Commentary Magazine

Interviewing Auden

To the Editor:

How distressing it was to read in Jonathan Wilson’s review of Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Fourth Series [Books in Review, February] that Auden was “made to suffer the silliest interview.” Suffered, indeed. Those who have read the post-30′s Auden must realize that his was an essentially comic genius—poetry buffa, not so damn seria—and none who knew him well would deny that, at his most personally engaging, he could, would, be as silly as any goose, or any opera.

There is of course among literati an endemic gravity which is projected upon eminence as if by a penlight on a Cinerama screen: that faint spotlight you see, they will tell you, is all that needs be known.

That spotlight, of course, would be the interview format, with the interviewee’s imagination constituting the screen; what is required of the interviewer, therefore, is light—a quantum of levity, gravity’s opposite and rainbow. A person’s style of humor is embodied in the spectrum of his associations and their arrangement in context. That Auden would speak of Mickey Mouse and the Devil in the same breath tells us more about this poet (and the poet Disney) than any number of pious projections.

Michael Newman
The Paris Review
New York City



Jonathan Wilson writes:

Michael Newman’s metaphors are as confused as his ideas. Had I written “Auden enjoyed the silliest interview,” he would no doubt have been satisfied. However, it was not Auden’s silliness that was in question, and I am surprised to find that Mr. Newman, who neglects to mention that it was he himself who conducted the interview with Auden, should do his former teacher the disservice of suggesting that (if I read his metaphor correctly) he merely asked silly questions in order to pander to Auden’s tastes.

With regard to “comic genius,” it is hard to accept that such questions as “What is that big book over there?” and “What’s the name of your cat?” were likely to provoke any particularly profound seriocomic responses from the poet. As for buffa, I suggest that Mr. Newman attempt to apply the term to such post-30′s poems as “The Shield of Achilles” and “In Praise of Limestone,” and then consider his loose application of Italian words to the work of a poet so deeply rooted in the English language.

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