When asked to describe the "aim" of art, the poet W.H. Auden replied: "One is what Dr. Johnson said: The aim of writers is to enable readers a little better to enjoy life, or a little better to endure it. The other side of the arts is that they are a chief method of communicating with the dead, and I think without communication with the dead, a fully human life is not possible."
The second part of the answer is particularly intriguing. Certain people the Vietnamese, for instance would not doubt it for an instant. But do we Americans believe it? The question is pertinent because this is Auden's centenary. He was born in England on February 21, 1907.
It is especially pertinent because in January 1939, Auden moved to New York, eventually becoming an American citizen, and remained here until shortly before his death in 1973. By doing so, this tall, pale, shambling, chain-smoking, verbal genius, whose poetry is a miracle of intellectual depth and lyrical grace, helped seal New York's status as the cultural capital of the world. Through his work, personality, and example, he influenced countless American writers, including James Merrill, the entire New York School of Poets, and even Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, if only as a colossus to set themselves against. New York, and America, did very well by Auden.
After September 11, 2001, Auden's poem, "September 1, 1939," with its celebrated line, "We must love one another or die," took on acute resonance for New Yorkers. It shot around the Internet and provided comfort to many in a difficult time. Perhaps it seems sentimental to people now, even embarrassing the whole "poetry after 9/11" phenomenon, "We must love one another or die," a line which even Auden hated, and so forth. We've long since returned to Oscars, new novels, and pondering the mysteries of Britney Spears' shaved head. Nonetheless, "We must love one another or die" didn't seem embarrassing after 9/11. People needed someone to speak for them, to provide a more elevated language and perspective on a horrifying event, and Auden was one of the few able to do so. He was a dead man we could communicate with, and who could communicate with us.
Newspapers, it could be argued, should also be in the business of "communicating with the dead," or at least educating readers about them when opportunity arises. But so far newspapers haven't been doing very well on the Auden front. The New York Sun and the Wall Street Journal each ran an article, there have been mentions here and there, and that's about it. This is odd, because Auden the young Auden, certainly was a poet a journalist might have dreamed up.
In the 1930s, he was a kind of poet-foreign correspondent. His poems had titles like "The Secret Agent" and "Epitaph on a Tyrant." They were full of maps, spies, and secret codes and dense with references to Marx, Freud, viruses, and plagues. He published books called "On the Frontier" and "Journey to a War." He reported from wars. Never mind the famous political poems like "Spain 1937," about the Spanish Civil War. Even his late, haiku-ish gems such as "After the massacre / they pacified their conscience / by telling jokes" reek of the real. They are like shards of history, and could apply to yesterday or 1,000 years ago.
This is not to suggest that the glamorized version of Auden is the most valuable or that much of his greatest work wasn't written after he left England and settled down to producing what he considered more truthful, less sensationalistic, poetry in New York. It is simply to say that Auden and newspapers are compatible because both deal with the earthly political world, and it would be nice, given the centenary, if there were a little more Auden around right now in newspapers and magazines.
Instead, one must poke around the Web print journalists yielding yet more ground to the Internet where Slate's Book Club has an illuminating colloquy on "Auden at 100," or read specialist publications like Bookforum or attend centenary readings like the one being held tonight at the 92nd Street Y. These are commendable, but the audience is relatively narrow. One thing that makes Auden unique is that, despite having been the most intellectual poet of the 20th century, he managed to write so many poems that are memorable, moving, and accessible. Yet how many Americans have heard of him?
Which is where newspapers come in and the more popular, the better. Wouldn't it be great if an editor at USA Today said, "Let's do something on the Auden centenary. We'll quote some of the easy stuff, you know, like Roman Wall Blues' Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish / There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.' Sounds like rap, anyway."
And all over America, in bus stations and hotel lobbies, in airport lounges and Burger Kings, people would stare at the page and say, "Who's this Owden dude?" But some of them would read it, and then they'd know.
Mr. Bernhard is the television critic of The New York Sun.