What poem is most often tattooed? You might guess that it is W.H. Auden's much-quoted "Poetry makes nothing happen". Aidan Wasley's informed and passionate book repeats this line every few pages, and then refutes it by showing how Auden made poems happen, made American poets, and personified a climate of artistic opinion.
When Auden sailed for New York in 1939, the Auden Circle in Oxford, the hydra-head of "Daylewisaudenmacneicespender" was partially decapitated. In this book, Wasley trumpets the American Auden, who "reigned as his adopted nation's chief arbiter of poetic fashion and form" and "presided over the American poetic landscape". We lost T.S. Eliot to England's "zero summer"; but we gained an (Alexander) Pope instead, along with a new Auden Circle: James Merrill, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich and, somehow, Allen Ginsberg. As critic, teacher, salon-keeper and Yale Younger Poets Prize judge (he picked Ashbery, Rich, Donald Hall, W.S. Merwin, James Wright and John Hollander), Auden led different American poets "on their own different paths".
But some inconvenient truths bedevil the single-cause climate thesis. First: are Auden's poems American? Wasley laments the dozens of American anthologies that exclude him. Second: an Age of Auden, like any "Age of..." thesis, inevitably rides on select evidence and hagiography. Richard Ellmann names the era for Ezra Pound; Helen Vendler lauds Wallace Stevens or, later, Robert Lowell. Third is the "anxiety of non-influence": Wasley must gymnastically argue that Auden influences poets who reject his poetics: Rich, William Carlos Williams, Ginsberg, Robert Creeley. Patrimony, a gift that keeps giving. Harold Bloom once told Ashbery: "you only think you were influenced by Auden. But it's Stevens."
Wasley's book vividly catalogues Auden's social connections, friendships and influence among East Coast, Ivy League-educated, formal, emerging poets. Ginsberg and Ashbery wrote college essays on Auden; the pre-Ted Hughes Sylvia Plath adored Auden's "burlap-textured voice". We're taken to parties and table talk, and to theatres where Auden explains a play's reference to the entire mezzanine: "Shelley, my dears!" Still, must we learn who drilled the peephole to the toilet? Who looked?
This lineage study is redolent of smoking-jacket, anecdote and club. Auden dislikes the Yale Younger Poets submissions; he asks Ashbery and Frank O'Hara for manuscripts (or Chester Kallman, Auden's lover, does); Ashbery's poems are selected. Nowadays, if a public university manages its competitions this way, it will be exposed and condemned (as in the case of the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series). Nearly everyone - poets, critics, even Wasley's back-cover blurbers - is from the universities of Harvard, Yale, Columbia or Princeton.
But since Auden's time, the fields of American creativity have grown less Ivy. The scriptwriters of the television programme 30 Rock proclaim themselves "four Harvard nerds, four performers turned writers, two regular nerds, and two dirtbags". Has Harvard produced an exceptional poet since, well, "The Age of Vendler" in the 1980s? And who does the Yale Younger Poet series influence?
Rather than consider this, The Age of Auden ends with close readings of dreary rhymed elegies for Auden, delivered by titled poets such as Joseph Brodsky: "The tree is dark, the tree is tall,/to gaze at it isn't fun". If it was Auden's Age, we should sense him elsewhere: in West Coast poetry, the Iowa Workshop, Black Arts poets, Agrarians, or even in the "local" Boston poets from Belfast, England, St Lucia and New Jersey.
Auden fell like Icarus into New York Harbor; but the "expensive delicate ship" of American poetry had "somewhere to get to". (Actually, it was several dinghies seeking academic harbours.) Was Auden modified, as he said of Yeats, "in the guts of the living"? The poem most often tattooed is e.e. cummings' "i carry your heart".
The Age of Auden: Postwar Poetry and the American Scene
By Aidan Wasley
Princeton University Press 280pp, £24.95
Published 26 January 2011