Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

June 8, 2020

The Table Talk of W. H. Auden, by Alan Ansen (Ontario Review Press)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 8:13 pm
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by Alan Ansen

Edited by Nicholas Jenkins

Introduction by Richard Howard

Ontario Review Press, 1990

auden table talk

Although I have not read much of his verse in the last 20 years, when I was in my teens, W. H. Auden was one of the persons whose work motivated me to get into poetry. More recently, in the last few years, I have been working my way through some of the wonderful scholarly volumes of his Collected Prose, as I can find them at reasonable prices. While much of it was written to help pay the rent, it is a pleasure to read him on any subject, and you can easily hear the man “speaking” through the various reviews and prefaces and the like, as I doubt he would have put much time into editing a for-hire book review, particularly in his later years. He could do this in his sleep, true professional that he was. I’ve also been picking up various compilations of his (then-) uncollected prose….and savoring it. Thus, it was inevitable that I would eventually stumble across this witty and entertaining collection of Auden, often with a few drinks in him, opining on every subject under the sun, though most of them literary or at least about the arts (he’s quite the opera lover—-also, during the period contained in the book, he collaborated with Stravinsky on an opera!).

We have these spoken comments thanks to Auden’s friend and follower Alan Ansen (a name certainly known by serious students of William S. Burroughs), who would go home after an evening with Auden, or after walking Auden home from a reading or a class, and get down his memories of what Auden said, while it was still fresh. These comments come from the period 1946-1948. Ahhhh, if only someone had been there to do this for the rest of Auden’s life. Some of this quality leaks into his reviews written for money for magazines, but here, there is no responsibility needed as one would need for a literary review, no concern about being questioned to justify what he’s saying. He might well say the opposite thing tomorrow! There is also a delicious cattiness to many of his comments. It’s always a joy to be around someone who’s incredibly well-read in a number of areas, and fluent in a number of art forms, and let them pontificate, especially after a drink or two. It’s not like I’m getting much of that right now with the Coronavirus lockdown, so the 75-year old comments of Auden, with a drink in hand and essentially “performing” for a younger friend who was in awe of the older man and thus provided an excellent audience, are great entertainment. I only wish the book was 500 pages instead of 100 (100 plus explanatory notes, that is).

Here are some random lines I underlined in pencil while reading. You could probably come up with your own list, depending on your interests and sense of humor.


(About James T. Farrell) “Studs Lonigan should have been drowned at birth. It’s very unfortunate, but when a character has absolutely no free will it becomes very boring.”


“I’d very much like to know the real inside story of the Vatican: it must be the most exciting place in the world, where spirit and world come closest together. That’s where I’d like an official job most of all.”


“You know, I can’t stand the French.”


“I think the existentialists were absolutely phony.”


“There are two things I don’t like. To see women drinking hard liquor and to see them standing at bars without escorts. Women should drink port with lemon. Oh, after you’ve been riding or something like that, you can have something stronger.”


“The jukebox is really an invention straight out of hell.”


“I know a lot of people who think well of Coleridge. I’ve never been able to take his vocabulary.”


“I’ve often thought of doing a versified detective story.”


“I’m really terribly annoyed over this teacher rating business. It’s democracy in the wrong place. It assumes that everyone’s opinion is as good as everyone else’s, which is simply not true. The result is that the teacher is encouraged to clown–to be an entertainer. But the teacher should know when to be boring–something necessary for students sometimes. I remember one man at Oxford who infuriated the students by telling them to look up things whenever they asked a question. He was lazy, but it did them a lot of good.”


“I shouldn’t let anyone under 25 read Whitman, and Hart Crane is dangerous for the young.”


“Did you see The Importance of Being Earnest? It’s an extraordinarily good play. It’s about nothing at all, which is what makes it so good.”


“Most people don’t realize that Churchill is a comparatively decadent follower of Burke in his oratory. That’s why they think he’s better than he is.”


(on Yeats) “the more I read him, the less I like him….he was a horrible old man”


“Isocrates reminds me of John Dewey. He’s a mediocrity who’s usually right whereas Plato is a man of genius who’s always wrong.”


“I can’t understand why the Germans didn’t keep up the bombing of London. If they’d gone another month, England would have given in, Churchill or no Churchill.”


“I’m always amazed at the American practice of allowing a party in a homosexual act to remain passive–it’s so undemocratic!”


“The only way to spend New Year’s Eve is either quietly with friends or in a brothel.”


“Swinburne does what Shelley wants to do more successfully than Shelley.”


“I don’t think Browning was very good in bed. His wife probably didn’t care for him very much.”


Oh, it’s not all catty remarks. There are insightful comments on many literary subjects, about music and the visual arts, etc. How could there not be!

Still, the bitchy pearls in the book put a smile on my face dozens of times and often had me laughing out loud. Were I at the next table overhearing these comments, I would have had the waiter send a round of drinks to Auden and Ansen, whatever they happened to be drinking.

Now, I raise a shot-glass of Texas blue-corn whiskey to these gentlemen in the afterlife. No doubt Auden is ever the raconteur, even in another dimension!



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