Auden’s Love and Hate for the Poem and for Defecation: “The Geography of the House”
“The Geography of the House” by W. H. Auden is a scatological poem written in a strict form and with a serious tone. The poem resembles the mock-heroic genre of the 18th century in that it deals with a trivial subject matter in a neatly organized and consistent form that sounds almost epic. However, despite the seeming triviality of the content, when we read the poem with a psychoanalytical approach, we uncover a non-commissioned piece of writing about the creative writing process itself, a subject which the poet treats with a touch of cynicism in his commissioned critical works.
The poem consists of nine stanzas made up of eight lines. The fourth and the eighth lines of each stanza rhyme. In contrast to the formal structure of the poem the subject matter is trivial, base, and full of toilet humor. Yet, when we consider Auden the critic, who “like(s) not approve(s) of” the principle “[C]omplicated verse forms of great difficulty…even if their content is trivial” we realize that “The Geography of the House” is the type of a poem which he would like as a critic (Auden, Dyer’s Hand 47). As he suggests in the essay “Reading”, his critical opinions are to be considered as “manifestations of his debate with himself” and the principles on which he bases his evaluations of a critic is if the critic would like the type of poems he himself writes (9).
On the subject of excrement, Julia Kristeva’s theory on abjection as outlined in her work “Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection”, is useful to establish the parallelisms between a work of art and excrement. The theory suggests that the abject stands as a reaction to what threatens the integrity of the subject so as to protect it from the horrors of one’s own materiality and disintegration. As Kristeva puts it aptly: “Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be” (10). Excrement was once a part of the organism, and the self sees itself in the toilet, in that separated entity. We may link this to the line “De-narcissus-ized en- / -during excrement” in the fifth stanza, since it refers to the story of Narcissus who falls in love with his own reflection on the water. The two scenes, namely Narcissus looking at his reflection and the self looking at the dump just taken, bear disturbing similarities in terms of executions of these acts. A person who bends down to press the button to flush staring one last time at the thing which used to be one’s own, resembles Narcissus’ fixed gaze upon his own reflection. The self recognizes itself before it flushes and separates itself from the excrement that floats in the toilet water. There is a potential to love the dump, but abjection blocks the way.
In his essay “Writing”, Auden as well touches upon the love for the self-produced filth. He says “Most people enjoy the sight of their own writing as they enjoy the smell of their own farts” suggesting writing and bodily excretions are both forms of creations(17). In the case of the handwriting, he tells us on the same page that he employs a typewriter in order to distance himself from his own work, which he describes very suitably as ‘impersonal and hideous’ (17). The typewriter works just as the feeling of abjection, creates horror and distance so that the self can reassert itself as a separate being.
Auden, in the same essay, implies that this separation from one’s own work is essential for a genuine writer who “forgets a work as soon as he has completed it and starts to think about the next one” (14). In the poem, the same idea is treated in the last stanza. The suggestion is that only after the morning visit to the toilet we can “Leave the dead concerns of / Yesterday behind us, / Face with all our courage, / What is now to be.” These two pieces have a matching sentiment which requires the maker to abandon the thing made. Just as ‘a satisfactory dump’ after breakfast is a positive sign for a good day, the departure from the previous works is necessary, in the same way, for an author to focus on the works to be written in the days to come.
The distance between the poet’s self and the poem Auden posits as a significant aspect is touched upon again in his critical works. He believes that if a man is writing poetry, then what his dream of Eden is like is none of our business. Since poetry is where the quality of being true or false no longer matters but becomes “interesting possibilities” with no place for judgment, there is no need for an honest description of his subjective perspective (19). He discusses in “Making, Knowing and Judging” that “the knowledge of an artist’s life, temperament and opinions is unimportant to an understanding of his art” (49). Therefore, the artistic product should not be traced back to its maker in any meaningful way as there will not be a corresponding author at the other end when the self of the maker is reinvented by way of distancing from the work of art.
There is yet another effect of this abandonment Auden mentions in “Making, Knowing and Judging”. The poet is never certain whether he will be able to write another poem or not. “Will it ever happen again” is a question that haunts him throughout his career (52). The same anxiety can be observed in the poem when the speaker starts a prayer in the seventh stanza addressing the ‘Global Mother’ for a noble old age accompanied by functioning bowels and sphincters. We see again the similar emotions are elicited by these two acts of production in a way that equalizes them.
The direct link between defecating and creative artistic process can also be observed in the poem itself. The fifth stanza defines the act pooping as “This ur-act of making, / Private to the artist” and attributes the production of all the arts to that time spent at the stool. There is no differentiation among the types of artworks; the artist can be from any school of art and use any kind of medium for his art: the toilet is regarded as the place where what we may call inspiration comes from. As a result, what is produced after such musings qualifies as ‘enduring excrement’. Here, Auden clearly puts forward the idea of a work of art being a pile of dump with a naturally longer life span.
The toilet is referred to as “the House where / Everybody goes” in the first stanza. The pleasure of pooping is granted by nature to everyone “from / Cradle unto grave”. Hence, this trivial subject matter can as well be thought of as a common departure point for literally every single person on earth. What seems like a base content actually is a way and tool of creating an artistic space which is unsurprisingly inclusive, for it has its roots in this ‘primal pleasure’.
The fact that defecation is a universal practice is evidently valuable for Auden. At the end of his foreword to The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, he gives us the recipe of his daydream. His dream is to have a million readers, each one feeling that the piece has been written for oneself only (12). Moreover, these readers ought to be unaware of each other and close-mouthed about the experience. This, he explains, is the daydream of each author. Therefore, for a poet whose dream is to write poems that many people can connect with, it is particularly fitting to choose such a vastly experienced phenomenon as a subject to one of his poems. Just like his dream piece, toilet time is private, widespread yet not talked about, while one is completely unaware of what others are doing with their time in that particular space. This “white-tiled” space where “makers’ lives are spent” allows for deep contemplation and houses creative energy. It is the place where the pieces “are continually rewritten” (44). The universal and private, the experience expanding from birth to death is repeatedly reinvented through acts of defilement and separation.
As a mature poet delivering his Inaugural Lecture at the University of Oxford, Auden openly celebrates the inclusive nature of poetry. For him, “poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct – it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening”. In harmony with his lecture, Auden’s poem “The Geography of the House” conveys a series of emotions starting from bedazzlement to amusement to even sadness. Its subject can be considered to be at the very margins of poetry by plenty of people, but it still manages to be an inclusive self-reflexive poem about everyone with bowels and at the same time about the writing process itself.
Auden’s poem thus works as a useful supplement to the author’s critical writings since he claims that he writes his poems for love while producing his criticism on demand in order to cover his expenses. When we combine this poem with the selected prose employed in this essay, then we get a sense of how Auden sincerely felt during the process of writing poetry. It is nearly impossible not to imagine Auden the poet and Auden the critic gathering during the toilet time, and contemplating in that crouched position. It seems like “[A]ll the words are right, and all are yours” is a motto that derived from a consensus arrived there. We may be thankful to Auden for “not calling a spade a spade” and creating extensively various ways of expressing this universal experience.
Auden, W. H. “The Geography of the House”. Selected Poetry of W. H. Auden. 2nd ed.,
The Modern Library
—. The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. Vintage Books. 1989
Kristeva, Julia. “Approaching Subjection”. Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection.
Columbia University Press, 1982
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