05/06/2024

The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Poems, Vols. 1 and 2 ed. by Edward Mendelson. 
Princeton University Press, 2022. 808 pages; 1105 pages. 
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid


At some point in the late 1940s, Auden wrote a porn poem called “The Platonic Blow.” I don’t remember how I first heard of it, but I do remember reading it in the stacks of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. It was conveniently available in a li’l old ’60s underground mimeograph thing called Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. This latter was edited by one of the singers from a band I loved when I was little: the Fugs. 

Obviously, Auden did not submit the poem to the magazine. It was not selected from any slush pile. Instead, it was leaked by somebody who worked at the NY Public Library, who happened to have a copy. When I first read the text, I felt pretty confident Auden could not have written it—not because of the porn but because of the prosody. I remember tons of the lines being rhythmically awkward as hell. My thought was: If Auden wrote this, it must have been in a spirit of “plausible deniability.”

Mainly I just thought he didn’t write it. Then I read Edward Mendelson’s Later Auden, where the poem is discussed on page 298. Back of that book also includes the following note:

“The Platonic Blow”: TS (Lincoln Kirstein Estate); the unauthorized printed versions that appeared some years later are inaccurate.

I was like Well, that settles that. The old boy wrote it, all right. And maybe those rhythms were not entirely his fault (?). Then began…the Waiting Period. 

I was very aware that Mendelson was busy-bee-ing his life away, editing Auden’s opera lyrics, plays, prose, everything. For fifty years now, Mendelson has had more or less complete control of the literary estate, and was (if I understand it) given this power, when he was like eleven months old, by Auden himself. And the poet made a shrewd move. Mendelson may have been a young guy, but he was already vibrating with moral fervor, reverence for his Sovereign, and protoplasmic scold-energy for everyone else. No one has (or has ever had) more follow-through. Therefore: I knew it was only a matter of time before I could get a load of “The Platonic Blow” in an absolutely accurate and footnoted state.

A word about what’s in the poem. The term Platonic has caused some confusion over the years. It’s not Platonic in the sense of a Platonic friendship. It’s Platonic in the sense of Absolutely Perfect: the model, stored in the Special Collections of the Regenstein Library of the Gods, towards which all male-male blowjobs must aspire. You’ve heard of the Mother of All Battles? This was supposed to be the Mother of All Blowjobs.

I haven’t read it in a long time, but memory says: Ballad quatrains, twenty or thirty. It may have been in couplets; it may have been shorter. Content: “I” pick up, off the street, a working-class piece of beefcake; I take him upstairs; we chat briefly; I melt his brain. The End. I don’t remember how vivid the description is of the Organ. I don’t remember if there are Song-of-Solomon metaphors. Indeed, my hope was to refresh my memory, within seconds of getting the books under review out of their box. I’ve been waiting, oh, twenty years or so for them to appear…

Consequently, you may imagine my disappointment, when I discovered you STILL can’t see an accurate text of the poem, because it’s not included in this thing either. There are sections of hitherto-unpublished material, but “Platonic Blow” has been slighted. 

I was outraged. But then I found this brief paragraph, prettymuch page 1, last sentences of the Preface:

The many poems that Auden wrote for friends or acquaintances, or for his own amusement, with no thought of publication, will appear in a forthcoming volume, Personal Writings: Selected Letters, Journals, and Poems Written for Friends.

God Almighty. Listen, I know this is a perverse review. But everybody and her aunt and uncle are gonna be talking about how great Auden was, and how many of the poems in these two volumes are capital-E essential, etc. How many times do you need to hear all that? “He’s one of my favorite poets!” —Me too!— But I wanted to reread “The Platonic Blow.”


ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).

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