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Auden's Games of Knowledge: Poetry and the Meanings of Homosexuality

by Richard R. Bozorth
342 pages,
ISBN: 0231113528


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Allusions to Another World
by William H. Ford

"Why read [W.H.] Auden as a homosexual poet?" asks Richard R. Bozorth in this ground-breaking new study, identified on its back cover as the "first full-length consideration" of the poet in terms of his sexual orientation. Why, indeed? As Bozorth, an assistant professor of English at Southern Methodist University, concedes, "Auden has rarely been seen as a Šgay poet' because he made it so easy not to do so"¨that is, so easy for both readers and critics to sidestep the issue of his homosexuality. Auden himself, at least in his later critical writings, took a more or less New Critical line on the marginal relevance of personal biography, ambient culture, and contemporary history to the meanings of poems and, as Professor Bozorth (an historicist critic, by contrast) observes, "To read Auden's own work thus would be to bracket out the facts of his life, including the sexual ones."

Most critics (if not all readers) have, until quite recently, done just that¨at least with respect to "the sexual ones": the "open secret" of Auden's homosexuality. As late as 1983 a critic (Edward Callan) could write that "Most of Auden's published work may be read for its artistic, psychological, or philosophical interest ...without any awareness of its author's homosexuality" and, although today some might deplore such a lack of "awareness" as a species of homophobia by default, the observation is true enough, as far as it goes, and helps to explain Auden's seemingly unassailable reputation as a "poet of universal human values." In what way, we might well ask, does an awareness of the poet's sexual proclivities contribute to our understanding and appreciation of great poems like "In Memory of W.B. Yeats", "MusTe des Beaux Arts", or "The Shield of Achilles"? These poems, and others like them, do not seem to require such knowledge, nor do they seem to betray¨however subtly¨the author's intimate secrets.

Nevertheless, for denizens of the literary closet (these days, at least) "the truth will out", and one of Bozorth's premises is that Auden's own poems have themselves tended to "out" the poet (in the current argot of gay/lesbian or queer liberation politics) in more or less subtle ways. Some critics¨disappointed proponents of what the author labels the "universalizing school" of Auden criticism¨have interpreted characteristics of Auden's style as symptomatic of some authorial malaise inhibiting the realization of the presumably intended organic wholeness or universal applicability of the work. Expecting to find coherent universal meanings in particular poems, but finding instead incoherence, internal contradiction, inconsistency of tone, and obscurity, such critics have tended to attribute these purported flaws in the poet's style to defects in his character¨alleging, for example, the absence of a consistent authorial identity, an occasional lapse in "manliness" (Joseph Warren Beach); an extreme subjectivity, confusion of tone between "seriousness and flippancy", "undergraduate cleverness", "profound inner disturbance", and "obscurity of the wrong kind" (F.R. Leavis). As Bozorth persuasively interprets them, such phrases, "Rather than directly attacking his homosexuality," constitute an Šinnuendo-laden vocabulary [that] encodes class prejudice, stereotypes about [homosexuality in] English public schools, and Freudian clichTs of arrested development." Such is the "pathologizing school" of Auden criticism, treating his sexual orientation as a disease preventing "maturity", "seriousness", or "wholeness" from successfully manifesting themselves in the poet's work, and disappointing critical expectations of universal relevance. Even Randall Jarrell, identified here as "the most astute early commentator on homosexuality in Auden's work," seems to accuse Auden of being, in Bozorth's interpretation, "self-absorbed and narcissistic": while not unappreciative of the constructive role Auden's homosexuality plays in his poetics (a primary theme of this book), and fully cognizant of its "contradictory valences" (Bozorth) for the poet, "[Jarrell] saw Auden as having failed to outgrow his earlier Šsexual isolation'" and as having "narcissistically rationalized his own anxieties [in adopting existentialism] by projecting them onto everything." It seems to the author that pathologizing readings "are merely the obverse of universalizing readings: where some see Auden articulating the human condition or the spirit of an age, others see him failing to do so because of his own condition." How are such antithetical positions to be reconciled? Is there perhaps a more satisfactory way to understand what Auden is doing in his poems?

