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Can You Disown Your Old, Crappy Poems? Sometimes, Says The Atlantic

By Harriet Staff

Any writer worth their salt has cringed while re-reading earlier work. Among them, says a recent post on The Atlantic, was W. H. Auden, who fiddled with an early poem for some time before finally determining it was worthless. Unfortunately for Auden, that poem was “September 1, 1939.” Despite his distaste for the poem, especially its most famous line, “We must love one another or die,” it is still one of his most famous and well-loved works. The Atlantic wonders if we should respect Auden’s wishes or ignore them:

Should we deprive the modern author of the chance to change something he no longer believes in, just because we happen to have fallen in love with the initial sentiment? As Mendelson puts it, he is presenting “the body of work by which Auden chose to be remembered…. The decision to print an author’s last revisions should need no defense.” Auden’s literary and ethical standards, he writes, have become stricter over time. Shouldn’t we give him the benefit of honoring his view?

But honoring the view doesn’t mean eliminating the past. It’s not an un-writing of history so much as its retelling. Because whether we must love one another or die, or love one another and die all the same, or do neither, the lines will always remain. We can’t bring back Joyce or Gogol’s burned manuscripts, and we certainly can’t undo all of the unwilling destruction of literature that has wiped out entire chunks of history, whether by war or disaster or the efforts of an all-too-productive secret police, but Auden’s words haven’t gone anywhere. They are there for the taking, in all their multiple versions.

For, here is the crucial difference. Auden didn’t pull a Nabokov or a Kafka, requesting that his originals be burned (of course, this isn’t a perfect comparison. Nabokov and Kafka’s works remained unfinished, while Auden’s was done—and yet, Auden argued that one never actually finishes a poem; one only ever puts it aside). We should remember that Auden’s instructions to Mendelson had an important caveat. “I once asked him what he wanted done with the poem, what I should do as his literary executor,” Mendelson recalled on the occasion of what would have been Auden’s 100th birthday. “And he thought for a moment and said, ‘I don’t want it reprinted during my lifetime.’” That “during my lifetime” is key. Auden didn’t want anything destroyed. He just didn’t want to see it, to have it haunt him, taunt him, even, in his advancing age.

Read the full article here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, August 30th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.