Starting ten years ago now, I worked for 18 months in the School of Architecture at UT. During that time, I dug out all kinds of interesting books from the UT library, some of which I was even able to read at my desk during lulls in the day. When I look back over the ledger where I write down the titles of books I read, I’m pleased to see what a varied diet I had in those days.
All of this comes to mind because I rediscovered a photocopy I made of the first two essays in W. H. Auden’s prose collection, The Dyer’s Hand. The pieces are titled “Reading” and “Writing,” and while they contain a few bits of nonsense along the way, they’re full of provocative observations about literature and the roles of poet and critic in the society.
Both essays are composed using freestanding paragraphs, many of them quite short, to express Auden’s judgments on many facets of reading and writing. Not all of these deserve quoting, but Auden’s acuity and the structure of the pieces mean that the essays are full of little gems.
As readers, most of us, to some degree, are like those urchins who pencil mustaches on the faces of girls in advertisements.
Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.
If good literary critics are rarer than good poets or novelists, one reason is the nature of human egoism. A poet or a novelist has to learn to be humble in the face of his subject matter which is life in general. But the subject matter of a critic, before which he has to learn to be humble, is made up of authors, that is to say, of human individuals, and this kind of humility is much more difficult to acquire. It is far easier to say — “Life is more important than anything I can say about it” — than to say — “Mr. A’s work is more important than anything I can say about it.”
The one thing I most emphatically do not ask of a critic is that he tell me what I *ought* to approve of or condemn. I have no objection to his telling me what works and authors he likes and dislikes; indeed, it is useful to know this for, from his expressed preferences about works which I have read, I learn how likely I am to agree or disagree with his verdicts on works which I have not. But let him not dare to lay down the law to me. The responsibility for what I choose to read is mine, and nobody else on earth can do it for me.
Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.
Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit, and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.
There is one evil that concerns literature which should never be passed over in silence but be continually publicly attacked, and that is corruption of the language, for writers cannot invent their own language and are dependent upon the language they inherit so that, if it be corrupt, they must be corrupted.
When some obvious booby tells me he has liked a poem of mine, I feel as if I had picked his pocket.
In the course of many centuries a few laborsaving devices have been introduced into the mental kitchen — alcohol, coffee, tobacco, Benzedrine, etc. — but these are very crude, constantly breaking down, and liable to injure the cook.
What makes it difficult for a poet not to tell lies is that, in poetry, all facts and all beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities.
The integrity of a writer is more threatened by appeals to his social conscience, his political or religious convictions, than by appeals to his cupidity. It is morally less confusing to be goosed by a traveling salesman than by a bishop.
Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.
The greatest writer cannot see through a brick wall but, unlike the rest of us, he does not build one.
Poetry is not magic. In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.
“The unacknowledged legislators of the world” describes the secret police, not the poets.
As for the nonsense mentioned above, I note this:
Literary gatherings, cocktail parties and the like, are a social nightmare because writers have no “shop” to talk. Lawyers and doctors can entertain each other with stories about interesting cases, about experiences, that is to say, related to their professional interests but yet impersonal and outside themselves. Writers have no impersonal professional interests. The literary equivalent of talking shop would be writers reciting their own work at each other, an unpopular procedure for which only very young writers have the nerve.
The last clause of this paragraph is true, but the rest is not merely inaccurate but ridiculous. I don’t know Auden’s biography well enough to say whether he personally was awkward in social settings, but as a group writers are notorious for talking shop. True, they don’t sit around unpacking all the details of their latest literary efforts; most writers view this as an ideal way to gum up their productive works. But put two writers together at a cocktail party and watch them go on about what things of theirs are coming to press, what they’re working on now, and what they just signed a contract to write; impossible or ideal editors and agents; the horror story or stroke of luck lately experienced by an absent writer; their own desire someday to finally write X; and so on. While they don’t usually lay out the chapter or stanza structure of their current efforts, you can barely shut them up about the profession of writing, and I have no idea what would have led Auden to think otherwise.
(Image via Wordcarving.)