Returned to the Great Hall at Cooper Union last night for Auden’s Centennial celebration presented by the Poetry Society of America. The program presented his work in a chronological manner, starting with “Taller To-day” from 1928, hitting highlights such as “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” and “September 1, 1939″ and ending with “The More Loving One” from 1957 and three slides of him as a young man, middle aged man, and elder to delineate but three of his many personas. Alice Quinn opened, of course finding a way to work Elizabeth Bishop into her introduction (good quotes nonetheless). The rest of the program was for the most part good though a tad long, the lulls being two performances by opera singers and a handful of longer poems group-read. Let me start with the opera.
A Mezzo-Soprano sang Benjamin Britten’s settings of “Funeral Blues” and “Johnny” but she seemed to be more into her melodramatic performance than allowing the audience to really focus on the words. There was no marriage of music and words here, or even a song where it doesn’t matter what the words are but how the singer stylizes and sings. Clearly the words were more important than this woman’s voice and even more important than the music (as good poetry should be), and yet she did her best to obscure it all with some vibrato opera stylization. Very disappointing. The other meldodramatic performance was by the Baritone who sang a scene from “Elegy for Young Lovers” that was all about an arrogant poet complaining about his reviews and critics and competition. Perhaps in the context of the opera it would have made more sense, but it seemed to mar the evening as a failed humorous attempt to show this character as a stand-in for sentiments Auden perhaps had in his own career as a poet.
The cast of presenters was interesting: John Ashbery, Wayne Koestenbaum, Rosanna Warren, Francine Prose, Glyn Maxwell, Maria Tucci, Michael Cunningham, Saskia Hamilton, Nicholas Jenkins, Katha Pollitt, and Carl Phillips. The best readers (in terms of clarity, tone, pacing) were Rosanna Warren, Francine Prose, Maria Tucci, and Carl Phillips. And some of the “group reads” worked, such as the “duet” on “Victor” of Francine Prose and Glyn Maxwell. And some failed, such as the long four person “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” where clearly some voices were better than others…
My favorite moment was Carl Phillips reading “If I Could Tell You.” Something about his slight nerves (it was the first time he appeared in the program) and his voice that made the poem feel painfully intimate–as if I, or any of us in the audience, were the person the poem addressed, one lover confessing to another their inability to confess which also made it feel “overheard” and voyeuristic, calling into question whether the other, the you was even present to hear this utterance.
And two echoes: the first was the line “the ace of space reversed” from “Victor”–the Ace of Spades has been on my mind since I pulled it as my card at a Christmas party this past December. The second was Shakespeare’s The Tempest represented here by Auden’s “The Sea & the Mirror” where we learned from the Auden scholar Nicholas Jenkins (smart, but not a great reader) about Auden’s relationship to Caliban. I drew a triangle on my program to denote the three identities a writer inhabits: Prospero (wisdom), Ariel (play), and Caliban (disruption/subversion).
And one last tidbit: the actor, Sebastian Shaw, who plays the unmasked face of Darth Vader in Star Wars was a childhood friend of Auden who appeared with him on stage in childhood performances, in particular one where Auden played Caliban.
Oh, and here‘s an NPR story on Auden’s centennial.