Poetry makes nothing happen... or does it?
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.
Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...