On Sunday morning I read poetry at the Union with Wystan Auden. He read a great deal of his own poetry including his poems to Coghill and MacNeice. Both very fine conversation pieces I thought but read in that peculiar sing-song tonelessness colourless way that most poets have. I remember Yeats and Eliot and MacLeish, who read their most evocative poems with such monotony as to stun the brain. Only Dylan could read his own stuff.
Auden has a remarkable face and an equally remarkable intelligence but I fancy, though his poetry like all true poetry is all embracingly and astringently universal, his private conceit is monumental. The standing ovation I got with the ‘Boast of Dai’ of D. Jones In Parenthesis left a look on his seamed face, riven with a ghastly smile, that was compact of surprise, malice and envy. Afterwards he said to me ‘How can you, where did you, how did you learn to speak with a Cockney accent?’ In the whole piece of some 300 lines only about 5 are in Cockney. He is not a nice man but then only one poet have I ever met was—Archie Macleish. Dylan was uncomfortable unless he was semi-drunk and ‘on.’ MacNeice was no longer a poet when I got to know him and was permanently drunk. Eliot was clerically cut with a vengeance.
The only nice poets I’ve ever met were bad poets and a bad poet is not a poet at all—ergo I’ve never met a nice poet. That may include Macleish. For instance R. S. Thomas is a true minor poet but I’d rather share my journey to the other life with somebody more congenial. I think the last tight smile that he allowed to grimace his features was at the age of six when he realized with delight that death was inevitable. He has consigned his wife to hell for a long time. She will recognize it when she goes there.
From The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, Yale University Press, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Swansea University.