“The Night I Finished Auden” [by Stephen Kampa, introduced by Mary Jo Salter]

Auden1In “The Night I Finished Auden,” Stephen Kampa pays tribute to a favorite poet [W. H. Auden, pictured left] in the most elegant way—by not just alluding to several of Auden’s poems but also writing in imitation of his distinctive manner. The rhymed trimeters, iambic but often starting with a stressed syllable, are signature Auden, as are the buried serious jokes.  In Kampa’s final stanza, “I felt like one who’s wandered” calls up Keats’ lines about Homer (“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies”). And in imagining “a form that could contain/ An elegy for oceans, /An epitaph for rain” Kampa not only updates Auden’s world as our climate-changed one, but fulfills Auden’s stated wish in his “Letter to Lord Byron:” “I want a form that’s large enough to swim in.” — Mary Jo Salter

The Night I Finished Auden

The night I finished Auden

     Was much like any night:

A palatable meal had

     Appeased my appetite,

A sweating green-glass bottle

     Provided company

For Auden, in absentia,

     And absentminded me.


I like the later poems,

     Mannered and talkative

With doctrinaire digressions,

     For posing how to live

Gracefully with the knowledge

     That even the most wry,

Intelligent, and gentle

     Among us, too, must die.


Wystan, you mastered meters

     For which I know no names

And thanked the god who gave us

     Our grammar and our games,

Then selflessly accomplished—

     A born iconoclast—

Your corpse, but left your corpus,

     Of which I’ve read the last.


I feel like one who’s wandered

     Through hitherto unseen

Landscapes, equipped with nothing

     But compass and canteen

And tasked by ghosts with finding

     A form that could contain

An elegy for oceans,

     An epitaph for rain.

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Author: The Best American Poetry