Speaking for myself, the questions which interest me most when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?” The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: “What kind of a guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil One? What does he conceal from the reader? What does he conceal even from himself?” –from W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand
Auden, in another essay says that the critic or reviewer aught to reveal something of his moral universe to the reader before he sets to work on a piece of art; let the reader know what his version of Eden might be–what the landscape would be for him, for example.
I find Auden’s inquiry above as to “what kind of guy inhabits this poem?” a useful question to ask of any person who represents to us the maker of the “made thing.”
In fact, I find it the most important question and the one most of us forget to ask; a corollary might be “what kind of guy interprets this poem?” If we are to ask about the moral universe of others, we had better come clean with ourselves in the first instance as well.
One might think to apply this test to all of one’s actions in life, especially those that affect more folks than oneself. But more importantly, to be critical of the world as it is made around us, not necessarily to our specifications, we must ask these questions in order to discover exactly in whose world we’re living, breathing, sleeping, acting. It is often not our own, often does not resemble, our vision in the least.
This is the faculty, though, that most of us clearly lack, and more often than not we cannot even understand that there are other visions of the world, and if we acknowledge there are we are still sure they are very wrong.
A favorite poem by Auden: “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”
He disappeared in the dead of winter: The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted, And snow disfigured the public statues; The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day. What instruments we have agree The day of his death was a dark cold day. Far from his illness The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests, The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays; By mourning tongues The death of the poet was kept from his poems. But for him it was his last afternoon as himself, An afternoon of nurses and rumours; The provinces of his body revolted, The squares of his mind were empty, Silence invaded the suburbs, The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers. Now he is scattered among a hundred cities And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections, To find his happiness in another kind of wood And be punished under a foreign code of conscience. The words of a dead man Are modified in the guts of the living. But in the importance and noise of to-morrow When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse, And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed, And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom, A few thousand will think of this day As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual. What instruments we have agree The day of his death was a dark cold day.
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all: The parish of rich women, physical decay, Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making where executives Would never want to tamper, flows on south From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, A way of happening, a mouth.
Earth, receive an honoured guest: William Yeats is laid to rest. Let the Irish vessel lie Emptied of its poetry. In the nightmare of the dark All the dogs of Europe bark, And the living nations wait, Each sequestered in its hate; Intellectual disgrace Stares from every human face, And the seas of pity lie Locked and frozen in each eye. Follow, poet, follow right To the bottom of the night, With your unconstraining voice Still persuade us to rejoice; With the farming of a verse Make a vineyard of the curse, Sing of human unsuccess In a rapture of distress; In the deserts of the heart Let the healing fountain start, In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise.