There have been a few articles on the blog about all the new cool queer media coming out recently – and I love all those. I feel like in the past few years there’s been a great explosion of increasingly mainstream and successful queer stuff that is fun and inclusive and accessible and often also really really good. But I’m also kind of an asshole, and I like my media complicated and pseudo-intellectual so that I can think I’m clever for having consumed it. For example: I recently told some of my friends that my favourite opening sentence of a novel is ‘For a long time I went to bed early’ (from Swann’s Way by Proust, but haha of course you knew that haha (did I mention I’ve read Proust?)). And cool weird experimental stuff is something that queer writers have historically been very good at – a lot of the greatest authors of the past century and a bit we know to have been queer, and we can make ahistorical assumptions about earlier ones (who wants to hear my Dream of the Red Chamber trans headcanon?).
Apart from copying original erin in every way I can, that’s kind of the idea behind this new article series: talking about cool queer literature that you’re fairly likely to have heard of but probably haven’t read or wouldn’t actually want to read, but still has interesting stuff about it that it might be cool to know. In that spirit I’m starting with a real weirdo of a poem, New Year Message by W.H. Auden, which I picked entirely because of its title.
This 1941 poem, the first of the long poems Auden would write after moving to America in 1939 and re-converting to Anglican Christianity, was not very well received – one reviewer even went so far as to call it something you might expect from a ‘theological student at a Scottish university’. Brutal. And New Year Letter is a slightly irritatingly self-conscious and self-indulgent poem. Its 1707 lines of breathless tetrameter rhyming couplets feel not only endless, but also a bit aimless – sort of conversational, jumping between moralising about war, politics, and art, all with lots of theological references and name-dropping of authors and philosophers that Auden liked thrown in. It also has a lot (a lot a lot) of explanatory notes – about twenty more pages of them than there are of poem in my edition – which are vaguely relevant little fragments of essays or poetry and they’re interesting and all, but having to constantly flip back and forth to read them and losing my flow on the actual poem made me wish I hated poetry and wanted everyone to say everything they meant as clearly as possible at all times.
Actually the poem got criticised for stating things too clearly and not using enough cute metaphors and symbolism. If I understand what a poem is saying, can it really be profound? This is a problem that Auden would fix in his later long poems. New Year Letter is really one of Auden’s most accessible works, a letter to the world – ostensibly to his friend Elizabeth Mayer, but it adds ‘This private minute for a friend […] be under Flying Seal to all’ in a pretty blatant way – sermonising about Auden’s philosophy of politics and life, which is actually what makes it interesting. At this time Auden, who had been seen as a Leftist figurehead for a lot of the 1930s, was in theory out of politics (and becoming a Liberal – ugh). He had turned away from his two most famous political poems, Spain and September 1, 1939, and would later denounce both as inauthentic, and he wrote in In Memory of W.B. Yeats that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. But this idea of Auden’s retreat from politics is a little bit overblown. In Memory of W.B. Yeats continues that poetry is ‘A way of happening, a mouth’, and New Year Letter explains its political message (as well as its weird tone) by saying
‘Though language may be useless, for
No words men write can stop the war
Or measure up to the relief
Of its immeasurable grief,
Yet truth, like love and sleep, resents
Approaches that are too intense,
And often when the searcher stood
Before the Oracle it would
Ignore his grown-up earnestness
But not the child of his distress,
For through the Janus of a joke
The candid psychopompos spoke.’
So all the self-consciousness and the notes and the funky word choices and endless rhyming couplets and weird conversational-ness was Auden trying to access truth through doubleness (the American title of the book it was published in is The Double Man), which I think is kind of brilliant. And clearly Auden didn’t totally stay away from being political – he actually repeatedly tried to join the army in WWII – but he also felt very uncomfortable and inauthentic around politics, and maybe that’s why he talks about it ‘through the Janus of a joke’ in this poem.
Which brings up the one big thing missing from all of Auden’s political poems, and actually every poem he acknowledged as his during his lifetime – that he was gay. He wasn’t closeted in his private life, but he always viewed his sexuality as a problem with himself, and not something he could respectably write about. His diaries from when he lived in Berlin in 1928 and 1929 show a sort of ‘double’ Auden: the Auden who’d fall in love with a muscly boy in a gay bar and chase him across the country, and the Auden who intensely psychoanalysed himself about his sexuality (with the usual theories that he wasn’t masculine enough as a child and stuff). When writing New Year Letter, he saw being gay as an essential, unchangeable part of himself, but he also thought it was a sin, for which he would be punished.
And there are some interesting lines near the end of New Year Letter: ‘may the truth / That no one marries lead my youth / Where you already are and bless / Me with your learned peacefulness [...] each for better or worse / must carry round with him through life, / A judge, a landscape, and a wife’. Is this a newly Christian Auden trying to be straight and writing for a straight audience? His references to marriage and ‘a wife’ clearly aren’t referring to his legal wife, Erika Mann, whom he married purely to get her a British passport. Actually at this time Auden had fallen dramatically in love with an American called Chester Kallman, a sort of love which he said he had sought since he was a child, and they entered into a relationship which, combined with Auden’s Christian faith, he viewed as a ‘marriage’. Kallman wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about monogamy, so they ended up just living together platonically, but Auden wrote an astonishing letter to him on Christmas Day 1941 which shows his ideas about the relationship:
‘Nevertheless I believe that if only we have faith in God and in each other, we shall be permitted to realise all that love is intended to be;
As this morning I think of the Good Friday and the Easter Sunday implicit in Christmas Day, I think of you’
‘All that love is intended to be’ sounds, in a Christian tradition, like marriage: this letter is really a radical declaration of the possibility of queer marriage within Christianity. So I think at the end of New Year Letter Auden isn’t being inauthentic. Instead he identifies himself and his queer relationship/marriage with everyone else and all other marriages; he treats his queerness as normal and himself as subject to the same sorts of issues and anxieties as anyone, which is pretty cool in my opinion – it’s just that he does it through the lens of straight men being the default way of being, so he has to write ‘he’ and ‘wife’.
New Year Letter is definitely an odd poem, and it’s mostly talked about for how it relates to Auden’s politics and theology, which is also what I’ve done here, but there’s a lot of very beautiful poetry in it as well which I feel is underrated. If this article has got you interested in it – I recommend reading The Sea and the Mirror instead.
other erin (she/her)