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Photo by Chris Felver

It’s been a long time since poets took seriously Horace’s maxim that the point of poetry is to delight and instruct. I doubt Ron Padgett set out to challenge that trend with his new book of poems, How to Be Perfect. But there’s much to suggest he’s doing so anyway.

Still, you might not know you’re being schooled; you’re too busy chuckling. “Mortal Combat,” for instance, is a cheeky title whose cheekiness is clear only at the end. The speaker battles the idea of eating an English muffin. Telling himself not to think about the idea of eating a muffin doesn’t work, because he’s already thought about it. But he’s stronger than the idea. It can’t change who he is, a “squinty old fool stooped over / his keyboard having an anxiety attack / over an English muffin! And / That’s the way I like it.”

Padgett, a New Yorker who visits the International Poetry Forum on March 11, has mastered the art of surprise. He leads you down avenues of free association, and you can’t see where he’s going until he gets there. The effect is a cloud of uncertainty zapped by a delightful snap of light, as in a seasoned comic’s polished standup routine.

Rather than being merely witty or self-effacing, Padgett’s comic sensibility is often leavened with a pinch of bittersweetness — as when he muses on his dead mother or on a friend, the poet Kenneth Koch — or a dollop of alienation. “Country Room” seems at first a clever play on the slipperiness of language. But on a deeper level, it appears to touch on the fundamentals of the universe — matter, space and time — while addressing humanity’s struggle to find meaning amid evident meaninglessness.

Padgett isn’t a nihilist. He’s not an optimist, either. A poem called “Why God Did What He Did,” in which he explains why the Almighty hates us, suggests he’s far from cockeyed. Rather, Padgett seems likes a Stoic philosopher eager to peel away the vanities and strip his poems to their bare essentials in order to get to the heart of it all.

Yet it’s hard to say what that heart is. Padgett is an elusive kidder. Even the poem about God’s hate might be an existential put-on. His title poem, “How to Be Perfect,” might be a joke, too. After all, the second item in this list of advice is “Don’t give advice.”

His sincerity, however, is abundant. Enjoy simple pleasures. Be friendly; it will make you happy. Progress, he says, doesn’t exist. So live in the present. Reread great books. Brush your teeth. Grow something. Rest when you’re tired. And for heaven’s sake, don’t walk around train stations saying “We’re all going to die!”

It’s clear that How to Be Perfect aims to delight. Perhaps another aim is to offer wisdom on how to live.

John Stoehr
Pittsburgh City Paper


Andrew Motion (Photo: David Rose)

Like the awfulness of our National Anthem, the futility of the post of Poet Laureate is one of those running sores in our national culture which seem beyond healing. Every time the matter is aired, there’s a consensus that something ought to be done about it, and every time – because we ultimately prefer the comfortable slippers of tradition to the red cap of revolution – nothing ends up being done at all.

And now the debate resurfaces, as Andrew Motion reaches the end of his ten-year tenure, and a successor will be announced soon, through royal decree prompted by some mysterious cabal of Whitehall mandarins. Should the honour pass to a woman or someone of, er, diverse background? What’s the point, and does anyone care?

Andrew Motion has tried tremendously hard to liven the thing up and make it matter. He will surely get a gong and be remembered as one of the busier and better members of the line. He has, in his own words, been “a kind of flag-waver, bunting hanger-up, drum-beater, you name it, for poetry”, sitting on committees, making public appearances, talking in schools, inaugurating an online poetry archive, and promoting the classics and the Bible in the educational curriculum.

But despite his invigorating zeal, the function of Poet Laureate remains primarily that of a royal courtier, judged by the public on the grounds of the bowing and scraping he produces for state events – in particular, his response to birthdays, marriages and funerals.

Here I fear that Motion has performed no better than duds of his office such as Colley Cibber or Alfred Austin. His rap on Prince William’s 21st birthday doesn’t give Dizzee Rascal anything to worry about (“Better stand back/ Here’s an age attack,/ But the second in line/ Is dealing with it fine”), while his tribute to the Queen Mum on her centenary (“the balconies, the open wave/ And smile, the hats, the hats, the hats”) and the Queen’s diamond wedding (“Love found a voice and spoke two names aloud –/ Two private names, though breezed through public air”) have a genteel simpering tone that suggests something composed “by a lady” for the parish mag.

You might think that this does no harm, and I dare say that plenty of people sigh a pleasant little sentimental sigh when they read these effusions. But if a Poet Laureate is meant to promote the art of poetry, I really can’t see the merit in such soppy, cringing stuff, which only confirms the view of Kipling (who turned the Laureateship down) that poets shouldn’t be paid servants of the state.

Poetry does not take kindly to the formal panegyric, because flattery precludes the freedom of thought and language that are its lifeblood. The need to be complimentary, while keeping a polite distance required by protocol – you can’t be critical of the subject, and you can’t be in love with him or her either – puts fences round the imagination and leaves the poet hopelessly confined. It’s an open invitation to mediocrity.

