Nations of Nothing but Poetry: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Synthetic Vernacular Writing

By Matthew Hart | Go to book overview

1. Vernacular Discourse from
Major to Minor

There is one field in which the poet is a man of action, the field of language.

—W. H. Auden


A Strange Tongue

Reviewing a book by W. H. Auden in 1960, Philip Larkin described “trying to imagine a discussion of Auden between one man who had read nothing of his after 1940 and another who had read nothing before.” How would they reconcile, Larkin asks, these two Audens—the first “a tremendously exciting English social poet full of unliterary knockabout and unique lucidity of phrase,” the other “an engaging, bookish, American talent, too verbose to be memorable and too intellectual to be moving”?1 As these quotations suggest, there’s no question that Larkin prefers the poet of “Dover” (1937) to that of “On Installing an American Kitchen in Lower Austria” (1958). But what lies behind his judgment? In the opening section of this chapter, I want to explore how Larkin’s critique of Auden’s late style reveals some common—and commonly disabling—assumptions about the social meanings of “unliterary” discourse.

The division of Auden’s oeuvre into “English” and “American” halves is an old chestnut of criticism, reinforced by the standard editions of his verse.2 Familiar, too, is Larkin’s linked valorization of Auden’s socialism and Englishness, which feeds into the notion that the “English” Auden is also the “political” Auden—the

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