Acknowledging his debt to more recent critics, Bozorth notes, "Along with Auden's death, the waning force of universalizing and pathologizing approaches to [Auden's] writing has allowed scholars to address his homosexuality more directly than before." Also important, doubtless, has been the growth, in academic quarters, of Gay and Lesbian Studies and, more recently, Queer Theory (always a startling term for the uninitiated, and one which invites, if it does not require, some additional discussion). The resulting, or concomitant, opening up of discussion about homosexuality¨and critical discourse concerning its expression in, or effect on, literary writing¨have created the conditions necessary for a study like Auden's Games of Knowledge, and they have made it possible for the author to answer his own question, quoted in the first line of this review, by observing that "critical and historical understanding of Auden has been impoverished to the degree that the relevance of homosexuality to his writing has been overlooked, underestimated, ignored, or suppressed," and that, in fact, "Auden's homosexuality is as much an Šaspect' of his work as his class, his politics, his religious beliefs, or his Freudianism, and to think adequately about these things requires that we think about his homosexuality more than casually." This seems reasonable and fair, given a belief in the relevance to literary criticism of biography and culture that even the New Critics could not, and did not, entirely disavow.

In keeping with these convictions, then, Bozorth has provided six densely argued chapters that correlate Auden's sexuality, through a close scrutiny and detailed analysis of representative lyric poems (as well as one early play), with such diverse "aspects" of his life and work as the "Auden group" of writers, social alienation, leftist politics, the fight against Fascism, Freudian psychology, the disease model of "sexual deviance", homosexuality as a healthily "revolutionary" stance, "rhetoric" versus "indeterminacy" in poetics, the "Vision of Eros" and love poetry, and the earthly and/or spiritual paradise offered by religion. But before proceeding any further, we should address the needs of those potential readers for whom such recently legitimated academic domains as Gay and Lesbian Studies and Queer Theory constitute still unfamiliar territory.

It is perhaps a minor inconvenience of this book that it does not Provide¨for the general, non-academic reader¨a more explicit (even if quite brief) account of the academic study of homosexuality: its recent history and current controversies. Granted that Bozorth and Columbia University Press certainly intended Auden's Games of Knowledge: Poetry and the Meanings of Homosexuality primarily for an academic audience, and specifically one that would be largely familiar with the issues and terminology (it is, after all, part of a series entitled Between Men¨Between Women: Lesbian and Gay Studies, "a forum for current lesbian and gay scholarship in the humanities and social sciences"); nevertheless, even this reviewer¨a Doctoral Candidate in English and Creative Writing¨was hard put to it to sort out at least one centrally important bit of information: the apparent schism between "Gay and Lesbian Studies" and "Queer Theory" vis a vis their respective grounding in either "essentialism" (positing a fixed homosexual identity) or "constructionism" (positing a fluid sexual identity, improvised and self-invented moment by moment). In fairness to the author, he does allude to the controversy about homosexual identity in at least two paragraphs in the Introduction, and he also explicitly declares his intention "for historicist reasons, to allow Auden's writing to generate its own forms of knowledge about sexuality" before coming to grips more explicitly with the "concerns of contemporary queer studies." This seems a good strategy, except that uninitiated readers are forced, as they work through the body of the text, to puzzle things out by deduction and supposition until, by virtue of a kind of cumulative effect, their hard-won but tentative knowledge more or less gels in the Afterword. For some readers, although it would seem to violate the author's intended program, it may be useful to tackle the Afterword first, or at least just after the Introduction. Despite the author's good intentions of letting Auden's writing speak for itself, he cannot help (as he freely acknowledges) putting his own interpretive spin on it, and this may as well be clarified at the outset, for general readers and scholars alike.

Although it is true that this study presupposes a degree of readerly familiarity with contemporary literary theory, let it be noted that Bozorth's writing is still accessible to general readers. Unlike some critics who are so steeped in theory that they can only be understood by other critics of the same persuasion and vocabulary, Bozorth expresses complicated ideas clearly, and his straightforward prose is, for the most part, mercifully free of the worst kinds of theoretical jargon and presumption. Yes, readers of postmodern literary theory and its philosophical precursors will recognize certain commonly used terms and catch-phrases: overdetermined, lay bare, binaries, interpellate, difference, indeterminacy, unspeakability, deconstruct, essentialism, constructionism, and the like. But the author, to his credit, manages to restrain his use of such language, with the happy result that, for a work of applied literary theory, this book is remarkably readable. Another welcome feature of the work is the orderly disposition of the material, which greatly facilitates our understanding, and tends to put us more at ease if we are, indeed, unfamiliar with the territory.