Motion has also written poems about events of national moment, such as the Paddington rail disaster and the centenary of the TUC. These avoid McGonagallian banality, but there’s something forced about their tone, something absent from his more lyrically meditative “personal” poetry.

Great verse has, of course, been inspired by public events – Marvell’s Horatian Ode or Hopkins’s The Wreck of the Deutschland, for example – but what makes it great is its troubled ambiguity: it wasn’t motivated by a spirit of civic duty, which is what Motion’s seem to be.

Poetry doesn’t need a Poet Laureate: I’m not even sure it needs a “flag waver”. All poetry needs is poets, with a rich store of language to draw on.

Nobody, I would suggest, has ever added an iota to his literary stature by his laureate poetry, and I doubt that institutions such as National Poetry Day have made much difference either. What matters is inspiration, which is something that can’t be legislated or even encouraged – either it comes or it doesn’t.

We have nothing to fear. Plenty of great poetry is being written and read. Within the British Isles, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Dunn, Peter Porter, Christopher Reid, Don Paterson and Mick Imlah are only a few of those who have published work of the highest artistic order in recent years. And verse of a lighter, more ephemeral sort flourishes too, in performance poets such as Murray Lachlan Young and Attila the Stockbroker, as well as in the rougher-edged creativity of countless rappers, hiphoppers and writers of rock songs.

Anyway, I am whistling against the wind. Come the spring, there will be another Poet Laureate, so who should it be? Someone who deals in lyric verse, or someone who can do rousing rum-ti-tum with the common touch?

Carol Ann Duffy can do both, very well, and is justly celebrated for her imaginative engagement with children. Simon Armitage, a cool but blokeish Northerner with fluency and grit, could speak to the problem of disaffected teenage boys. Benjamin Zephaniah and Roger McGough do terrific rum-ti-tum and make people laugh. The delightful Wendy Cope has ruled herself out, describing the Laureateship “as an archaic post, with ridiculous expectations attached to it”. Jackie Kay and James Fenton are other names in the hat. Ruth Padel isn’t on the shortlist, but she’s hugely clever, a brilliant communicator, and a wonderful performer of her own poetry.

But I guess they’re all pretty sceptical of the brief, and would agree with me that there are plenty of things which would do poetry much more good than another royal appointment: schoolchildren learning Keats’s odes by heart, for example, or billboards on the model of Poems on the Underground. Why can’t we drop the whole Laureate charade and focus on those instead?

Rupert Christiansen

Stop being so wet … Detail from Henry Wallis’s portrait of Chatterton (1856)

Henry Wallis has a lot to answer for. On exhibition in 1856, his deliciously necrophilic painting of the 17-year-old poet Thomas Chatterton –lolling in a garret, poisoned by his own elegantly consumptive hand and blighted by the unappreciative cruelty of the cold hard world – became instantly, and enduringly, iconic. Forget Benjamin Zephaniah or Carol Ann Duffy; this skinny eighteenth century Emo kid with a penchant for self-harm and a dodgy taste in cornflower blue pantaloons still epitomises most people’s notion of what a poet should be. The stereotype may be romantically appealing, but it’s also alienating and disempowering. In a time when we have such a diverse and modern poetry scene, why does it still have such an abiding hold?

The myth of the otherworldly poet is as old as writing itself, but it’s the Wallis generation who really dug it in. Blindness has long been used to bestow divine authenticity upon poets, from Homer to the fictional Celtic bard Ossian, as if a lack of outer vision deepens the inner kind. However, it was the self-mythologising 19th-century Romantics, with their trembling apprehensions of the sublime, who really cemented the impression that a poet’s life must be as incompetent as his art is transcendent. And modern films are more than happy to sustain the stereotype by focusing on the frail and the fey – Tom and Viv, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, poor defenceless Sylvia.

Much great work has been done to show that poets are actually robust, engaged participants in, and contributors to, the world. From mainstream initiatives to underground collectives, there is a burgeoning and youthful poetry scene. Our most prestigious poets often seem specifically selected to bring out the reality in poetry’s ethereality, from the earthily intimate Heaney to the bracingly pedestrian Motion. But poetry is still presumed to be an unworldly pursuit.

Much of what lies behind this, I think, is that there is still no reliable, high-profile public platform through which poetry can engage with the issues of the day. Now, I’m the first to admit that politically partisan verse is very liable to be doggerel or worse. Motion’s official assignments cause me, and apparently him, pain.

But British poetry should be treated more like our theatre, which has come out blazing in recent years with engaged and topical treatments that are pieces of timelessly excellent art nonetheless. How about properly integrating poetry performance into the National’s repertoire? I would love to see long runs of the same poem or collection of poems, performed nightly, so they become part of national discussion, review and debate. As most poems also need close, slow, private reading to yield their riches, a published text to take away could be included in the ticket price.

