Auden Was Apparently a Slob
New York City, Poetry, W.H. Auden
Seamus Perry, in Paris Review:
W.â€‰H. Auden had rented variously inadequate apartments since arriving back in New York at the end of the summer of 1945, and had most recently been living with Chester Kallman in a warehouse building on Seventh Avenue, an especially unsatisfactory place that lacked both hot water and a functional front door. So when he and Kallman moved to 77 Saint Markâ€™s Place on the Lower East Side, in February 1954, it promised to be a significant improvement; and he was certainly very pleased with the place from the startâ€”â€œmy N.Y. nest,â€ he called it. Auden would stay there until his ill-fated departure for Oxford in 1972, making it his longest single habitation. From 1949 he summered in Europeâ€”in Ischia until 1957, when he bought a small farmhouse in Kirchstetten in Austria, which delighted him: he devoted a sequence, â€œThanksgiving for a Habitat,â€ in his collection About the House (1965), to a celebration of his domestic existence there. It was in these summerhouses that he tended to write poems: New York was largely for his distinct life as a â€œman of letters,â€ a label he applied to himself. â€œIt is a sad fact about our culture,â€ he once wrote, â€œthat a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing itâ€; but at the same time he prided himself on his professionalism as a reviewer, essayist, anthologist, and commentator, work that in turn often suggested subjects for poems; and that work principally happened on Saint Markâ€™s.
Freshly installed, he excitedly invited round his young friend Charles Miller (â€œCome! Iâ€™ll take you on a tourâ€):
The large first (entry) room with high ceiling had a green marbled fireplace flanked by built-in bookshelves, which also incorporated Wystanâ€™s battered turntable with speaker equipment and his much-used collection of records and albums. A big shabby sofa and a swamped antique coffee table centered the cluttered room. I followed Wystan through an arch into a similar room at the front with another green marbled fireplace. This room was hardly furnished, except for built-in bookcases and Wystanâ€™s small work table just touched by sunlight from the generous nineteenth-century windows. To the right of this room, as we faced Saint Markâ€™s Place, was a small room with its door to the stair hall nailed shut; the room had only a cot bed, on which Wystan slept, he said.
Just touched by sunlight, one imagines: as an undergraduate at Oxford, Auden had preferred to keep his curtains drawn at all times, and he seems to have adopted the same policy in America. When Stephen Spender had visited him in the forties he unwisely attempted to open the curtains and brought them crashing to the ground: â€œYou idiot!â€ Auden scolded him, â€œwhy did you draw them? No one ever draws them. In any case thereâ€™s no daylight in New York.â€ Wystanâ€™s succession of rooms gave his friend Margaret Gardiner â€œthe sensation of brownish caverns, a brown that seemed to pervade everything, even the air itself.â€
Audenâ€™s territory was the front of the apartment; Kallmanâ€™s, the kitchen and the music room at the back of the flat, where there were also separate bedrooms for Kallman and for a tenant. Auden was especially pleased with the fireplaces, and he liked the porcelain tiles in the kitchen. The area had lots of Italian, Polish, and Ukrainian stores selling good food. And the building even had a history: Trotsky had once published works from its basement, a fact that seemed to please Auden; and, some more recent color, an illegal abortionist had been its previous inhabitant. (The flat was buzzed from time to time by would-be clients.) Auden placed his fatherâ€™s barometer on the mantelpiece, and hung over it a watercolor by Blake, The Act of Creation, a present from his rich patron Caroline Newton. But his evident pride in the place did not translate into any instincts to be house-proud, as Millerâ€™s retrospective account, despite its touches of fine writing, communicates well enough:
The coffee table bore its household harvest of books, periodicals, half-emptied coffee cups scummed over with cream, a dash of cigarette ashes for good measure, and a heel of French bread (too tough for Wystanâ€™s new dentures?). An oval platter served as ashtray, heaped with a homey Vesuvius of cigarette butts, ashes, bits of cellophane from discarded packs, a few martini-soaked olive pits, and a final cigarette stub issuing a frail plume of smoke from the top of the heap, signature of a dying volcano. This Auden-scape reeked of stale coffee grounds, tarry nicotine, and toe jam mixed with metro pollution and catshit, Wystanified tenement tang.
And this was his new flat. â€œThe speed with which he could wreck a room was barely credible, certainly dangerous,â€ observed his friend James Stern. He spoke from experience. On one occasion he had left Auden in his flat for the day, dropping back shortly afterward to pick something up: â€œIf it hadnâ€™t been for the pictures on the walls I wouldnâ€™t have known where I was,â€ Stern remembered: â€œFrustrated burglars could not have created greater chaos â€¦ God, Wystan, was a mess! â€˜My dear, I do love this apartment, but I canâ€™t understand why it doesnâ€™t have more ashtrays!â€™â€‰â€ The Saint Markâ€™s apartment rapidly came to resemble what Robert Craft, Stravinskyâ€™s right-hand man, had witnessed with some incredulity in Audenâ€™s previous place, a litter of â€œempty bottles, used martini glasses, books, papers, phonograph records.â€ Dinner with them would be boozy and delicious (Kallman was an excellent cook); but the cutlery would be greasy and the plates often only imperfectly washed. â€œHe is the dirtiest man I have ever liked,â€ said Stravinsky of Auden, a touching if qualified mark of regard.