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at last the secret is out

By Stephen Burt

I go away for a weekend– to a big literary conference, moreover– and this place explodes with controversy. About the Chicago Review, statistical analysis, and feminism, right now the only sentiment I know I hold is that there should be more of all three. I do think Alicia is absolutely right when she says that arts foundations ought to give grants for child care, and when she says that new dads are expected both to delight in their babies and to march off to work, where they (we) get applauded for slightly reducing our hours, whereas new moms are expected to make a Big, Unfair Choice.
And now, the Modernist Studies Association, from whose annual conference in Long Beach I just got back: I stayed on a famous boat! Following in Ange’s footsteps, I shall blog the best of the poetry criticism I heard there– beginning with a startling revelation about the real subject of Auden’s most famous love poem.


The love poem is “Lay your sleeping head, my love” (later retitled “Lullaby”), and the startling revelation– as first broached in the TLS this year by Nicholas Jenkins– is not that this poem, and several of Auden’s other love poems from the 1930s, concerns Michael Yates, who was seventeen at the time of the poem’s writing, a student at the Downs School, where Auden taught, and where Auden had fallen for him a few years before that, when Michael was under fifteen. The great poet and the schoolboy traveled together to Iceland; their attachment seems to have continued until 1938.
That’s a revelation– when Nick Jenkins set it forth, he certainly got the room’s attention– but it’s not startling, or not to me: the next love of Auden’s life, Chester Kallman, was also quite a bit younger than the poet, and the extreme reticence around the subject of the 1930s love poems, when Auden’s critics have covered them, has long suggested something improper about them, above and beyond the well-known fact that Auden was gay.
No, the startling revelation– the one that bears on the way we read the poem– is that the structure and texture of Auden’s love poem to Michael Yates (written, as Nick said, when Auden was leaving for Spain, where he knew he might well be killed) draws consistently on W. B. Yeats’ (no relation) poem of fatherly love, protection and worry over his own infant son, that is, Yeats’ poem “A Prayer for My Son” (not to be confused with Yeats’ more famous slightly earlier poem to his daughter).
Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Son” begins: “Bid a strong ghost stand at the head/ That my Michael may sleep sound.” It, too, comprises four rhyming stanzas that open with curtailed trochaic tetrameters, and it, too, ends with a form of the verb “to pass” (“till the danger past” in Yeats, “Nights of insult let you pass” in Auden) followed by “human love.” “Lay your sleeping head,” in other words, is (among many other things) a poem with a key: when you learn the secret name of the young man about and to whom Auden wrote the poem, you can discover previously unavailable resonances and meanings in its structure and its sound. You can then look for other aspects that resonate through Auden’s poem: you can see more clearly, for example, how– as Nick explained beautifully– Auden make the unusual choice to construct his poem around a series of adjectives (“Mortal, guilty, but to me/ The entirely beautiful”), since a poem of adjectives implies, as Nick put it, “a noninvasive tenderness,” contemplating the beloved without acting on him or giving him an irrevocable and exoteric name.
Nick’s paper had many more such clues and gems (along with some ambivalence about revealing that name): I’m hoping to read these and more in his forthcoming book, the first major work of literary criticism– to the best of my scant knowledge– to be honored with its own film preview trailer.
I’ll be blogging more MSA papers– including cool work on Thomas Hardy, Robert Creeley, the photographer Berenice Abbott, and a Russophone neo-Futurist from Chuvashia– at this site throughout the week. I wish I could have heard even more of the papers (I couldn’t get there until Friday midday). If you attended the conference, or wanted to attend the conference, and want (or don’t want) to see something reported on this site, let me know.

Comments (3)

  • On November 6, 2007 at 1:26 pm Ange wrote:

    I love that poem, and I love Auden, but the knowledge that he codes “Prayer for My Son” into an erotic poem about a teenage boy is also creepy, no?
    And “creepiness” is not something I associate with Auden; however, there is an anecdote Joe LeSueur recounts in his memoir, wherein Chester Kallman creeps O’Hara out so much that he stops having anonymous sex. I’ll have to look it up now.

  • On November 6, 2007 at 2:51 pm Steve wrote:

    Yes, please do look it up!
    I have the feeling that there are more biographical revelations to come– but that few, if any, will be this disturbing on first encounter. And yes, it is also creepy. “Encodes” is the right word, though. It looks as if nobody who didn’t know to look for “Michael” and “Yeats” saw the link between the two poems.

  • On November 6, 2007 at 8:15 pm Ange wrote:

    Okay, here tis, pp. 39-40 of “Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara.” LeSueur describes Kallman’s lewd anecdote about picking up some hustler and bringing him back to the apartment he shared with Auden, who was sleeping in another room and woke up during the goings-on. Kallman’s graphic performance embarrassed everyone at the table, and in the cab home LeSueur remarked to O’Hara, “If you ever catch me talking the way Chester did tonight, get a gun and shoot me.” A year and a half later, when LeSueur noticed O’Hara’s changed behavior, Frank told him that “I thought about it a lot, about the way Chester talked, and I decided I didn’t want to be like that.” LeSueur concludes: “And to the end of his life, so far as I know, Frank never made out with a stranger again.”
    You have to read the whole episode to get the flavor of Kallman’s ickiness, though.
    No pun intended.


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, November 5th, 2007 by Stephen Burt.