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Poetry makes nothing happen… or does it?

By Don Share

Catpupil03042006

You see the phrase, “poetry makes nothing happen” trotted out over and over again, attributed to W.H. Auden as some sort of evidence for the reductiveness and hermetic inutility of poetry.  And yet…This ignores the fact that the phrase occurs in a POEM – one, moreover, that eulogizes a poet who made things happen (being a politician and activist, as well as a writer), W.B. Yeats. And in context – only part of that context, since I can’t legally quote the entire poem, and that context is absolutely enormous – the poem actually says:

     For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
     In the valley of its making where executives
     Would never want to tamper, flows on south
     From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
     Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
     A way of happening, a mouth.

I’m not practicing literary criticism here, by the way; I’m reading exactly what it says on the page: poetry survives: it is a way of happening, a mouth.

Even if, as some argue, by the time of the poem’s publication Auden had lost his belief in poetry as an agent of political change, he would not, as Jon Stallworthy points out, have dared say the words “poetry makes nothing happen” to the living Yeats, no sir.

As it happens, the origin of the phrase is Auden’s Partisan Review essay of about the same time (1939), “The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats,” in which he imagines putting Yeats on trial for his belief in fairies and other “mumbo-jumbo.” As the British poet Angela Leighton remarks, “in the imaginary court case to which he brings the poet, the defence lights on a phrase which will yield its own poetic riches.”  In Auden’s courtroom “the case for the prosecution [of Yeats] rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted nor a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.” When this gets reworked into the famous “makes nothing happen” bit, Leighton observes, the phrase “turns, by a tiny inflection, a redistribution of its stresses, into its opposite: ‘poetry makes nothing HAPPEN.’ By this accentual difference, ‘nothing’ shades into a subject, and happens. This is an event, and its ‘happening’ sums up the ways of poetry. Intransitive and tautological, nothing is neither a thing, nor no thing, but a continuous event.”  So for Auden, the job of the poet is not to be what he called, at about this time, a “crusader” – but to make poems happen.

“Poetry, that is, survives / in the valley of its making…”

Is it romantic to imagine poetry accomplishing anything in a world of happenings?  Maybe so, with a big R; as A.F. Moritz says in an essay, “What Man Has Made of Man,” in this month’s issue of Poetry magazine:

“Poetry is not at all what it’s often said to be, the indulgence, development, and expression of private inward life. This is one of those half-truths that is the worst error, even a lie. Poetry is inward self-development plus the insistence that this must have a principal place in the public forum plus a third thing, a conclusion that flows from the first two. Everyone must be allowed full personal development, and everyone must be allowed full participation, since only full participation leads to full personal development, and in turn a proper society can only be produced by full development of each member. Poetry is, above every other human endeavor, the place where person and society are not merely joined but revealed in their original unity. Poetry is the place where the strange, painful division we have created between person and society is suffered, despaired over, denounced, subjected to comparison with memories and dreams and myths of better times, and given the gift of a prophecy: that the proper unity still and always persists, and that it can become the world we actually live in, not just in verse, but on both sides of our front door.”

And Moritz traces this view back to Wordsworth, who came up with

“the famous phrase ‘what man has made of man’ … in a time of war: the French Revolutionary Wars of 1792 to 1802, which after 1800 merged into the Napoleonic Wars that lasted to 1815: twenty-three years of almost unbroken international violence. Let’s recall the history of this phrase in such a way as to underline its meaning and continuing relevance. It occurs in the poem ‘Lines Written in Early Spring,’ which Wordsworth composed and published in 1798, in the aftermath of great disappointment. Wordsworth had been in France at the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. At first he was an eager partisan of the Revolution. It seemed to promise that the world would suddenly be made new in the shape of justice, that people everywhere would shake off chains. ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,’ he wrote, ‘But to be young was very heaven!’ Soon, though, the Revolution descended into ruthless violence, partisan exterminations, then war by France against neighbors, and Wordsworth renounced it. But he was in despair because his hope had been destroyed, and he felt he did not know who he was or what he should try to make of himself. His beloved England had opposed the new freedom, and then the new freedom had turned into cruelty and tyranny. Was there hope of freedom anywhere in the world? Was there any way of living that did not mean joining in a worldwide status quo of injustice: being given influence if you serve oppressive regimes, being let alone if you acquiesce in them, receiving poverty if you happen to occupy a lower rung, and oppression, even death, if you resist? Could any of this be called communion? Wasn’t the whole landscape nothing but isolation, because even if you agreed and participated, you really were denying yourself, falsifying yourself?  In this desolate situation, which was equal parts political and personal, Wordsworth set out to rebuild hope and a vision of possibility for a transformed society.”

