Rowan on Auden: WTF?

Last week Rowan Williams contributed a preface to the Guardian’s little pamphlet of Auden poetry. Did anyone at any stage, read what he wrote? In particular, did anyone actually read the following two sentences?

The technical skill is always exceptional. You’d call it dazzling if it were not so all-pervading (if not unobtrusive, at least) apparently intrinsic to the poetic argument and energy.

I left in the first one because without it the second makes no sense at all; with it, you can at least see that he is talking about Auden’s technical accomplishment. But what is he saying about it? In particular, what might it possibly mean to say of anything that it is all-pervading (if not unobtrusive, at least)?

What makes me so angry about this is that Rowan is meant to be a poet himself. He is meant to care about proper words in proper order, even when phoning in something for a newspaper. A phrase like that would bring any real poet out in hay fever.

It is also fairly shaming that no one at the Guardian rang up and demanded that he rewrite it.

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9 Responses to Rowan on Auden: WTF?

  1. Louise says:

    What a pity they didn’t include this poem.

  2. davemack says:

    Perhaps the closing bracket should come immediately after ‘unobtrusive’ — ‘if it were not so all-pervading (if not unobtrusive), at least apparently intrinsic to the poetic argument and energy’ — though I’m not sure it’s really clearer.

  3. RupertG says:

    Nor, indeed, these aperçus…

    As the poets have mournfully sung,
    Death takes the innocent young,
    The rolling-in-money,
    The screamingly-funny,
    And those who are very well hung.

    After vainly invoking the Muse,
    A poet cried “Hell! What’s the use?
    “There is more inspiration
    “At Grand Central Station–
    “I shall go there this moment and cruise.”

    A friend, who is not an ascetic,
    Says: “Ireland, my dear, is magnetic!
    “No snakes; lots of elves,
    “Who just offer themselves–
    “Rather small, but most sympathetic.”

  4. Pete says:

    Well, remember what his job is; perhaps just earlier he had been writing some theology and forgot to go back into sense-making mode. What after all might it possibly mean to say “The eucharist is the paradigm of that dialogue which is ‘orthodoxy'”? In all seriousness though, maybe people have just gotten used to not looking too deeply into the words he writes?

  5. acb says:

    Not sure, Pete. I mean, the theological sentence can be translated more easily into English. Something like this. “Doing Christianity right is a continual dialogue between God and His people. The performance of the eucharist is essential in this.”

    That has the merit being quite possibly wrong. It makes claims about god, christianity, and the eucharist.

    maybe vatic bullshit itself becomes for some people an anxiety-reduction mechanism. But I don’t think that this problem is confined to theologians.

  6. jld says:

    1. The technical skill is exceptional.
    2. You could even call it dazzling.
    3. ‘Dazzling’ is perhaps the wrong word, because it’s not there just for effect, it feels intrinsic to the poetic argument and energy.
    4. But while the technical skill is all-pervading, at least it’s not unobtrusive.

    The clottedness actually makes it more impressive (IMO) because it implies that Rowan isn’t typing this stuff on his computer, he’s dictating it straight into a tape recorder. What comes out may be incomprehensible, but my God, you have to admire the man’s fluency. He’d be unbeatable on ‘Just a Minute’ — sixty seconds on any topic without hesitation, deviation or repetition.

  7. acb says:

    Nice try, but what is the thought behind “while the technical skill is all-pervading, at least it’s not unobtrusive”? Technical skill is meant to be unobtrusive, FFS, unless you are showing off in light verse.

    on ‘Just a Minute’ they do penalise you for outright nonsense, and I would buzz at that sentence, if I were still awake. The real JAM champion, of everyone I have come across recently, is AC Grayling, who talks in a completely unstoppable flood, perfectly grammatical, enviably coherent, with sense and nonsense blended till they seem identical.

  8. Clearly, the Anglican communion isn’t praying for Rowan hard enough.

  9. Pete says:

    You’re right, of course I’m reaching; theological screeds are usually at least as parseable as “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, which makes a specific claim about a subclass of ideas. And I admittedly had to pass over some rather sensible quotations of his before I found one that I could proffer as nonsensical. Whereas your complaint refers to a sentence that is not even English. Though I’m still wondering whether this editorial oversight is due to people who are used to transcribing the utterances of respected theologians tending to give them a free pass on syntax (“I don’t get it, it must be sublime”).

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