In the park with the kids Thursday morning, on the eighth day of the teachers’ strike, I read these familiar lines:
“You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,
you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon
making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,
wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.
How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.”
They are the opening lines of “Sext,” the third section of the seven-part “Horae Canonicae,” written by Auden between 1949 and 1954. The overall title refers to the canonical hours of the day when specific prayers are said, and Auden’s section titles refer to these offices: “Prime,” “Terce,” “Sext,” “Nones,” “Vespers,” “Compline,” and “Lauds.” One need not be a Christian or believer of any sort to find the poems beautiful and moving. In fact, I read the passage cited above in a distinctly secular and uncharitable context: I was doubting that many of the striking teachers possess Auden’s “eye-on-the-object look.” In the 17 years of my formal education, I met seven or eight with the gift of “forgetting themselves in a function,” all fondly remembered. Nor am I picking on teachers. The same may be said of plumbers and poets.
In the afternoon, Dave Lull passed along a link to a Times Literary Supplement review by Sean O’Brien of the third volume of prose published as part of The Complete Works of W.H. Auden. In it, O’Brien mentions “Horae Canonicae” and other poems from the same years. This was a pleasing coincidence but O’Brien, a fine English poet, has something disturbing to say, as suggested by the TLS headline: “How the serious, reasonable prose of a dead poet shames the living.” Hard words, but true:
“It is hard nowadays to name a single author who can demonstrate the same breadth of competence or wield the same authority as Auden in his time, or who can make serious matters look like the natural occupation of the intelligent general reader. Auden was of course sui generis, but the world has changed, and the subjects at the centre of his concerns, religion, history, philosophy, music and (most of all) poetry, have undergone developments of their own. More than that, in some probably unquantifiable way they no longer occupy the same securely central place in contemporary discourse. Many of those who in earlier generations would have felt some obligation to attend to such matters no longer feel it, and in any case no longer have the confidence to engage without the aid of a screen of simplification.
“The lack of confidence extends to the expert, too: before it does anything else,
seriousness is likely to have to apologize for itself and don the guise of Fun.”
I was hooked when O’Brien lamented our age’s absence of a writer “who can make serious matters look like the natural occupation of the intelligent general reader.” My kneejerk reaction was unqualified agreement until I remembered Geoffrey Hill and Les Murray (neither an American). But I’ll put aside such obvious nominations as impossibly utopian.
“The guise of Fun” is priceless. A plague of knowing whimsy infects American poetry and much of the rest of our literary world. Small minds with small gifts imitate pop culture and retreat into Chinese boxes of irony – a refusal to engage the world that becomes internalized as a species of cowardice. Readers, in turn, lower or abandon expectations. Here’s O’Brien:
“In a period when more than ever readers are apparently inclined to use the ability to `identify’ with fictional characters as more or less the only basis of literary judgement, such a disinterested approach as Auden’s seems unlikely to claim many votes, but time and again Auden’s responses to his reading are simply more interesting and more committed than those of his successors. He makes literature sound less like property and more like a challenge.”
O’Brien begins his review with a mention of Auden’s “The Poet and the City” (collected in The Dyer’s Hand) and I’ll finish this post with a sentence from the same essay:
“It is difficult for a modern artist to believe he can make an enduring object when he has no model of endurance to go by; he is more tempted than his predecessors to abandon the search for perfection as a waste of time and be content with sketches and improvisations.”
Auden – who died almost 35 years ago, on Sept. 29, 1973 -- is too kind.