In the end, Wordsworth drew inward; society transformed itself in ways he hadn’t dreamed of, and he lived out his life writing lots of dull late-period poems few enjoy much now.  But the hope and vision persist, and Moritz traces them up through our own recent history by way of Juan Ramón Jiménez and Czeslaw Milosz.  The question of hope and vision remains timely.  There’s explosive political and economic turmoil around the world each day as I write this.  And this very week we note such landmarks as the first anniversary of Obama’s presidency – and the passing (at the age of 100) of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who wrote, in his classic Tristes Tropiques:

“Man is not alone in the universe, any more than the individual is alone in the group, or any one society among other societies. Even if the rainbow of human cultures should go down for ever into the abyss which we are so insanely creating, there will still remain open to us — provided we are alive and the world is in existence — a precarious arch that points toward the inaccessible. The road which it indicates to us is the one that leads directly away from our present serfdom: and even if we cannot set off along it, merely to contemplate it will procure us the only grace that we know how to deserve. The grace to call a halt, that is to say: to check the impulse which prompts Man always to block up, one after another, such fissures as may open up in the blank wall of necessity and to round off his achievement by slamming shut the doors of his own prison. This is the grace for which every society longs, irrespective of its beliefs, its political regime, its level of civilization. It stands, in every case, for leisure, and recreation, and freedom, and peace of body and mind. On this opportunity, the chance of for once detaching oneself from the implacable process, life itself depends.

Farewell to savages, then, farewell to journeying! And instead, during the brief intervals in which humanity can bear to interrupt its hive-like labours, let us grasp the essence of what our species has been and still is, beyond thought and beneath society: an essence that may be vouchsafed to us in a mineral more beautiful than any work of Man: in the scent, more subtly evolved than our books, that lingers in the heart of a lily; or in the wink of an eye, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that sometimes, through an involuntary understanding, one can exchange with a cat.”

To grasp the essence of what our species has been and still is: this is at once political, personal… and poetical.

Comments (30)

  • On November 4, 2009 at 5:03 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Wow…Don!

    You have humbled all of us.

  • On November 4, 2009 at 5:23 pm john wrote:

    “Poetry is, above every other human endeavor, the place where person and society are not merely joined but revealed in their original unity.”

    At first I thought, nah, the dance floor is the place where that happens, and then I thought, no, it’s blogging! Moritz’s continuation, his meditation on the suffering, desperation, and denunciation of division, and the memory, dream, and prophecy of unity, is evocative, but I would urge people to seek these experiences outside of poetry as well. Poetry makes things happen (and “nothing” is neither a “thing” nor an event, unless perhaps it’s a dramatic metaphor for the experience of a Heraclitan insight into universal impermanence), but there are much more sociable ways of experiencing and bridging divisions. Not saying that poetry is anti-social! Just that it’s marginal, and *nothing* wrong with that.

    Anyway, thanks Don — makes me want to read the whole article.

  • On November 4, 2009 at 5:35 pm Don Share wrote:

    Quite right, John, and thank you!

  • On November 4, 2009 at 9:48 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Maybe the main thing poetry makes happen is, that it sharpens one’s inner hearing, one’s capacity to listen. This is itself can offer an avenue of escape from solitude, for intellectual companionship. & maybe that’s the beginning of politics, for the “animale compagnevole” (Dante : man is the companionable animal). Good poetry offers a sort of attunement by way of words.

