Courtesy of Alan Jacobs, I found a wonderful essay by Edward Mendelson on a principled dispute between Bennett Cerf and W.H. Auden over Random House banishing Ezra Pound from a revised anthology, in the original of which several Pound poems appeared — that is, in modern parlance, defiantly “no-platforming” Pound.
The essay is multivalent with issues of today, starting with how grateful I am that we have no friends censorious enough to drop us over the name of our late, lamented cat Heidegger, whose namesake (in case you didn’t know) was a consequential philosopher before he was an inconsequential Nazi.
There’s no doubt that today’s progressive callout culture would side with Bennett Cerf’s initial position. My doubt comes in the area of whether they could be persuaded to reconsider, as Cerf did, or whether instead any attempted persuasion would risk getting the would-be persuader banished, too.
But the end of the essay evoked for me my own sentimental forgiveness of Auden’s unrepentant homosexuality (he tried and tried and tried chastity until he stopped trying — or so is my understanding; and yes, that reveals that there’s a callout culture temptation within me, too) based on my sense that his poetry reflected a powerfully Christian imagination despite his sexual irregularities. I think Auden himself would have rejected, and perhaps did reject, such sentiment:
Auden gave much thought to the question of writers “whose works / Are in better taste than their lives,” as he wrote with ironic understatement in his poem “At the Grave of Henry James.” When he wrote to Cerf that he got “very exasperated with the people who argue that Pound should be acquitted or let down gently because he is a poet, which is obviously nonsense,” he was refusing a subtler temptation that he, perhaps like every successful artist, knew from experience. “You hope, yes, / your books will excuse you, / save you from hell,” he wrote in a poem addressed to himself, part of his “Postscript” to a poem about poetry-writing, “The Cave of Making.”
In the same poem, he refused any fantasy that his work justified his faults—the same nonsense that he refused when others used it to justify Ezra Pound. Instead, he sensed, his faults had damaged his work: had he been a better person, he might have written better poems. In print and in private, he seems never to have condemned other writers’ work on the basis of their personal faults. He knew too little about them to judge. But his own self-knowledge led him to imagine a moment when his self and his work would both be subject to judgment:
God may reduce you
on Judgment Day
to tears of shame,
reciting by heart
the poems you would
have written, had
your life been good.
As for my own temptation to judge poetry according to the poet, Auden’s comment to Cerf hints at a cure: “The whole case only confirms my long-held belief that it would be far better if all books were published anonymously.”
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