They used to argue about the origins of socialism in the old worker’s bar I loved when I was in my early twenties–nights, an accordionist, mist from the canal, and beer soaked legerdemain viz Babeuf and the Society of Equals. Now I live in a covert. Soon I’ll drink the potion of the very old. It’s terrible to have no one to talk to. As for the accordion, it was always a Marxist music box though they won’t tell you on National Public Radio.
Auden told a friend of mine that traveling was hard because he had no one to converse with. He was in Iowa when he said it. My pal was then a young poet who’d driven from Iowa City to Des Moines to hear the great man read. Afterwards, and for reasons difficult to explain—especially since it isn’t my story—Auden was all alone in the student union drinking tea. There was no one to talk to, Auden said, no one at all. The young poet was Marvin Bell. Marvin’s story tells of the loneliness of art, even when its creator is in public circulation.
Now I don’t really live in a covert, the current pandemic notwithstanding, and I’ve enough recognition to have the privilege of being invited to read from poetry in far flung places. I really don’t know why W.H. Auden was all alone in a Drake University cafeteria. Did the faculty who invited him to campus find him repellent and run away after the reading? Was there a melancholy whisper over the campus calling the locals to late Vespers? We’ll never know. Marvin Bell and I speculated that there simply wasn’t a culture of poetry talk at Drake University at the time. There were events. Even a poetry reading by the world’s most famous poet would have been nothing more than a lecture on entomology. Marvin was a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in that era. The workshop was a different order and back then one of the only places (in a university setting) where writers gathered to talk.
And yet there’s another kind of loneliness and Auden was right to suggest it. The Elizabethans called it “melancholy” and understood it’s inside us just as our blood and hearts. In this way the Elizabethans were more reliable than we are. Robert Burton, whose pen name was Democritus Junior was the first to assert everyone who can read has the blues. The Anatomy of Melancholy argues the reader has a choice as to how he shall be blue.
No one to talk with and we shall never know one another precisely nor will we ever know what ails us.