Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

June 20, 2020

Conversations With Auden, by Howard Griffin

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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

June 8, 2020

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

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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!



September 3, 2019

The Complete Works of W.H. Auden, ‘Prose, Volume III: 1949-1955’

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Edited by Edward Mendelson, 779 pages

Published in 2008 by Faber & Faber


In March of this year, I spent a few glorious weeks savoring the final volume of Auden’s collected prose, VOLUME VI: 1969-1973, in whatever free time I had for reading. When I was a teenager, Auden’s poetry had excited me, alongside the work of Emily Dickinson and John Ashbery, though for some reason in the last 20 years I no longer read Auden’s verse. About 20 years ago, I acquired the volume COLLECTED LONGER POEMS, and I found it deadly. Oh, I’m sure the fault was entirely my own, but I could not make it through any of them—-on some level I was reminded of fusion-jazz, lots of technical expertise but nothing to say…except for when the pieces were didactic, and that was even worse. Auden’s prose, however, is still a joy for me. Whether essays, reviews, prefaces, commissioned statements, or whatever an esteemed author and intellectual is paid to write to pay his bills and to fund what he views as his “creative work,” the pieces both illuminate the subjects discussed and, perhaps more importantly, contain the kind of off-the-cuff philosophizing and summations of a life’s worth of life experience and intellectual passions that only a wise person can toss off effortlessly. It is a privilege to be in Auden’s presence, if only on the page and sixty-five to seventy years after these pieces in the present volume were written, from 1949-1955. Auden is the kind of public intellectual always needed in society. He reminds me that a fine essay is as satisfying as a piece of chamber music or a miniature from a master visual artist, and he surely dashed most of these off as quickly as Picasso could draw a woman’s back with a few expert and passionate strokes.

When Auden is discussing 20th Century Greek poetry, or T.S. Eliot’s essays, or American culture, or Poe, or Wilde, or Byron, or Cocteau, or the Protestant Reformation, in between the analysis and the detail about the subject at hand, one finds wonderful gems tossed like rubies by someone ordered to scatter their riches in the next five minutes…statements that on some level may make assertions, and that the reader may or may not accept, but that start one thinking, that raise questions, the way a fine Socratic teacher will begin the dialogue with an ice-breaker. I tend to slip in a bookmark and stop reading when I encounter one of these, and begin pondering, the way one would in the perfect college seminar, which probably does not exist in the real world, or exists only rarely.

Why don’t I share some of these random passages from Volume III (1949-1955) of the COLLECTED PROSE, and let you also take these passes given to you by quarterback Auden and run with them (all within about 50 pages of this massive book):

“…to find out what a person’s religion is one has only to discover what he becomes violent about.”

“The problem of every man and writer is at all times essentially the same, namely, first to be himself and then to learn to not be himself”

“Like nearly all self-analyses, this is at once too modest in regards the gifts and too proud as regards the character, for what lies in front of one’s nose depends on the direction in which one chooses to look”

“The nine or ten short novels…of Roland Firbank are, to me, an absolute test. A person who dislikes them, like someone who dislikes the music of Bellini or prefers his steak well-done, may, for all I know, possess some admirable quality, but I do not wish ever to see him again”

“No European finds it easy to believe that progress is likely”

“[Cocteau’s} attitude is always professional, that is, his first concern is for the nature of the medium and its hidden possibilities: his drawings are drawings, not uncolored paintings; his theatre is theatre, not reading matter in dialogue form; his films are films, not photographed stage effects”

“[Christian] apologetics by their nature can arrive at little more than negative conclusions, i.e. the most an apologist can hope to demonstrate is that his opponent’s conclusions do not answer certain questions which they both agree must be answered”

“Every artist, good or bad, is a member of a class of one”

“The artist does not want to be accepted by others, he wants to accept his experience of life which he cannot do until he has translated his welter of impressions into an order; the public approval he desires is not for himself but for his works, to re-assure him that the sense he believes he has made of experience is indeed sense and not a self-delusion”

“Every translator is an international agent of good-will”

“When one glances over a list of titles to religious books, one realizes how almost impossible it is for writers on such topics to avoid sounding like salesmen of quack medicines”

“[Poe’s] heroes cannot exist except operatically”

And as Auden himself wrote about a book of T. S. Eliot’s essays, which applies equally to his own prose, “the value of Mr. Eliot’s book is not the conclusions he reaches, most of which are debatable, but the questions he raises.”  I’d say only “some,” not “most” in Auden’s case, but the questions Auden raises make reading his collected prose akin to a session with a great Socratic teacher. It’s all about the journey, not the destination.

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