Although it is probably unnecessary, I will tell you that Carolyn Steedman is Emeritus Professor of History at Warwick University, the author of Dust, An Everyday Life of the English Working Class, Master and Servant and Landscape for a Good Woman; and that her latest book was published a couple of weeks ago.
The new book is entitled Poetry for Historians or, W.H. Auden and History and it examines “a kind of love story” between historians and poets, history and poetry, historiography and poetics. It is also, perhaps even primarily, about Carolyn Steedman and Auden and their very particular relationship, “a kind of love story” in its own right.
At the (literal) centre of the book is a chapter headed “W.H. Auden and Me”. It is also the heart of the book. In it, she stresses the importance of her schooling in poetics, her ability to master the business of scansion and clause analysis at the expense of understanding the meaning; to concern oneself with the sound-system of the English language rather than its import.
Her dilemma – the imagined dilemma of her fifteen year old self - is that Auden himself, the great experimenter with form, did not agree, or at least said he didn’t. She quotes him as saying “Accents, long and short syllables, are really quite simple. You will always read a line of poetry right if you know its meaning” and asks “What would we have made of it … to be told that our pursuit should be meaning before the effect on us of sound and rhythm?”
I was taught English at about the same time as Professor Steedman. But unlike her, I was encouraged to write “on what exactly Auden meant” or perhaps that is what I elected to do and was allowed to do. Certainly, my considerations and speculations on his meanings pushed me towards a politics (but not a poetics) which remains with me to this day.
And when I read, for the first time in Poetry for Historians that Auden looks in a poem “for one thing only, lines of poetry”, I am driven again to that haunting couplet which I first read more than half a century ago:
“And history to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.”
Auden explains his requirement for lines of poetry. "By this I mean a line which speaks for itself, which, as it were, no longer needs its author’s help to exist."
Of course, the lines I love exist today not only without its author’s help, but with his positive disapproval. He first revised and then renounced the poem, calling it – as he did the entire decade in which it was written – “dishonest”.
But that doesn’t matter: it doesn’t need Auden to exist, to be authentic, to be true. To be honest.
And Auden did not and does not have to sit, as Carolyn points out, “in a small claustrophobic room … and listen to the Boy Marxists explain to him, in patient and exhaustive detail, exactly why his position was so very incorrect.”
As one of those Boy Marxists, then and now, I still admire, respect, and quote Auden’s poetry and poetics. Just as I will the history and historiography of Carolyn Steedman.
Today from the everysmith vaults: The first couple of weeks of May mean two things: from the vaults come the Grateful Dead’s East Coast shows from May 1977 and the song Isis by Bob Dylan (recorded 1975, released 1976) because "I married Isis on the fifth day of May".