And we likely are. At least we have never looked at it from this vantage point before. Throughout his six chapters, Bozorth ably elaborates the argument that Auden's poetry was for him a means of self-knowledge; that such knowledge was "bound up with homosexual desire and identity" for which he sought psychological, political, ethical, and theological explanations; and that this "process of homosexual self-interrogation" took the form of "an open-ended engagement with his own desires and those of his readers as real lovers or virtual intimates: poetry as Šjoking', Šparable', Šanalogy', or Šgame of knowledge'." Internal contradictions and inconsistencies noted by "pathologizing" critics, especially in poems and plays written from the late 1920s through 1939, reflect this ongoing engagement or game, and the notorious obscurity of much of this work is partly a result of the complex "encoding" (through metaphor, metonymy, punning, and other devices) of homosexual experience, in response to "constraints on speakability traditionally faced by gay, lesbian, and queer writers." Such a poetic project, in Bozorth's estimation, amounts to nothing less than "a form of queer theory avant la lettre" and suggests that Auden inherited a tradition from such poets as Byron, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Wilde, passing it on to more recent poets like Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery. If this seems like a large claim, or a bizarre one, this book makes a very good case for it.

To lay the groundwork for his argument, Bozorth begins by considering the circumstances surrounding the private printing of Auden's first book of poems in 1928. Prior to this, the undergraduate Auden had been drawn into a circle of friends at Oxford including the writers Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward who had already (at Cambridge) invented a make-believe world, called "Mortmere", in which a complex game of conspiracies, secrets, and spies represented the intergenerational conflict and social alienation experienced by its creators. The ambiguous style of expression used to refer to the quasi-imaginary happenings of Mortmere¨a language that also alludes cryptically to homosexual encounters and exchanges¨found its way into many of the twenty poems of this first book, of which fewer than fifty copies were printed (with the help of Stephen Spender) and distributed largely to friends. Bozorth contends that this "coterie", which would later condense into the "Auden group", would have collectively understood the "encoded" meanings in these poems. When most of them were published by Faber & Faber in Poems (1930), these meanings were, in a sense, submerged under the universalizing readings which critics imposed on the work¨readings which, to this day, "unconsciously replicate the occlusion of the [poems'] origins as a coterie text." The present work, then, is dedicated to "recovering" and examining some of those submerged meanings, and to tracing their application in Auden's later poetry.

To illustrate and defend his initial claim, Bozorth provides a close-reading of an unrhymed sonnet first printed as "Control of the passes" in 1928, but later titled "The Secret Agent" in the Collected Poems of 1945 and thereafter:

Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?
He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
For a bogus guide, seduced with the old tricks.

At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam
And easy power, had they pushed the rail
Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires.
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.
The street music seemed gracious now to one
For weeks up in the desert. Woken by water
Running away in the dark, he often had
Reproached the night for a companion
Dreamed of already. They would shoot, of course,
Parting easily who were never joined.

This poem¨with its imagery of intrigue and danger; its preoccupation with failed communication, disjunction, and loss; and its obscure allusions to a frustrated sexual liaison¨becomes the paradigm of "homosexual encryption" that Bozorth follows throughout Auden's career.

The techniques employed to such advantage in "The Secret Agent", Bozorth maintains, continue to be employed in the service of Auden's subsequent inquiries into the nature of homosexuality: its status as a disorder or a means of growth, its relation to the politics of both the left and right, its influence on Auden's poetics in the direction of "parable" and "lovers' discourse", and finally, its potential as a metaphor for exploring the relationship between the human and the divine. As evidence for his many original ideas about such matters, the author provides ingenious and thought-provoking interpretations of a quantity of poems, including "The Watershed" (1928), "The Question" (1930), "Our Hunting Fathers" (1934), "Letter to Lord Byron" (1936), "Lay your sleeping head, my love" (1937), "Funeral Blues" (1938), "Pleasure Island" and "In Praise of Limestone" (1948), "Friday's Child" (1958), and many others¨as well as two early experimental productions, a long poem, The Orators (1932), and a play, Paid on Both Sides (1928-29). The discussions are novel and eye-opening, even if they sometimes seem¨at first, anyway¨to be stretching a point.

Bozorth is very good at anticipating objections and acknowledging the limitations and dangers of his approach (reduction of poems to biography, the "hermeneutical circle" in which critics read their pet interests into texts, etc.), and most of my caveats are addressed by the author himself in the Introduction, in passing, or in the Afterword. This built-in humility and reasonableness goes a long way toward taking the edge off any criticisms I might want to make. Nevertheless, I will venture a few observations.

