epershand: Photo of AE Housman (Housman)
epershand ([personal profile] epershand) wrote2011-04-03 03:37 pm

Not a Camera

It's National Poetry Month! I am a big fan of National Poetry Month, but I know not everyone who follows me is. So, here's a general idea of the way I post during the period:

I tend to post 1-3 times a week over the course of the month. I usually have some commentary outside a cut and keep the poem under the cut. I post out-of-copyright poems publicly and more recent poetry behind an access lock on the grounds that poets who are still working should be able to control the online searchability of their own work. If I have not granted you access and you're interested in reading more poetry, let me know and I'll add you. (Honestly, the primary use of my access filter is things like this.)

Last year I posted only poems that were themselves transformative works; I've got one major instance of that that I'm planning on posting this year, but for the most part I think I'm going to be sticking to poetry by queer poets that reflects on the queer experience, because that's the headspace that I'm in right now. Also because last week [personal profile] feverbeats posted a request for more queer poetry and I have a mountain of it to share.

I have a few dedicated tags related to the subject: poetry is the obvious one. Because of last year, the bulk of my transformative works tag is poetry-related. I also have a few tags for entries related to some of my favorite poets: Anne Carson, Catullus, John M. Ford, W.H. Auden. Apparently I have NO OVID TAG. This is upsetting, and possibly needs to be rectified this month. I also have no AE Housman tag, which I choose to believe is a sign of increased emotional maturity since moving to Dreamwidth, but which will almost certainly be changed this month if I'm really going to stick with the queer poets. (I promise though, there will be NO "Diffugere Nives", because I don't need it as an emotional crutch any more! *uses Housman icon to spite self*)

Ok, all that taken care of: a few nights ago I chanced upon an incredibly delightful Auden poem which is, you know, pretty good out of context, but is deliciously catty given the appropriate context. Especially given the attention given to the Isherwood/Auden relationship in the recent Christopher and His Kind biopic, now seems like the perfect time to pimp this historical relationship to you, o flist.

So first, I'm including a ton of context from assorted Isherwood autobiographies

Some general context on their relationship: Isherwood and Auden were at public school together in the '20s. When they graduated, Auden went on to Oxford, got a degree, and became a professor and eventually a famous poet. Isherwood went to Cambridge, decided everyone was a pretentious phony, got himself kicked out by turning in a short story about how everyone at Cambridge is a pretentious phony instead of his final exams, went to medical school, dropped out, and then wrote a few novels about the pretentious phoniness of everybody and eventually hit it big by writing autobiographies. His most famous autobiography is Berlin Stories, which went on to become the basis for both the stage play I Am a Camera and the musical Cabaret!.

Over the course of their lives, Auden and Isherwood worked together a lot. They wrote some plays together, they ultimately moved to America together (although Auden settled in New York and Isherwood in L.A.). It was Auden's invitation that brought Isherwood to Berlin in the first place to experience the events that would become Berlin Stories. Their relationship was never particularly romantic, but it was a sexual friendship that was monumentally important for both of them.

So, relevant Isherwood material. First:
I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

This is the first line in "Goodbye to Berlin", and the most famous line Isherwood ever wrote. As you might guess, it's the source of the title of I Am a Camera It's also a very apt description of the style of much of Isherwood's early autobiography work, as he attempted to tell the stories of the people around him without making himself a character; the narrator's detachment is one of the most frequent criticisms of Berlin Stories. He would later allow himself to be a character in his own work--one of the conceits of Christopher and His Kind is referring to Christopher-of-the-past in the third person, using "I" only for Christopher-of-the-present as the narrator. He says things like "I disagree with Christopher's assessment of this poem."

Isherwood and Auden had a rather sarcastic relationship publicly, and had a tendency to put each other down in print rather more strongly than they actually felt. See, for instance, this excerpt from Lions and Shadows, from when Christopher first learns that Wystan has been writing poetry. (Isherwood uses the very opaque pseudonym "Hugh Weston" for Wystan Hugh Auden in this particular book):
Just as he was going, we started to talk about writing. Weston told me that he wrote poetry nowadays: he was deliberately a little over-casual in making this announcement. I was very much surprised, even rather disconcerted. That a person like Weston (as I pictured him) should write poems upset my notions of the fitness of things. Deeper than all I.A. Richards' newly implanted theories lay the inveterate prejudices of the classical- against the modern-sider. People who understood machinery, I still secretly felt, were doomed illiterates: I had an instantaneous mental picture of some childish, touchingly crude verses, waveringly inscribed, with frequent blots and spelling mistakes, on a sheet of smudgy graph-paper. A bit patronizingly, I asked if I might see some of them. Weston was pleased, I thought. But he agreed ungraciously--"Right you are, if you really want to "--his bad manners returning at once with his shyness. We parted hastily and curtly, quite as though we might never bother to see each other again.