  • On November 4, 2009 at 9:50 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    sorry, I meant “this IN itself”. Attunement does not guarantee proper 2-finger typing.

  • On November 5, 2009 at 7:38 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    Thanks for this, Don. Much-needed medicine! I was falling into misanthropy and despair, this this has made me feel almost hopeful.

  • On November 5, 2009 at 9:37 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Wendy: misanthropy is the wiser path. Forsake the devils!

    Sincerely yours,
    the wildlife of the Earth

  • On November 5, 2009 at 10:32 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    LOL. I’m reminded that humor is considered the healthiest of defense mechanisms.

    Seriously, are we not earthlings, as well? Perhaps it’s time for reconciliation with the rest of the family…

  • On November 6, 2009 at 8:55 am Leucis Hughes wrote:

    Cantus Formus: [from cantus firmus]

    Parsimony is the lack of willingness to participate in the distributive laws of an economy or the reduction of something to its simplest plausibilities. Parsimony was Aristotle’s method. A polis that does not realize the sociolinguist implications of the simplicity of virtue being one standing by their word allows very little opportunity for enlightening more than what in the popular mind equates to pathology. An economy is responsible for the distribution of resourceful particulars within a boundary i.e. knowing when to conclude a clear thought. Philosophical grammar is dependent on clarifying intentions: Wittgenstein & Kant are useful words to semanticize as well.

  • On November 6, 2009 at 11:55 am Steven Fama wrote:

    Hi Don,

    Might you, if you please, unpack a bit your thinking for concluding that you “can’t legally quote the entire poem.”

    I don’t understand why you can’t, or rather, I believe you can. You’d be doing it for an educational, non-profit purpose, it’s but one of hundreds of Auden poems, would have little if no impact on sales of Auden’s work, and despite your disavowal of the same, your essay in fact is a work of criticism and comment, as it sheds light on, offers a perspective on, the poem.

    Or maybe when you say you can’t legally quote the entire poem you mean that Harriet.blog and/or Poetry, in an agreement / contract with you, prohibits you from quoting poems in their entirety without permission of the copyright holder, regardless of any interpretation of fair use?

    Thanks.

  • On November 6, 2009 at 12:00 pm Don Share wrote:

    Not much to unpack: we have not been able to obtain permission from the rightsholders to reproduce any of Auden’s poems in full on this website, even though it is for an educational, non-profit purpose.

  • On November 6, 2009 at 1:11 pm john wrote:

    Weird. Poets.org has it.

    http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15544

    Which puts me in mind of Christopher Smart.

    Where ask is have, where seek is find,
    Where knock is open wide.

    (Excerpted here:
    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=174441 )

    Or as chant, led by a woman with a bright flamboyant wild red wig at the WTO protests in Seattle 10 years ago, had it,

    What do we want? EVERYTHING
    When do we want it? ALL THE TIME

  • On November 6, 2009 at 1:40 pm Don Share wrote:

    Yep. They were able to get rights to reproduce the poem there… We’ll keep trying!

  • On November 6, 2009 at 2:00 pm Bill Knott wrote:

    and poor Paul Zukofsky is pilloried (and plundered) for claiming the same rights as the Auden estate . . .

    I’m just an idle onlooker in this copyright/Net free access conflict,

    but what’s going to resolve it? will the Authors League have to bring a class action suit against the ISPs,

    and they’ll enforce it (how) ?

    and if the robbers of PZ’s copyright justify their theft by asserting it’s beneficial because it increases the value and reputation of the poet,

    why can’t I p-o-d the 69 sonnets Auden produced over his lifetime into a volume/pdf

    and use the same excuse?

  • On November 6, 2009 at 2:39 pm Steven Fama wrote:

    My view is that fair use would permit quotation of the poem in full, if the purpose is educational, not-for-profit criticism or commentary.

