W. H. Auden - The Dirtiest Man I Ever Liked

The English poet W.H. Auden was a stickler for punctuality. Cocktail hour was set rigidly at five o'clock and dinner at six. But not everyone of Auden's acquaintance was so fanatical for timekeeping. Auden called one hapless acquaintance "a dreadful man. He doesn't even know the difference between six o'clock and one minute past".

Auden was born in York in 1907 and was brought up in Birmingham in the West Midlands. His poetry is sometimes noted for its obscurity, readers often having no clue what he is talking about. But this obscurity is not always the genius at work; sometimes it's the genius's laziness. Auden's friend, occasional lover, and collaborator Christopher Isherwood said he 

"...hated polishing and making corrections. If he didn't like a poem, he threw it away and wrote another. If I liked one line, he would keep it and work it into a new poem. ...whole poems were constructed which were simply anthologies of my favourite lines, entirely regardless of grammar or sense."

Sometimes genius takes a vacation.

After graduating from Oxford and a series of teaching jobs in prep schools, Auden and Isherwood left England for the US in 1939, with Auden eventually becoming a US citizen in 1946. In the US, Auden met Chester Kallman and together they rented an apartment in New York. It was spartan, and the bathroom and kitchen were...primitive. Auden was a stickler for punctuality alright but sadly not for hygiene. The apartment had previously been the home of an abortionist. Nervous people would knock on the door looking for the doctor. On one occasion a young college student called, finally plucking up the courage to ask Auden if he was the abortionist. "No" he replied, "poet".

Auden and Kallman entertained luminaries from the arts, including the composer Igor Stravinsky and his implausibly-named wife Vera. On one occasion the luckless Vera went to use the bathroom to answer the call of nature. In a valiant but ultimately doomed attempt to give the bathroom a woman's touch - or to make it sanitary, at least - Vera emptied a basin of dirty fluid which she found on the floor, and re-filled it with clean water. When the time came for the diners to enjoy dessert it was discovered that the dirty fluid in the basin was in fact a chocolate pudding cooked by Kallman. Not only that, the basin was one in which Auden would routinely answer the call of nature himself.

For Igor Stravinsky, Auden was "...the dirtiest man I have ever liked".

(Sources: Tell Me the Truth About Love (2009), BBC Documentary; Six Poets (2014), Alan Bennett; Auden (1995), Richard Davenport-Hines)

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