On Re-Reading Auden

Auden-collectedFor a couple of summers in my early 20s, I worked for the United States Forest Service. In the summer of 1983, I worked on a trail crew in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness in southwestern Montana. At night, long after my fellow crew members were asleep, I would lie in my sleeping bag reading W.H. Auden’sSelected Poems by flashlight.

I still have the volume. It has browned with time and is as dog-eared as you would expect a volume to be that had been tied to a mule and hauled along the Continental Divide Trail.

Flipping through it now 27 years later (!), I read lines I underlined all those nights ago. Memories of the mountains and my youth mingle with Auden’s words.

Sometimes I will read a line I underlined or boldly starred and wonder, why did I think so much of that line? this other one is clearly the better?

That is the nature of art. Just as we can never step into the same river twice, we can never re-approach a work of art exactly the same. We are different each time we read a poem, stand in front of a painting, listen to a song. We are different because we have been changed by time, experience, and by the work of art itself, and all the other works of art we have encountered and been changed by.

I read Auden differently now because I have read Auden.

Of Books and Love

dyers-handThe best quote I know about the fickle nature of affection comes from W.B. Yeats. Quoting his father, who may very well have been quoting Balzac, Yeats wrote: “A man does not love a woman because he thinks her clever or because he admires her, but because he likes the way she has of scratching her head.”

We all have books we love for reasons that we could never explain to another, let alone to ourselves. There are books we love because of where we were when we read them. Others we esteem because of how we think they changed us.

The bridge that art creates between the world and ourselves is important enough to make time for, even during the busiest of days. A few pages from a book of poetry or a good novel or a few minutes with our iPods listening to a Coltrane session are as necessary to our spiritual life as prayer, another thing we too often neglect.

We know that humans are spiritual as well as physical beings. Those things that nourish us spiritually– religion, art, love and friendship– are easy to overlook, to push to the end of the to do list, to save for the weekend when time is not so valuable.

When we are young, I think we manage this balance a little better. Age and responsibilities, though, conspire against us. This is one of the reasons that the books and songs of our youth can still bring so much pleasure, can seem so much like a tonic at times.

In his prologue to Dyers Hand, W.H. Auden lists 6 characteristics of a critic. It is my hope that this blog, MontanaWriter, will grow to live up to Auden’s list.

1) Introduce me to authors or works of art of which I was hitherto unaware.
2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4) Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5) Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.