    Also, of course, I acknowledge that my view may not be the view of a court that would by the ultimate decider, and that the the person or entity that quoted in full would be liable for the Auden copyright holder’s legal costs should the copyright holder take the matter to court and win.

    On the other, other hand, reviews and commentary both in print and on-line quote poems in full all the time, and most are not permissioned. I mean, I see it all over. I believe those full poem uses, for purposes of comment and criticisms, for non-profit, educational purposes, do not infringe on copyright.

    I’m still curious if this prohibition on quoting in full was placed on Don by Don, or by his Poetry Foundation contract. I know the terms under which Google bloggers blog, what about here? I’m now curious. Are these bloggers paid (byt the post?, word?)?, is the blogger responsible and liable for all content, with no protection from the Foundation? Any such back-story can shed light on the content posted, I do believe. Has any Poetry Foundation blogger posted the terms and condition under which they write, if any? I suggest someone should do that.

    And by the way, the Auden copyright holder view — assuming that it is that a full poem can’t be reproduced without permission — is FAR different than the view of copyright expressed by Paul Zukofsky. The latter purports to prohibit ANY quotation, even excerpts; that’s plainly and grossly at odds with the “fair use” doctrine. In contrast, the concern here with Auden involves reproduction of a poem in its entirety. There’s a big difference in the two views. As I acknowledge above, the Auden view, while I reject it, isn’t so certainly at odds with “fair use” as Zukofsky’s.

  • On November 6, 2009 at 2:50 pm Don Share wrote:

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at, but to satisfy your curiosity, I have no contract pertaining to my blogging on Harriet. It’s really quite simple: the PF has tried to get permission to include Auden’s poems in its online archive and has not succeeded. Because the organization did not receive permission from the rightsholders to reproduce the poem, I refrained from quoting it in full here. What others do in print or online is up to them. In any case, I agree with the distinction you make in your last paragraph.

  • On November 6, 2009 at 2:50 pm Steven Fama wrote:

    And Don,

    You could have — I think should have — linked in your post to the poem in its entirety at peots.org. Or mentioned where it could be found in its entirety, given that the entirety is “absolutely enormous” to the point you make.

    The post, I now grok, doesn’t even give the poem’s title, which puzzles me. If you assumed that all your readers would recognize the quotation and the poem from which it was excerpted, all I can say is thank you very much for having such confidence in your readers, but that such is not always warranted with respect to me, personally, and I didn’t know this one here.

    P.S. I think the quotation from Levi-Strauss is tremendous.

  • On November 6, 2009 at 2:54 pm Don Share wrote:

    Thanks for this, Steven.

    It’s a pretty famous poem, and I assumed most folks here would know it; I have confidence in my readers, it’s true!

    John already gave the link to the poem at poets.org in a comment above; I didn’t in my blogpost because, frankly, I didn’t know it was available there till John mentioned it.

  • On November 6, 2009 at 9:24 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Wendy said:

    “Seriously, are we not earthlings, as well? Perhaps it’s time for reconciliation with the rest of the family…”

    Yes, I agree…and I’ve also been waiting for Congress to pass a law against hurricanes. It should provide for substantial fines and penalties should any hurricane even enter our territorial waters. Imprisonment should they actually dare to hit land!

    Wendy, predators and prey can never reconcile.

  • On November 6, 2009 at 11:11 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Nature is a cannibal.

  • On November 7, 2009 at 12:06 am Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    “and if the robbers of PZ’s copyright justify their theft by asserting it’s beneficial because it increases the value and reputation of the poet,

    why can’t I p-o-d the 69 sonnets Auden produced over his lifetime into a volume/pdf

    and use the same excuse?”

    .
    Integrity, honor and simply decency, maybe?

    .
    P.S. (Pssst…) Auden wasn’t really a poet.

    .

