March 5, 2007 -- “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to celebrate W.H. Auden’s centenary in a church across the street from a great university, with musicians waiting in the wings. I think that Auden would have imagined no happier 100th birthday,” Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, told the scholars, patrons of the arts and community members who convened at St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville on Feb. 26 to hear a program of poems, commentary and music written by and devoted to Wystan Hugh Auden, a giant in 20th century poetry.
The event, “All I Have Is a Voice,” was cosponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ Center for the Book, the NEA, Poetry Daily and the Folger Shakespeare Library. A second celebration took place the following evening at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
Gioia offered several readings, including Auden’s solemn poem “September 1, 1939” [excerpted here].
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain_
Of the sensual man-in-the-street _
And the lie of Authority_
Whose buildings grope the sky: _
There is no such thing as the State _
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice_
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Although the poem refers to the Nazi invasion of Poland on that date, many people have commented on its prescient aspects since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Gioia noted. “This, like a lot of Auden’s poems, was there waiting, in a sense, for history to need it again,” he said. “And all over this country, people without any encouragement remembered this poem and brought it into a new historical moment.”
As a young man, Gioia learned to appreciate Auden’s poetry for “its humor, its music and its wisdom.” In comparing Auden to Shakespeare, “his great predecessor,” Gioia noted that humor is often underappreciated in literature and said that Auden and Shakespeare were united because they understood “the necessity of comedy in any adequate world view.”
Robert C. Vaughan III, VFH president and founding director, offered opening remarks and served as master of ceremonies. To the amusement of the 200 or so in attendance, Vaughan shared an account of how Auden’s native York, England, was celebrating the poet’s centenary by training the city’s cab drivers to recite Auden’s works to their passengers throughout the year. Vaughan also read from several of Auden’s poems and introduced the other speakers.
Charles Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor of creative writing in the English Department at the University of Virginia, accentuated the musical qualities of Auden’s poetry in his readings. He recited in measured intonations five early poems, or “songs” and a slightly later work, “The Fall of Rome,” from 1947.
Professor emeritus Arthur Kirsch, a colleague of Wright’s from the English Department and a renowned Shakespeare scholar, has devoted much of his time since 1999 to the study of Auden. Having published three books on the poet, Kirsch detailed significant historical points in Auden’s life, punctuating his accounts with readings of such works as “As I Walked Out One Evening” and “Under Which Lyre.”
After the readings and commentary, jazz vocalist Stephanie Nakasian, accompanied by Wells Hanley on piano, performed four cabaret songs composed by Auden. Taking advantage of Nakasian’s vocal range, the song arrangements meandered from melancholy, operatic compositions to faster, more upbeat jazz numbers. Nakasian’s performance offered evidence of the musical quality of Auden’s work, which each speaker had touched upon during the evening. Gioia noted earlier that Auden “creates a music that is central to what poetry is all about. Because, what poetry asks us to do is to listen to language not as thinkers, but with the fullness of our humanity … and we feel its truth long before we understand it.”
To close the evening, the audience listened to one of the final recordings of Auden reciting his own work. “On the Circuit” was recorded in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin at the University of Oxford shortly before his passing in 1973. A humorous account of his time spent during his later years as a traveling celebrity poet, Auden’s wiry intonations filling the church were an apt conclusion to a celebration titled “All I Have is a Voice.”
In addition to celebrating the life and work of Auden, an Englishman who emigrated to the United States, the “All I Have is a Voice” event served as a precursor to VFH’s Virginia Festival of the Book, taking place March 21-25 in Charlottesville.
The event also was a chance for the NEA to tout a new national program, The Big Read, “an initiative designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture … by providing citizens with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their communities.” The book selected for the Charlottesville community to read and discuss is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” (More information is available at www.virginiafoundation.org/bookcenter.)