Sunday 1 October 2017

Last Night I Saw W.H. Auden...

He was the subject of a BBC2 documentary, Stop All the Clocks: W.H. Auden in an Age of Anxiety, an attempt to – guess what – 'explore the contemporary relevance' of Auden's poetry. Ah well - that's the kind of pitch you'd have to make to get a programme on a dead white poet onto a mainstream BBC channel. And it wasn't at all bad.
 Predictably, there was a lot of dubious stuff linking Auden's September 1, 1939 ('I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-Second Street/ Uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire/ Of a low, dishonest decade...') with the terrorist atrocity of 9/11. Equally predictably, much was made of Funeral Blues and its famous appearance in that terrible film Four Weddings and a Funeral (where John Hannah managed to turn what always struck me a serio-comic five-finger exercise into a heartbroken expression of grief).
  Funeral Blues gave Auden's now posthumous fame a new lease of life – surely a good thing. But one of the interesting features of the documentary was its frequent reminders of just how famous the poet was, internationally, in his later life. He even appeared on Parkinson, for heaven's sake – smoking like a chimney and discoursing about poetry. Would any poet make it on to a popular chat show today? Hardly...
 And there was extraordinary footage of Auden and Chester Kalman at their quaint little cottage at Kirchstetten in Austria (where Auden was buried). We see the poet suavely, almost ingratiatingly,  giving interviews in German, and – more alarmingly – driving a VW Beetle, not a good idea for a man who lived on benzedrine and alcohol (indeed he had to give it up shortly after the footage was taken). At one point, Igor Stravinsky came on to declare that 'Auden has been in Austria too long now. After all, we can't afford to give our best poet to the Germans.'  Quite.
 The programme ended, fittingly, with another poem Auden wrote in 1939 - the great elegy In Memory of W.B. Yeats... 'In the deserts of the heart/ Let the healing fountain start,/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.'

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