Who Was Worst Famous Poet Of The 20th Century?
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Auden is the worst famous poet of the 20th century. He simply cannot write a decent line, let alone a decent poem. Some of his very worst poems are among those “classics” found in every anthology of Modern poetry. They’ll continue to clog those penitential first-year university texts until we find the courage to laugh out loud at stanzas like this:
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
This, comrades, is just plain lousy poetry. In O, so many ways. O, let us count the ways. The most obvious defects of this stanza are technical, as in, Auden couldn’t make a decent rhyme to save his life. He starts with a full-rhyme couplet, “guest/rest,” and clearly meant to use a straightforward, undemanding AABB rhyme-scheme throughout this poem, as shown by the rhymes in the next stanza: “dark/bark/wait/hate.” But he can’t find a rhyme for “lie,” a word hundreds of humble pop lyricists have had no trouble slotting into their songs. Instead, we get the incredibly clunky “lie/poetry” – not a “slant rhyme” or “half rhyme” but an outright non-rhyme in any dialect of English.
The stanza is full of such prosodic gaffes, like the fact that Auden has to rechristen the deceased “William Yates” to squeeze him into his deal coffin. The man was often called “Yeats” but when more formally addressed insisted on all three names, “William Butler Yeats”; knocking out the middle name is simply Auden’s home carpentry in verse at work. Indeed, the whole structure of this first stanza is maudlin, hackneyed bathos, a crude example of the most debased genre in poetry, the elegy for the illustrious dead.
For centuries, bad poets have pounced on the fresh corpses of famous people, eager to use the opportunity to jerk career-advancing tears from their readers by shedding meretricious, metrical tears of their own over the body (see my book, Poetic Occasion from Milton to Wordsworth ). By the 20th century, this tradition was so noisome that scrupulous poets, confident of their talents, made a point of eschewing such occasions.
Auden was perfectly positioned to claim Yeats’ corpse, thanks to two key advantages: his superb literary connections (he was one of the poetry world’s all-time leading schmoozers), and the fact that he had no taste. That meant that he didn’t mind gorging on carrion, didn’t recognize the sleaziness of the whole enterprise, and so he was all over Yeats’ corpse before it was cold. He had the “Irish guest” wallpapered with his ode, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” before the competition could get off a haiku. And his entry in the funeral games was exactly the sort that wins public acclaim: huge, clunky and soppy, full of topical references and a vast self-pity in which Yeats’ dead body becomes the occasion for a big group weep over the state of Europe.
The first part of the poem is free verse, held together by the pseudo-ballad chorus, “The day of his death was a dark cold day.” (Auden was always aping Yeats’ balladeering – see his “As I Walked Out One Evening” – but with no grasp of Yeats’ context, the Irish revolution, Auden’s yo-ho-ho-in’ always sounded like folk songs about sailors by Greenwich Villagers who showered twice a day.) Auden’s observation about weather conditions at the time of Yeats’ passing o’er was true enough; it was January in Ireland, for God’s sake. Ah, but this, for minds like Auden’s, was more than meteorology; this was metonymy. Indeed, for Auden’s purposes, it was “the metonymier, the better,” because he didn’t have, couldn’t have, much real interest or sympathy in the deceased, the wacky, prickly Anglo-Irish self-made legend, Yeats. Auden was above all a conventional mind, voicing the commonplaces of middlebrows everywhere; and Yeats, to his credit, was an autodidact nutcase, supergluing his own ideology out of Irish nationalism intentionally poisoned with MacPherson’s glamorized defeatism, abstracted via the German mystics. Auden understood nothing of all that, as he makes clear in what is virtually the poem’s only attempt to discuss Yeats, its ostensible subject: