Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

June 20, 2020

Conversations With Auden, by Howard Griffin

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 12:25 am
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Edited by Donald Allen

Grey Fox Press, San Francisco, 1981

conversations with auden

CONVERSATIONS WITH AUDEN is the perfect complement to the book TABLE TALK OF W.H. AUDEN, discussed here in a post dated 8 June 2020.

Both books were created by young poets and Auden admirers from remembered conversations with the poet, not from direct recordings (presumably after they got home that evening and from some kind of rudimentary shorthand that would not call attention to itself—-I did a similar thing after my conversation with John Cage in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1989), and both were based on conversations from the same general period, 1946-47, when Auden was doing a series of lectures on the complete plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare at the New School For Social Research, in NYC. Alan Ansen, who assembled the TABLE TALK book, also took detailed notes on those Shakespeare lectures, which were later assembled, with other people’s notes and memories, into a book (pictured below).

The TABLE TALK book and the CONVERSATIONS WITH AUDEN book are an excellent example of how to different people with different tastes and different agendas can take similar source materials and create very different end products. With the TABLE TALK book, we can imagine Auden after a drink or two, making bitchy comments and self-consciously outrageous pronouncements (you can imagine him savoring the response to these comments), the kind of things that produce a laugh and shaking one’s head, thinking “that Auden–what a character!”

Howard Griffin’s CONVERSATIONS WITH AUDEN is quite different (Griffin was Auden’s secretary in this period). It could be transcriptions of answers Auden provided in a Q&A after the Shakespeare lectures. While Auden has original takes on many literary areas and he’s not averse to pronouncements about life and then-contemporary society and sexuality, the tone of the conversations is quite professorial. At least half of the book deals with Shakespeare, and it’s refreshing to be around someone who knows chapter and verse of The Bard and can apply his work to any situation in any period, as well as have insights into Shakespeare’s working methods. I have known people in the past with those skills, but most have passed away and the one remaining is now retired and in a kind of diminished form, alas. Another quarter of the book is devoted to discussions of the Greeks, and Auden can apply that thought to seemingly any situation also

. CONVERSATIONS is Auden in his professorial mode, something he did quite well, as he often turned to academic gigs to pay the rent.

Interestingly, while Howard Griffin was able to place sections of these Conversations in literary magazines, he was not able to get the entire thing published as a book during either Auden’s lifetime or his own. Auden passed away in 1973, Griffin in 1975. This Grey Fox edition came out in 1981.

In section six of the book, devoted to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Auden states, “I have always found it remarkable that in poetry…there is so much about sex and very little about food, which is just as pleasurable and never lets you down.” A shame Auden did not live long enough to read any of my poems!


auden lectures on shakespeare

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