George Szirtes [author of the 2005 TS Eliot lecture, Thin Ice and the Midnight Skaters] wrote:

“‘If poetry makes nothing happen what use is it?’ scoffed a recent letter in a serious newspaper…What does music make happen? Or visual art? The writer might have been thinking of social change.”

Listing various poems which had worked towards such change, Szirtes continued: “The subject of poetry being life, and politics being a part of life, poets have written as they thought or might have voted. Whether they actually made anything happen is not clear. The quotation about poetry making nothing happen is, in fact, half-remembered from the second part of Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats, that goes:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows 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.

“Those who want poetry to make things happen forget the last line of the above: that poetry is itself a way of happening. But what does it mean to be ‘a way of happening’? Does it mean anything at all?”

Auden wrote his elegy after Yeats’s death in January 1939, as the world was preparing itself for war. In his book The Poetry of WB Yeats, written during the conflict and published in 1941, Louis MacNeice wrote:

“If the war made nonsense of Yeats’s poetry and of all works that are called ‘escapist’, it also made nonsense of poetry that professes to be ‘realist’. My friends had been writing for years about guns and frontiers and factories, about the ‘facts’ of psychology, politics, science, economics, but the fact of war made their writing seem as remote as the pleasure dome in Xanadu. For war spares neither the poetry of Xanadu nor the poetry of pylons.”

Writing during the Irish Troubles in her study Poetry in the Wars, Edna Longley observed that all Northern Irish poetry since 1969 had “shared the same bunker”:

“Thus what Derek Mahon calls ‘An eddy of semantic scruple / In an unstructurable sea’ might as well concentrate on ‘semantic scruple’. Neverthless MacNeice, knowing Yeats and Ireland, did not follow Auden into his post-Marxist conviction that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’: ‘The fallacy lies in thinking that it is the function of art to make things happen and the effect of art upon actions is something either direct or calculable.’ [The Poetry of WB Yeats, 1941]. Yet Auden’s own phrase in his Yeats elegy – ‘A way of happening’ – defines the only social and political role available to poetry as poetry.”

Neil Astley
The Guardian

Part 2 tomorrow…

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