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Just a smack at Auden.

A Fortnightly Review.

September 1, 1939
by Ian Sansom

4th Estate 2019 | pp. 341 | £16.99 (hardback) £9.67 )(paper, 20 August 2020); $19.66 (hardcover) $17.99 (paper, 1 September 2020)


THIS FASCINATING BOOK is curious. It is all about a poem the book’s author, Ian Sansom, dislikes. He has that much in common with the poem’s author, W. H. Auden, who renamed the work a couple of times, then ditched it forever from his oeuvre. The poem is ‘September 1, 1939’. I was reminded while reading this book of Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, a happily demented account of how Dyer did not write a book about D. H. Lawrence. The not-writing-of-the-book consumes every page, as for a time it seemed to consume every hour of that author’s life. It shows with some eloquence how not writing a book can become a full-time activity.

Sansom’s book took twenty-five years to write. It comes in at just over three hundred pages, with some pretty generous spacing. So, it’s hardly The Anatomy of Melancholy. If there were a Stakhanovite measure for productivity of page production, Sansom would fail with maximum demerits. To be fair to him, he is aware of the ludicrous nature of the enterprise. Towards the end, there is a splendid anti-writer rant: ‘…most writers, in my experience, are so wrapped up in their own dawdlings that it’d take a smack in the face with a piece of two-by-four to get them to sit up and take notice of the world.’ Couldn’t agree more. We’re a bad lot. And Sansom should know, given the number of books bearing his name.

Critical comment.The poem and its suppression are famous because of one line, possibly its most memorable line: ‘We must love one another or die’. This was back in 1939, and war was brewing. Auden had skedaddled to the U.S.A. with his close friend Christopher Isherwood. There was a great deal of resentment about this. Some would never tolerate mention of Auden’s name again. He had ratted on dear old Blighty. Cleared off just in time. America stayed neutral for the first few years of the war. Later on, he did don a uniform, an American one. They called him a Major. His qualifications for this rank were presumably the writing of verse. He was kept well away from any front line. He had re-thought the line. It now read: ‘We must love one another and die.’

Auden’s verse engaged the contemporary world, did not shirk political action and was ready to get down and dirty with the kids.

The poem is also famous for its description of the 1930s as ‘a low dishonest decade’. This was striking, since for so many people Auden had represented the 1930s in one of its most striking aspects. His had been the poetry which had replaced the high modernism of Eliot and Pound. This was a verse which engaged the contemporary world, did not shirk the requirement for political action and was, in effect, ready to get down and dirty with the kids. There was something populist about Auden, MacNeice, Spender, Day Lewis. They were all public school boys who went to ancient universities. So they weren’t terribly down and dirty with the kids. And the grubbier kids weren’t known for reading verse anyway.

But these boys were on the right side in the class struggle. They were committing their talents to the Revolution. One way of reading September 1, 1939 is that this is the moment when Auden said it had all been a waste of time. There wouldn’t be a revolution; there’d be a war. And here he was boozing in a dive on 52nd Street, pondering. Orwell could have predicted it. He had shown his own commitment to his left-wing beliefs by taking a bullet in the throat in Spain. And he had pointed out that the rhetoric of Auden’s ‘Spain’ was grand, but did not always grapple with the realities involved. In a lethal comment, he said the line ‘the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’ could only have been written by someone who had never pulled the trigger. Auden never pulled the trigger. He soon suppressed ‘Spain’ as well.

SANSOM WANDERS IN and out of the poem, as he wanders in and out of the rest of Auden’s work, and his life. Auden, everyone agreed, was the supreme technician. Many times, the skill exceeded the matter to be versified. Or rather: the matter could very often be grand, but it seems as though the poet is glissading over it. The effect is so eloquent that one dozes. It can be like listening to an enormously intelligent and well-read man, with a bellyful of wine, holding forth at length. The loquacious uncle in the Senior Common Room. The final work gives the impression of a brilliant prosodist doodling with his life.

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What Sansom discovers in the stanzas of this poem is a fair bit of confusion. Auden didn’t know what would become of the world (who did?) and has become intolerant of his own previous facility in diagnosing the world’s ills. With his previous quirky combinations of Marx and Freud, he had been able to tell you how the buildings got so high or why the rabbit trembled. Nothing had been beyond his perceptual remit. Now he wavers. Accuses himself of glibness. Orders another drink. Martini, usually. If Auden was addicted to verse-making, he was equally addicted to alcohol, and various forms of chemical assistance that came in pills. The late Auden could be disreputable, turning up to readings pissed, burning a hole in Basil Bunting’s piano with his cigarette. ‘Well, it doesn’t affect the tone,’ he remarked, comfortingly. At the High Table in Christ Church he was asked to moderate the obscenity of some of his tales. ‘I know what is permissible in male company,’ he intoned. Here Sansom records this thought from the Table Talk: ‘The great question now is, what would give one pleasure? Ought one to write poetry, or fuck?’ A lot of poets have found it possible to do both, of course, if not necessarily simultaneously.

The whole book is a work of splendid exasperation…Almost every page surprises.

Sansom pulls in an enormous number of asides from his wide reading. It works well. The whole book is a work of splendid exasperation. Sansom is utterly exasperated with himself, and equally exasperated with Auden. Almost every page surprises. His wife, who pops in and out of these pages, must be relieved, for a brief while anyway, to live with someone who is not writing a book.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review.  He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and AgendaHis book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint. A second collection of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin is now available.

An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here. Ian Sansom is an occasional contributor to The Fortnightly.

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