What’s cool about Auden’s Book of Light Verse, which is both impossible to read and impossible to give up on, is its take on the poetry of the English Language encompassing more than just poems by all the dudes who we are supposed to think are great poets- it includes “oral tradition, broadsides and tombstones…ballads, limericks, nonsense verse, sea chanties, barrroom songs, nursery rhymes, epigrams, spirituals, and the songs sung by soldiers, laborers, criminals and tramps.”
But it’s Auden’s introduction that really gets me as it explains the way Auden perceives the poet’s historical negotiation between internal and external:
Behind the work of any creative artist there are three principal wishes: The wish to make something; the wish to perceive something, either in the external world of sense or the internal wold of feeling; and the wish to communicate these perceptions to others. Those who have no interest in or talent for making something, i.e. no skill in a particular artistic medium, do not become artists; they dine out, they gossip at street corners, they hold forth in cafes. Those who have no interest in communication do not become artists either; they become mystics or madmen.
… The more homogenous a society, the closer the artist is to the everyday life of his time, the easier it is for him to communicate what he perceives, but the harder for him to see honestly and truthfully, unbiased by the conventional responses of his time. The more unstable a society, and the more detached from it the artist, the clearer he can see, but the harder it is for him to convey it to others.
…For if it is true that the closer bound the artist is to his community the harder it is for him to see with a detached vision, it is also true that when he is too isolated, though he may see clearly enough what he does see, that dwindles in quantity and importance. He “knows more and more about less and less.” It is significant that so many of these poets either died young like Keats, or went mad like Holderlin, or ceased producing good work like Wordsworth, or gave up writing altogether like Rimbaud….”I must ask forgiveness for having fed myself on lies, and let us go…One must be absolutely modern.” For the private world is fascinating, but it is exhaustible.