Thursday, December 30, 2010

Those The's

When John Ciardi (above left), a poet and a translator of Dante's Divine Comedy, was teaching a Composition class at Harvard in the late forties, one of his students, Frank O'Hara, (above right), was himself a poet aspiring to publication.  In one poem written for the class, O'Hara had a line "she wailed at bier" ... leaving out the article the which most readers would expect.  Ciardi marked on the paper that a the belonged before bier, saying that though the eminent poet W.H. Auden (above, center) sometimes omitted an article, "[to do so] still seems precious to me."

A few years later O'Hara, having achieved a modicum of poetic fame, and living in New York City, took up an opportunity to meet Auden; O'Hara arranged to show the master a batch of his poems, including "The Fattening Nymph" with its line "she wailed at bier".

When Auden came upon "she wailed at bier" he reprimanded O'Hara ever so gently and ever so wittily. "You've got to be an Auden to get away with lines like that," he said.

(I collected, and re-worked, this anecdote from the wonderful City Poet - The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara, by Brad Gooch, published in 1993.)

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