in a comfortable residential neighborhood of brick houses, manicured lawns and magnolias. In “Walks,” a poem from 1958, Auden wrote:
“A lane no traveler would use,
Where prints that do not fit my shoes
Have looked for me and, like enough,
Were made by someone whom I love.”