  • On November 7, 2009 at 3:24 pm Terreson wrote:

    A thoughtful blog. To be honest, however, I’ve never much been worried by Auden’s worry. It isn’t just that I view poetry, all art, even politically inspired art, as ahistorical, it is that, in the end, I figure Auden failed Keats’s test:

    “Brown & Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomine. I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes all other considerations, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

    By this standard Auden maybe wasn’t a great poet. Shakespeare was. Certainly Goethe was. And Keats intuited what matters the most. Poor Auden. Poor any poet or artist lacking the capacity for the ahistorical. I read an online poet to say once: ‘Poetry is neither comment, complaint, or consolation. It is a seizure and a shiver.’ Makes sense to me.

    Terreson

  • On November 8, 2009 at 9:57 am Richard Epstein wrote:

    “Poor Auden.”

    It’s always odd and interesting to observe the untalented patronizing the great. I can almost picture Auden saying, “Poor Terreson,” but he’d probably have been too busy writing “The Fall of Rome” and “In Praise of Limestone.”

    RHE

  • On November 8, 2009 at 5:30 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Dear Richard:

    After reading your post I went straight to my library and retrieved the Auden poems you referenced…and re-read them.

    I repeat: (pssst) Auden wasn’t really a poet.

    Since I was in the library anyway, I looked in the dictionary. There, right next to the entry ‘poetaster’, was a little picture of W.H. Auden.

    Synonyms offered were: ‘fraud’, ‘phony’, ‘versifier’, ‘fake’, ‘scammer’, ‘bamboozler’, ‘charlatan’ and ‘sham’.

    What say ye to that?

  • On November 8, 2009 at 6:16 pm Richard Epstein wrote:

    I say, de gustibus, etc.; but not all tastes are equally informed. Somewhere out there there’s someone craving a liverwurst and Kool Whip sandwich. For all I know, he’s got a degree in Culinary Arts, but I do not take him seriously.

    RHE

  • On November 8, 2009 at 7:42 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Richard:

    I highly recommend that you read:

    Dylan Thomas
    Robert Frost
    Wallace Stevens
    Robinson Jeffers
    William Carlos Williams
    T.S. Eliot
    Edna St. Vincent Millay
    E.E. Cummings
    Theodore Roethke
    Kenneth Patchen
    John Berryman
    Weldon Kees
    Thomas Merton
    Robert Creeley
    William Blake
    W.B. Yeats
    Robert Bly
    Percy Bysshe Shelley
    and
    Walt Whitman

    and then seriously reconsider your position.

  • On November 8, 2009 at 8:21 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Oh, chill, Epstein. I’m just yanking your chain. Auden is canon. You have nothing to worry about.

  • On November 8, 2009 at 8:38 pm Richard Epstein wrote:

    Okay, I finished reading those guys. Now what?

    I didn’t care much for Shelley–found him wan and dyspeptic. When he fell upon the thorns of life and bled, amidst a thicket of exclamation points, I lost interest.

    Ms Millay seemed to me noteworthy mostly for being really good looking. I believe she has lost most of her looks by now.

    Weldon Kees is, um, the best poet ever to come out of Nebraska.

    I really like John Berryman. I really don’t like Robert Bly.

    Thanks for the recommendations. I am considering reading Byron next, but I knew a guy named Byron in jr high, and he wasn’t much of a writer.

    RHE

  • On November 8, 2009 at 9:04 pm Terreson wrote:

    Well, Richard Epstein, I can see how my ‘poor Auden’ comment can be taken as condescending. It was actually genuine. I remember over two decades ago being bothered by as much self-loathing over my vocation as I figure Auden was all or much of his life. Then I had one of those personal on-the-road-to-Damascus moments. And it suddenly made sense, this vocation of ours. It still does. Oh, and not to get into a ping pong match about who is good and not good, off the top of my head I can’t think of another American poet who could command an SRO audience the way Millay could. At least not until the likes of Dylan and Jim Morrison.

    Anyway, at least you seem to be enough familiar with my work to determine its relative degree of talent.

    Terreson

  • On November 9, 2009 at 8:19 am Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Liverwurst and Kool Whip. Wow…never thought of that. I’m going to try one (with mustard).

    :-)


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, November 4th, 2009 by Don Share.