I am 51 years old, have been a poet for 20 or so of those years, and up until about a month ago I had never read a single poem by W.H. Auden.
There. I said it.
The consensus of friends and concerned loved ones (who didn’t want to comment on Harriet, for fear of shaming me) is that I should never have admitted publicly that I was not familiar with the work of my poor deceased new boyfriend W.H. It’s as if owning up to my ignorance made me less of a poet, a less worldly and wordy wordsmith, someone to be whispered about and pitied. “He’s major!” hissed one colleague during a frantic and somewhat clandestine phone conversation (I think she suspected my horrifying levels of ignorance had led someone to bug my phone). “You’re on the Poetry Foundation site, for Chrissakes--even if you don’t know Auden, you should say you do!”
And just where would that get me?

It’s not that I’d never heard of Wystan. I knew he was a poet, that folks bandied his name about quite a bit, but I never pretended to know why. Obviously, he was of some importance. I suspect, also, that a good portion of the people who refer to him—of, for that matter, several other “vital” poets—incessantly have no idea why.
We all know a pretender, the snoot who fakes his way through the canon, deathly afraid of not catching a name as soon as it’s dropped. It’s high fun to call his buff, corner him, and watch him flail like a guppy in a windstorm.
These guys come in two entertaining varieties.
Type 1 pretends to be up-to-date on every poet writing in any language. He’s a virtual encyclopedia of poetic knowledge, whether or not that knowledge is rooted in reality. For instance, if I say “Jorie Graham’s collaboration with Justin Timberlake is really breaking new ground,” he’ll agree wholeheartedly, nodding his noggin like a dashboard hula dancer. Throwing caution to the wind, he may even comment on the non-existent coupling: “Justin’s couplets are mad tight…and Jorie’s internal rhymes are bringing sexy back.”
[An aside: I’m writing this from a Chinese/Japanese restaurant, where I’m having lunch between conducting high school workshops, and something unusual just happened. Have you ever bitten into your fortune cookie and accidentally eaten the fortune? I wonder if that bodes well for my future. Oh well, carry on.]
Type 2 wouldn’t know an actual poet if one fell on him and left a dent. Ask a question totally outta left field, such as “Ohmigod…have you seen Edwin Shimmy’s new book of prose poems?” And, terrified at the thought of being left out, not only will Type 2 admit to discovering, owning and being absolutely thrilled by every syllable in Edwin Shimmy’s tome, he will venture a comment on Ed’s bright and shining future in po biz. Usually, I don’t have the heart to tell him that Ed Shimmy is my friend’s Portuguese water dog, and that his poetry usually stinks. But I tell him anyway. It’s fun to watch his eyes twirl in his head. Sometimes a small fire erupts in his hair.
I hadn’t read Auden. And if it hadn’t been for the woods and the snowy evening, I wouldn’t know any Frost either. This may be a direct result of being an alumnus of the Chicago public schools, where pretty much everything was an elective. The snowy evening lasted exactly one day, and after that we were “done” with poetry for the year.
What constituted poetry in my little world? Motown, of course. And, oh yeah…remember the Kinks’ song, “All Day and All of the Night”? Here’s a snippet:
I’m not content to be with you in the daytime
Girl I want to be with you all of the time
The only time I feel alright is by your side
Girl I want to be with you all of the time
All day and all of the night
All day and all of the night
All day and all of the night

Take a minute. Sing it a couple of times.
Well, as a kid I hadn’t really heard the original version, but somehow we commandeered the tune and did it up fly-style:
At a quarter to one, we was havin’ some fun
in the bedroom. All day, and all of the night.
At a quarter to two, I was feelin’ on you
in the bedroom. All day, and all of the night.
At a quarter to three, you was feelin’ on me
in the bedroom. All day and all of the night.

These bawdy stanzas (yes, it went all the way up to a quarter to twelve—and no, you don’t wanna know) blazed through my hood until everyone was singing them, swinging new hips and snappin’ little fingers. So my first “masters” were the unnamed innovators who took the status quo and skewed it, making it sing a new signature. I wasn’t even mildly curious about the status quo. Kinks who?
Afterward, I spent most of my adult life without ever setting foot in a poetry classroom. (Some may say my poetry reflects this.) Instead, I got introduced to poetry by getting up and doing it, hitting slam stages where we made a habit of thumbing our noses at everything that came before us. We were rebels, dammit. Who needed history? Auden and those guys he hung out with? Dead in the water.
Stupid, yes. Short-sighted and egotistical, yes, yes. It takes away to realize that we’re balanced precariously on formidable shoulders. Now I’m hungry for all of it. W.H. Lorca. Hayden. Dickinson. Whitman. Eliot. Lowell. Frost (who was actually pretty cool once he got out of the woods). Hughes. Neruda. Yeats. I’m gobbling the past like a woman possessed. And I’m thrilled to make their acquaintances now, when I’m able to give their words real room in my life.
So now there’s a Type 3--someone in the midst of learning what she never knew, who irritates you with her relentless chatter because it’s all new, and just so damned good. There’s still a hell of a lot she doesn’t know. But because there’s time, and all patient teachers waiting to teach, not knowing it all--never knowing it all—iis a good, good thing.

Originally Published: April 4th, 2007

Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall...

  1. April 4, 2007
     Brian Hadd

    This reminds me of Jonathan Franzen saying he never read Don Quixote in the New Yorker a few years ago.
    I've never read Auden either.
    The Hood Company

  2. April 4, 2007
     Kristin Hahn

    I'm an English Professor who's never read Moby Dick, Dante's Inferno, or anything by Nabokov. I have sub sub lists of novels I've never read, and what about the ones I haven't heard of yet? It's a full-time job being a literary snob. I think I'd rather have a garden and watch bad Lifetime movies occassionally. (I've admitted more here than I originally planned.)

  3. April 4, 2007
     Brian Hadd

    Moby-Dick is good, I still try and figure out what the three fires on top of the masts might symbolize.
    I would tend to the Robert Rodriguez gorefest. If I need weepies I look at myself closer!
    The Hood Company

  4. April 4, 2007
     Lisa Hunter

    Not even any of the short ones? It's quicker to read an Auden poem than to have a discussion about how you hadn't read them. You could have read Musee de Beaux Arts, for instance, in less time than it took to post this blog.
    There must be a more compelling reason why you skipped over him. I skipped Hemingway for years because of a sense that he was anti-women (true enough, as it turned out, but what prose!)

  5. April 6, 2007

    Initially I skipped over him because I had no idea who he was (Chicago public schools, remember?). Then, once I'd heard his name, I had pretty much been embraced by the community of "rebel" performance poets (a silly designation, but WE didn't start it), and we unwisely snubbed anyone who was no longer living and breathing and spittin' rhymes.

  6. April 6, 2007
     Brian Hadd

    I also think it is easy to skip over him because he really doesn't occupy the place that other poets of the period do, I'm thinking of the American modernists. I attended public school also but Eliot managed in. This observation conflicts with the spirit of the original post, which since I've never read Auden I'm not entitled to do, but maybe the lesson for me at least is that of the plethora of exciting accomplishment out there, and thank you for it Ms Smith.
    The Hood Company

  7. April 7, 2007
     J. Bryan Shoup

    I don't think any English professor should have skipped the Divine Comedy. And skipping Nabokov is like turning down a four-course meal.
    It doesn't make me a literary snob to think these things have more merit than a Lifetime movie. I read comic books and watch Aqua Teen Hunger Force in my spare time. I also make time to read culturally relevant (and artistically masterful) authors.