Sunday Feb. 21, 2016

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Ode to the Medieval Poets

Chaucer, Langland, Douglas, Dunbar, with all your
brother Anons, how on earth did you ever manage,
        without anaesthetics or plumbing,
        in daily peril from witches, warlocks,

lepers, The Holy Office, foreign mercenaries
burning as they came, to write so cheerfully,
        with no grimaces of self-pathos?
        Long-winded you could be but not vulgar,

bawdy but not grubby, your raucous flytings
sheer high-spirited fun, whereas our makers,
        beset by every creature comfort,
        immune, they believe, to all superstitions,

even at their best are so often morose or
kinky, petrified by their gorgon egos.
        We all ask, but I doubt if anyone
        can really say why all age-groups should find our

Age quite so repulsive. Without its heartless
engines, though, you could not tenant my book-shelves,
        on hand to delect my ear and chuckle
        my sad flesh: I would gladly just now be

turning out verses to applaud a thundery
jovial June when the judas-tree is in blossom,
        but am forbidden by the knowledge
        that you would have wrought them so much better.

“Ode to the Medieval Poets” by W.H. Auden from Collected Poems. © The Modern Library, 2007. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The first issue of The New Yorker was published on this date in 1925. The magazine was founded by Harold Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, who was a reporter for the New York Times; Ross remained editor in chief until his death in 1951. The magazine was styled as a showcase for wit, gossip, and culture; its target readership was the New York sophisticate. As Ross said, “[I]t is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” The problem was that the magazine lacked a clear vision at first. In the second issue, editors published an apology for the first: “There didn’t seem to be much indication of purpose and we felt sort of naked in our apparent aimlessness.” Circulation had dropped to 12,000 by fall, but then it started to turn around; its recovery was helped along when Ross hired E.B. White as a staff writer in 1926, and brought James Thurber on board the following year. Gradually, the magazine stopped dropping names and began building a reputation as the home of outstanding contemporary poetry, short fiction, and essays.

Today is the birthday of American novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace (books by this author), born in Ithaca, New York (1962). At Amherst College, he majored in English and Philosophy and wrote two senior theses, one a novel called The Broom of the System, about a young female telephone operator who questions her own reality. The book was the culmination of his study of math, logic, and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. It was published when he was 24 to good reviews, and he decided to forego philosophy for writing. He told a friend, “Writing [Broom], I felt like I was using 97 percent of me, whereas philosophy was using 50 percent.”

Wallace’s books and essays tended to be long, maximalist works that examined self-reflection and identity in a culture that demanded artifice. His essays and stories appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, and Harper’s Magazine. He could write on a wide variety of topics, like tennis great Roger Federer, or lobsters, as in his collection of nonfiction Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2006).

The 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest (1996) made him a literary superstar. It features a former pop singer named Johnny Gentle as the American president. The title refers to an elusive film that terrorists are trying to steal. It’s rumored that to watch the film provides the watcher with such joy that the joy becomes fatal.

It’s the birthday of British poet, author, and playwright W.H. Auden (books by this author), born Wystan Hugh Auden in York, England (1907). Auden once said, “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” As a child, he read voraciously, especially Emily Dickinson and William Blake. By 13, he was writing his own poems, mostly imitations of 19th-century Romantic poets like William Wordsworth.

The son of a physician and nurse, he began at Oxford on a biology scholarship, but switched to English literature, where he befriended a group of young poets who would go on to change the landscape of 20th-century literature: Cecil Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice. After Oxford, he worked as a tutor, a lecturer, a freelance reviewer, and as a schoolmaster for a boys school before T.S. Eliot, then an editor at Faber and Faber, published Auden’s first collection, titled Poems, in 1930, which sold well and made his name as a poet.

He spent the next decade teaching, writing, and traveling. With Louis MacNeice, he co-wrote a travel book, Letters from Iceland (1937), and then went to Spain, intending to drive an ambulance for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Instead, he was put to work on the radio, broadcasting propaganda. Auden had strong opinions about why writers should not be political leaders. He said: “Writers seldom make good leaders. They’re self-employed, for one thing, and they have very little contact with their customers.” After he left Spain, Auden sailed with his lover, writer Christopher Isherwood, for America, where he stayed until 1972. He became a U.S. citizen in 1946. Isherwood and Auden parted ways when Auden met Chester Kallman. They considered themselves “married,” and though the romantic relationship lasted only two years, they continued to live together long after.

W.H. Auden was a prolific writer, publishing over 400 poems in his lifetime, and penning librettos and film scripts. He was a versatile poet, well versed in all styles, including limericks, doggerel, haiku, and villanelle. His books include The Shield of Achilles (1955), City Without Walls and Other Poems (1972), and The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (1948).

Auden’s writing habits were simple: he woke up, had strong coffee and toast for breakfast, smoked cigarettes while completing the New York Times crossword puzzle and reading the obituaries, and then got to work. He had a liking for tripe, tongue, brains, polish sausage, Smirnoff martinis, and cognac. He enjoyed the freedoms of American life, especially during the 1960s, when he experimented with drugs. He tried LSD once and said, “Nothing much happened, but I did get the distinct impression that some birds were trying to communicate with me.”

On this day in 1848, the most influential and best-selling political pamphlet of all time was first published: The Communist Manifesto, written by Marx (books by this author) and Engels (books by this author).

Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto as a call to action aimed at proletariat across Western Europe, and as an advertisement or plug for a specific type of socialism — the version Marx and his colleagues and the Communist League promoted. There were a lot of versions of socialism already circulating around Europe.

Most of the ideas that went into the Communist Manifesto were brainstormed over the course of a week and a half in a room above an English pub — a pub called the Red Lion, located in the Soho district of London. Karl Marx had the job of drafting the ideas into something publishable. He was supposed to get it done by New Year’s Day, but he missed his deadline. He finished it, along with help from Engels, by early February — and it was on this day in 1848 that the pamphlet was finally published.

It’s the birthday of Anaïs Nin (books by this author), born in Neuilly, France (1903), the daughter of a Spanish composer and Danish-Cuban classically trained singer. She studied psychoanalysis with Otto Rank, and was a patient of Carl Jung at one time. She wrote in literary obscurity for most of her life, until her diaries began to be published in 1966. She began writing them at age 11 and continued for more than 60 years, and they include accounts of her passionate love affair with Henry Miller in Paris.

It’s the birthday of writer Ha Jin (books by this author), born in Liaoning Province in China (1956). He was a bright student, chosen to attend a competitive school away from home. But after a couple of years, his family could no longer afford to send him there, and then the Cultural Revolution broke out. He said, “We had nothing to study in school, so we played on the streets or went into mountains to pick up peanuts and sweet potatoes left by the peasants in the fields.” He went into the army, and he practiced reading with propaganda material and Communist books.

He went on to graduate school in the United States, and then he stayed there, and started writing poetry, short stories, and novels. His many books include Under the Red Flag (1997), Waiting (1999), and most recently, A Map of Betrayal (2014).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®