For the general reader of poetry, the ultimate test of the value of a work of poetry criticism must be: Does it help me to appreciate the poems? Does it help me to understand them, albeit as a complex of shifting or competing meanings? Does it help me to find some personal value in the poems? Most importantly, does it help me simply to enjoy them? Yes, I think the book does all of these things. However, I confess that sometimes, reading the poetry by itself to refresh my memory or sample something new, I found the theoretical discussion difficult to bear in mind. Was this perhaps a sign that the criticism did not always seem to emerge from the poetry, that to some extent it had been imposed from without? Or was it just that I had slipped back into my comfortable, "universalizing" way of reading the poems (since Auden "made it so easy [for me] to do so")? Bozorth exhibits, at times, a propensity to read into texts possible meanings that seem to be clearly cancelled elsewhere (the next stanza, for instance), but this, no doubt, is the influence of deconstruction and reader-response theory¨not to mention William Empson, arguably their New Critical precursor. And the text is a bit difficult to follow in some places where arguments seem to require poems to carry too many levels of irony at once; I suspect that the poems cannot always sustain the full weight of the critical interpretation thrust upon them here.

On the other hand, there is probably some residual resistance on my part to a "homosexual reading" of the poems, even one that does not presume to "reduce" them to a single dimension, but merely asks that it be included in the complex or field of meanings that resonate together as the complete poetic experience. Auden's poems do rather successfully resist readings that might threaten to reduce them to mere biography or a narrowly-defined, tightly circumscribed interpretation, but they seem perfectly well able to carry the specific meanings (when they are determinable, or reasonably defensible) without doing irreparable damage to more "universalizing" readings¨that is, if one can tolerate internal conflict in a poem, without recourse to "pathologizing" the poet.

The author seems to make a point of distancing himself from extreme positions, although one does detect the usual postmodernist glee in the denial of certainties (or the exposure of "indeterminacy" where assumptions of certainty once existed)¨especially about the stability of the sexual self. Sometimes the term "queer" seems to be applied indiscriminately to any questioning of stability, consistency, or identity¨hence, any unconventional thoughtfulness or scepticism takes on, by the use of the term, a homosexual affiliation. The suggestion is that human beings are all by nature "queer" because they are not strictly self-identified, or are subject to a fluidity of sexual orientation, among other personality traits. Some readers may be annoyed occasionally by this tendency to universalize homosexuality (or, at least, "queerness") into the paradigm of humanity (but "turn about is fair play"?). Perhaps, indeed, we are not self-identified; but equally plausible, I think, is the idea that some human psycho-social features may be¨to varying degrees¨"essential" and some may be "constructed" (nature vs. nurture?): the either/or polarization seems an oversimplification of the data, at best.

Another debatable contention of the book is that homosexual love is necessarily, fundamentally, different from heterosexual love. Aside from the obvious physical differences, I wonder if this is psychologically sound. Granted the stigma, secrecy, and "unspeakability" attached to homosexual love (features which apply just as well to adultery), yet surely there remain strong parallels to the heterosexual variety. A narcissistic tendency to conceive of the beloved in terms of one's own personality, for example, although no doubt an important component of homosexuality, would seem to apply frequently enough to heterosexuality, despite the difference in gender-identification.

These questions hark back to the schism mentioned earlier between Gay and Lesbian Studies and Queer Theory: It almost seems as though one faction of the homosexual community (the "essentialist" Gays and Lesbians) wants to assert "gay" identity as "different", unique, and a matter for special pride; while the competing faction (the "constructionist" queer camp) wants to claim that virtually everyone is "queer" whether they know it or not, and hence no grounds exist to justify stigma or alienation. Bozorth's study purports to show, among other things, how Auden struggled, in his poetry, to reconcile¨or at least acknowledge¨these competing claims, and it is for this reason that he characterizes it as a kind of "queer theory" before the fact.

Wherever one stands on these issues, and particularly if one is not aware of having any stance at all, Auden's Games of Knowledge is a provocative, entertaining, and illuminating read. With its obvious respect for the poems, its ingenious (if sometimes debatable) close-readings and proliferating interpretations, its lucid style and skillful argumentation, its crystal-clear organization, its generally moderate and well-supported claims, and its humility and self-scepticism, this book is perhaps a model of what critical writing about poetry can be in the Age of Theory. ˛

William Ford is currently a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and teaches English Literature and Creative Writing (Poetry).

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