September 8, 2010

Joseph Auslander, Consultant in Poetry, 1937-1941

Joseph Auslander wore the laurel of Consultant in Poetry from 1937 to 1941. He spent four years in the hot seat, published a dozen-something books, including a couple of novels, and was a regular contributor of poetry to the Saturday Evening Post, and for all his tapping at the national consciousness, for all the marks he made on our common cultural wall, Auslander has been almost entirely forgotten.

I wanted to correct this error, but I have been unable to produce much of a reason for recalling the man or his work. If anything can be gleaned from sifting through Auslander’s poetry it may be that writing to and from a conservative present hastens one's induction into the unfossilized past.

Auslander’s work can be generally characterized as starchy verse expressing inflexible sentiments. Cliches, in Auslander's poetic cornucopia, are treated as finished dishes to be served under silver bells rather than the over-boiled vegetables that they are. In 1936 he was the last poet to use "unshriven" in a poem without smirking.

Auslander contributed poetry to the Saturday Evening Post over the course of three decades, his poems often buried between columns in the center of the page. The poems that appeared in the SEP were generally short, formal homilies which generally addressed patriotic, military, or religious themes. His broadly circulated poetry is short on sentiment, but long on wind, as demonstrated by these later lines in his poem "Christmas Catechism:"

Can the bells of Christmas banish
Horror camp, inhuman lust?
Can the scars of hatred vanish?
Can Faith quiet our distrust?
Can the Dove of Christendom
Dwell with the Atomic Bomb?


It is difficult to discuss his work without being snide. But Auslander was at least sincere and purposed, and his causes, such as religious tolerance and human rights, were generally noble, though occasionally jingoistic. Of course, his work is also pompous and clinking, but this is made, perhaps, forgivable by the fact that Auslander was interested in neither lyricism nor the ambiguity of metaphor. Rather, he created instructive verse which employed simple rhymes because they would adhere to one’s memory most firmly. The imperativeness of his writing reflects his profession; he was a teacher for much of his career, filling lecterns at both Harvard and Columbia.

The poems that appeared in the SEP were populist and occasional, patriotic and religious, and Auslander's longevity at the post suggests that they were favorably received by the readership. By comparison, the poems in the book More Than Bread (1936) were by and large preoccupied with the dullest of poetic subjects: poetry. Over a dozen of the poems in the collection reference poetry, poets, and/or the poetic tradition directly, including the poems “Poet and Spider,” “To The New Poets,” “To the Poets Who Fly Left,” “The Poet Purses His dreams” and the catastrophic free verse poem, “I Am Poetry.” In every case, Auslander is sermonic in his insistence that 1.) Poetry is form, and 2.) Poetry is being ruined by a new generation of poets who don’t understand that poetry is form. Auslander laments “our raucous time,” “our restless hour,” and “these amorphous days,” as being incapable of producing or appreciating formal verse. He touts the genius Keats, Coleridge, and Heraclitus, and often worries about the lack of music in the new generation's poetry.

The poem, “I Am Poetry” deserves a little more attention if for no other reason than it seems unique to Auslander’s work, being written in free verse. It is also arguably insane.

Each of the seventeen stanzas begin with the phrase, “I am Poetry,” and each stanza proceeds to catalog the ubiquity and grandeur of poetry, which is apparently a snake-oil cure-all. Complicating this exuberance is the question of the speaker. The “I” here seems to be Poetry personified. Of course, it may also be read as the personification of the poem (a very postmodern move on Auslander’s part).

Or the “I,” most troublingly, may be Auslander himself. This reading is supported by the lines, “I confront you with Keats,” which seems to come directly from the poet’s mouth, but is then complicated by the line, “I am Poetry/And I am the vision/Without which the people perish,” which seems a little extreme, and “I am taller than the Empire State Building,” which seems hysterical. A careful reader will notice that the poem references several tropes from earlier poems in the collection, suggesting that either Auslander is flattering himself or that he is an unimaginative poet who believes there is some poetic weight left to the phrase, “I lift the heavy heart/With a rainbow or a leaf,” which is, coincidentally, how he concludes this six page poem.

To call Auslander’s poetry “light verse” would be misleading because it is so often leaden, sermonic and bleak. But when he veers into lighter subjects, such as love, the result is so awkward and feckless that it seems self-mocking.

Love will never be found
By searching here and there;
Love is all around,
Nowhere, and everywhere,
And nowhere abound.


One year after publishing this poem Auslander was appointed Consultant in Poetry.

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