A big envelope arrived, a few mornings later, by post. The handwriting, certainy, was all I had expected, and worse. Indeed, there were whole lines which I have never been able to decipher, to this day. But the surprise which awaited me was in the poems themselves: they were neither startlingly good nor startlingly bad; they were something much odder--efficient, imitative and extremely competent. Competence was the last quality I had been prepared for in Weston's work: he had struck me as being a fundamentally slap-dash person.


Isherwood is a bit more frank in his assessment of their relationship in Christopher and His Kind, as in this scene in 1937 when Auden is heading off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. (As I mentioned earlier, he refers to himself-the-subject in the third person in this book)

Christopher wasn't seriously afraid that Wystan would be killed in battle. The government would probably insist on his making propaganda for them, rather than fighting. Still, Byron and Brooke had died by disease, not weapons, and a war zone is always full of potential accidents. This was a solemn parting, despite all their jokes. It made them realize how absolutely each relied on the other's continuing to exist.

Their friendship was rooted in schoolboy memories and the mood of its sexuality was adolescent. They had been going to bed together, unromantically but with much pleasure, for the past ten years, whenever the opportunity offered itself, as it did now. They couldn't think of themselves as lovers, yet sex had given friendship an extra dimension. They were conscious of this and it embarrassed them slightly--that is to say, the sophisticated adult friends were embarrassed by the schoolboy sex partners. This may be the reason why they made fun, in private and in print, of each other's physical appearance: Wystan's "stumpy immature fingers" and "small pale yellow eyes screwed painfully together"; Christopher's "squat" body and "enormous" nose and head. The adults were trying to dismiss the schoolboys' sexmaking as unimportant. It was of profound importance. It made the relationship unique for both of them.


In summary: Isherwood is a famous autobiographer, rather conceited about his ability to become a camera on the world around him. Which is why I find so much delight in the following Auden poem:


I Am Not A Camera


Photographable life is always either trivial or already sterilised.
- Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

To call our sight Vision
implies that, to us,
all objects are subjects.

* * *

What we have not named
or beheld as a symbol
escapes our notice.

* * *

We never look at two people
or one person
in the same way.

* * *

It is very rude to take close-ups and, except
when enraged, we don't:
lovers, approaching to kiss,
instinctively shut their eyes before their faces
can be reduced to
anatomical data.

* * *

Instructive it may be to peer through lenses:
each time we do, though, we should apologise
to the remote or the small for intruding
upon their quiddities.

* * *

The camera records
visual facts: i.e.,
all may be fictions.

* * *

Flash-backs falsify the Past:
they forget
the remembering Present.

* * *

On the screen we can only
witness human behavior:
Choice is for camera-crews.

* * *

The camera may
do justice to laughter, but must
degrade sorrow.
starlady: A typewriter.  (tool of the trade)

[personal profile] starlady 2011-04-03 11:39 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, ouch, that last stanza. Thanks for posting this.

[personal profile] vito_excalibur 2011-04-04 03:08 am (UTC)(link)
Oh my god, I did not know any of this! Thanks for sharing!

Also yes I want to be on your poetry filter.

Also I love Housman and am NOT ASHAMED.

[personal profile] vito_excalibur 2011-04-05 02:25 am (UTC)(link)
You are sooooo nerdy. I love it. :D
tei: Woman in red dress in the snow. (Default)

[personal profile] tei 2011-04-04 03:37 am (UTC)(link)
Ooh, this is far better with the context. And I did watch Chistopher and His Kind a few days ago, so I am glad to be introduced to some Auden! I am looking forward to your poetry posts :D
wordweaverlynn: (Byron)

[personal profile] wordweaverlynn 2011-04-04 06:13 am (UTC)(link)
MUST see Christopher and His Kind. Auden (as both poet and essayist) is one of my lifetime favorites -- I found THE DYER'S HAND and 12 and never looked back.
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)

here via starlady

[personal profile] lnhammer 2011-04-08 10:10 pm (UTC)(link)
Auden fanboy here, and ashamed to admit I'd not met this one before, or if I had I forgot it. MUCH improved by knowing the context. Thanks!

---L.
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)

Also

[personal profile] lnhammer 2011-04-08 10:12 pm (UTC)(link)
How does the portrayal of Auden of Christopher and His Kind compare to the not!Auden in A Question of Proof by Nicholas "C. Day Lewis by any other name" Blake?

---L.
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)

Re: Also

[personal profile] lnhammer 2011-04-11 02:55 am (UTC)(link)
I should track down the Bennett as well, then.

---L.
serriadh: (Default)

[personal profile] serriadh 2011-04-09 09:32 pm (UTC)(link)
I was linked here, and wonder if I might be on your poetry filter please? I found this very interesting - I love Auden but know v. little biographical info about him.