It occurs to me that I didn’t ever write about W.H. Auden’s book of poetry, City Without Walls, named after the opening poem, which is brilliant but with a voice that sharply differs from the other poems published alongside it. I read the book quite a while ago, an have since returned it to the library, so this should be a relatively short post, reconstructed from some of the notes I wrote on it, notes which I, until moments ago, thought I’d left stuck in the book when returning it.
W.H. Auden, of course, is one of the most prominent 20th century poets, and needs little introduction. I’d enjoyed quite a few of his poems individual over the last few years, Musée des Beaux Arts was one of the first poems that I read that really resonated with me, for whatever reason. Auden was born in England but lived much of his life in America, and his mixture of national voices comes across reasonably well in his work, rarely overstating itself or crossing the line into hamfisted.
I’d say that about 60% of the poems were very good, with the remainder ranging from unremarkable to the edges of dullness. Auden’s verse (and my memory here is especially blurry) is excellent and meticulously constructed much of the time. But Auden falls short when he attempts to straddle the divide between his most traditional earlier work and the new modernist poetry that had gripped the US over the decade and a half before this book was published. The poems were written between 1965 and 1968 (Except for the Brecht translations, which were obviously written much earlier and translated in this period), and some seems to be a product of Auden’s struggle to keep pace with these changing modes of poetry, and many of his attempts are at times sonically ugly at worst, or at best seem like unfinished experiments not ready for publication.
But Auden generally has a keen ear for sound elements, but keeps it in check. The result is poems that are equally well suited for silent reading as well as vocal performance. Overall, reading this book poked some holes in my admiration of Auden, but also strengthened my opinion of him. No artist creates only masterpieces, and seeing a poet struggle and fail can sometimes improve your appreciation of the times when they get it just right.
(Disclaimer: What the hell do I know about poetry?)