The writers who affect us most deeply are usually the ones we discover early — often in adolescence. We read differently then, with more passionate curiosity, because we are caught in the process of discovering who we are and what we might become.
I first read W. H. Auden’s poetry at sixteen. My sophomore anthology contained a few of his poems. They struck me so powerfully that I tracked down a copy of his Collected Poetry at the local department store. There was no paperback edition available, so I had to buy the book in hardback — for $5.95 — a luxury I had never before allowed myself. As I first paged through the thick, handsome volume stopping at random among the many poems, I experienced almost immediately that clarifying moment of recognition that a reader has only a few times in life. Here was a book that summoned and spoke to all of me.
At this distance of time I cannot pretend to understand the full nature of my younger self’s response, but at least three things first drew me to Auden’s poetry — its music, its intelligence, and its great sense of fun. For me, poetry is primarily an auditory art, and no modern poet has a better ear than Auden. Great lyric poems cast a spell — a heightened state of attention and receptivity. The first time I read “Lay your sleeping head, my love” or “As I Walked Out One Evening,” I was genuinely enchanted. Back then, it had never occurred to me that I would grow up to be a poet. I intended to be a composer, and I was delighted and intrigued both by the strange beauty and the variety of Auden’s verbal music. My earliest interest in prosody came from trying to work out the rhythms of particular poems:
“O, where are you going?” said reader to rider,
“That valley is fatal when furnaces burn,
Yonder’s the midden whose odours will madden
That gap is the grave where the tall return.”
Intelligence has a dubious reputation in poetry — probably for a good reason since it so often gets in the way of intuition, feeling, and imagination. But in his best poems Auden’s extraordinary intelligence never detaches itself from his emotions. He analyzes what he feels — which are often contradictory impulses — with imaginative brilliance and penetrating candor. That honesty is sometimes astonishing. Another poet might well begin a love poem by saying, “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” but who else but Auden would follow with the second line, “Human on my faithless arm?” In that magnificent poem, as in so many of his best lyrics, the lines unfold as a passionate dance of intellect and emotion.
Finally, Auden’s poems were such fun — to read, to recite, to remember, to imitate, to emulate. Sometimes the fun was on the surface as in the witty social satire, “The Unknown Citizen,” which was probably the first poem of his that I read. But more often, Auden reminded me of Robert Frost’s maxim that, “All the fun is in how you say a thing.” Auden’s poems were a delight to wrap one’s tongue around. Even serious works like “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” or “September 1, 1939” seemed suffused with the physical pleasure essential to poetry.
My attachment to Auden was not only immediate and profound. It also proved enduring. There has never been a period of my life when I have not found reading his poetry or prose rewarding, although different works have attracted me at different times. Auden claimed famously that “Poetry makes nothing happen.” In the larger political sense he intended, he was probably right. But in terms of shaping the individual imagination, his poetry certainly changed my life — enlarging my sense of the world, language, and the human heart.