Ten years later, “September 1, 1939” and “The Shield of Achilles” rank not only among my favorite political poems but among my favorite poems of any kind. In fact, what was Auden thinking when, a quarter century after writing “September 1, 1939,” he denounced it as “infected with an incurable dishonesty”? In the end I sided firmly with the Auden who’d composed the poem, not the Auden who disowned it.
The catalyst for my later essay was the 2016 presidential election, which—in my judgment then and now—installed a raving authoritarian in the White House.
My Auden piece was also sparked by Stephanie Burt’s post-election essay on Yeats for It is the American moderns…who might be called writers of liberalism, to whom I feel especially close—[Marianne] Moore, [Elizabeth] Bishop, Randall Jarrell, late James Merrill, early Gwendolyn Brooks, even Frank O’Hara (to name only the dead)—and who are the hardest for me to read right now.
I have the feeling that they, and I, got something deeply, sadly wrong.
I remembered, too, a forthright statement of political intention that I had once thought awkward.
After all, literary writers have a professional investment in remaining enigmatic.
On first encountering his poetry as a teenager, I enjoyed “As I Walked Out One Evening” and a couple of his other anthology pieces, but I didn’t “adopt” him in the avid way young readers do with favorite writers.
By my mid-twenties, I had come to admire Auden very much, but I still found his signature political poems excessively didactic.
To judge by his own account, he might gladly have become a “purple” prose writer or cloistered nature poet if the same terrible era that transformed Auden hadn’t upended his own artistic priorities.
I was moved in particular by the wistfulness of this passage: What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.