Last night I sat in the Cooper Union Great Hall in reverential anticipation. I didn't know what came over me but I had not felt that taut hush since I left the church. On a big screen on stage was projected a photo of Auden in his twenties, looking up and away, right hand tugging right ear. Too young to be a memorial picture, he was the dashing lover, the ambitious poet, the tweed-jacketed saint. A fear salted the tension, the same fear whenever I heard the Singapore Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven, the fear that the playing would betray the music.
When Alice Quinn introduced Auden as the love poet par excellence, I should have realized that the evening would present Auden lite. Though the program included such heavyweights as “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” “September, 1939” and “The Shield of Achilles,” they were miniaturized in a misconceived chronological arrangement that began with the slight “Taller To-day,” written when Auden was 21, and ended with the popular “The More Loving One.” It’s Auden the lover, with little of the ambition of the artist, and nothing of the disquiet of the saint.
In such a program, Auden’s masterpiece, “Caliban to the Audience,” made a strange, though brave, selection for the evening. Time spent giving the context to the piece was almost as long as the reading of two short extracts. And how could the tidbits give a sense of Auden’s thinking and achievement in that devastating critique of the imagination? The audience had to go by the reader’s characterization of Caliban as “demonic” and his description of the Jacobean prose as “swirls and whirls, pools of energy” etc.
The readers are best described as half-hearted. They said nothing about Auden or the poems. They read from loose sheets of paper that looked like office photocopies. John Ashbery mumbled his way through the opening two poems, giving little sense of their musical structures. Wayne Koestenbaum read the poems agonizingly slowly, enunciating every syllable (“THE IN-TER-NA-TION-AL WRONG”), making Auden sound silly and trite by reading him so solemnly. Boy, did he relish the flourish in “We must love one another, or die.” Auden was rightly ashamed of that rhetoric later in his life and, if forced to read it, would read it with a squirm in the mouth, a tongue pressed firmly against the cheek.
Over-the-top Michael Cunningham stressed the words as he pleased instead of attending to the poems’ internal cues. The line “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” he read with unnecessary weight and pause when the lineation demands a breezy rendition. Rosanna Warren was too sing-songy. Carl Philips’ voice was quietly dignified but his reading was non-committal.
Nicholas Jenkins, the academic, was humorless. How could one read “Ireland has her madness and her weather still” without registering the wry irony in the line? But the same fault was committed by the other writer-readers. Francine Prose paused in half-surprise when the audience laughed at the funny bits in “Victor.”
The actress, Maria Tucci, saved part of the evening by reading with humor and balance. The best reader of the evening was undoubtedly Glyn Maxwell. Dressed in a casual shirt, unlike the other suits, he caught the studied colloquialism, the conversational subtlety, of the poems. If, as one music reviewer had it, the Frenchman knows best how to play the French, the evening proved that the Welshman reads the English best.
But Maxwell’s reading was attenuated by the arrangement of having more than one reader for the longer poems. He read “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” with Nicholas Jenkins, and “The Shield of Achilles” with Katha Pollitt and Michael Cunningham. This arrangement was not merely unnecessary but was destructive to any coherent interpretation of the poem. Four readers took turns to read “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” and in trying to mute their differences made the poem sound utterly prosaic.
After that poem, many in the audience left the hall though the second half of the program was still to come. Their departure was as indecorous as leaving a service immediately after the homily, though I found it hard to blame them in my heart.