No doubt many will instinctively cringe. As with theatre, universal emotional authenticity, rather than fashionable soapboxing, remains at the heart of great poetry. The demands to get bums on seats can compromise quality and range, and I am in no way advocating a utilitarian view of art. But, like actors and directors, poets are also flexible, engaged craftsmen, and must be included in the material and economic realities of the marketplace if versifying has a chance in hell of becoming a valuable and viable career.

At last weekend’s Battle of Ideas – an inspiring “open-ended exploration of new ideas, research and social trends” held at Kensington’s Royal College of Art – the poets I spoke to were worryingly quick to bemoan their redundancy in a cruel and capitalist world. One trio was particularly concerned about copyright, feeling raped and pillaged by the merciless denizens of the digital age. Social media is a tough and often anarchic environment; but they seemed more interested in lamenting their exploitation than learning how to make use of the new media.

Poets must be proactive in placing themselves visibly at the centre of temporal concerns, and devising ways to influence the national cultural landscape and give poetry a strong role in our everyday lives. Subsidy must provide public platforms – be that the National Theatre or some separate, dedicated venue, with a linked social media presence – to allow those interpretations to be heard. Keats may have said that “my imagination is a monastery and I am its monk”, but it’s time for poetry to come out and play.

Molly Flatt
Guardian Book Blog

This essay is a bit long for a single posting here, but every word feels important. I hope you’ll stay with it til the end.

Poetry doesn’t matter to most people. They go about their business as usual, rarely consulting their Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Frost. One has to wonder if poetry has any place in the 21st century, when music videos and satellite television offer daunting competition for poems, which demand a good deal of attention and considerable analytic skills, as well as some knowledge of the traditions of poetry.

In the 19th century, poets like Scott, Byron, and Longfellow had huge audiences around the world. Their works were best sellers, and they were cultural heroes as well. But readers had few choices in those days. One imagines, perhaps falsely, that people actually liked poetry. It provided them with narratives that entertained and inspired. It gave them words to attach to their feelings. They enjoyed folk ballads, too. In a sense, music and poetry joined hands.

In the 20th century, something went amiss. Poetry became “difficult.” That is, poets began to reflect the complexities of modern culture, its fierce disjunctions. The poems of Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens asked a lot of the reader, including a range of cultural references to topics that even in the early 1900s had become little known. To read Pound and Eliot with ease, for instance, one needed some knowledge of Greek and Latin poetry. That kind of learning had been fairly common among educated readers in the past, when the classics were the bedrock of any upper-middle-class education. The same could not be said for most readers in the 20th century — or today, when education has become more democratized and the study of the classics has been relegated to a small number of enthusiasts. The poems of the canonical poets of high modernism require heavy footnotes.

Yet poetry can make a difference in the lives of readers. I’ve always known that myself, having read and written poems for at least four decades. Every morning I begin the day with a book of poems open at the breakfast table. I read a poem, perhaps two. I think about the poetry. I often make notes in my journal. The reading of the poem informs my day, adds brightness to my step, creates shades of feeling that formerly had been unavailable to me. In many cases, I remember lines, whole passages, that float in my head all day — snatches of song, as it were. I firmly believe my life would be infinitely poorer without poetry, its music, its deep wisdom.

One tends to forget that poetry is wisdom. I was in Morocco recently, and a devout Muslim mentioned to me that the Prophet Muhammad, in his book of sayings, the Hadith, had said as much. But the Koran also teaches, I was told, that poets are dangerous, and that decent people should avoid them. That reminded me of Plato, who wished to ban all poets from his ideal republic because he thought they were liars. Reality, for Plato, was an intense, perfect world of ideas. The material world represents reflections of that ideal, always imperfect. Artistic representations of nature were thus at several removes from the ideal, hence suspicious.

But Plato also had other worries about poets. In the Republic, he complained that they tend to whip up the emotions of readers in unhelpful ways. They stir feelings of “lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure.” Poetry “feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up,” he said, while only the “hymns of the gods and praises of famous men” are worthy of readers. The law and reason are far better.

Although Plato didn’t quite sink the art of poetry, he cast suspicion on the craft, and poets since then have rarely been comfortable with their place in society. Even the popular Romantic poets — Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and others — lived on the edge of the social whirl, not quite respectable. More recently figures like Allen Ginsberg have derided their country. Poets have an unruly streak in them, and have not been the most welcome guests at the table of society.

Teachers and professors have long considered poetry a useful part of the curriculum, and one of the last places where poetry remains a central part of the culture is the classroom. To a degree, poets have been “domesticated” by the academic village, welcomed into its grove. Frost was among the first poets to get a big welcome on the campus, and he taught at Amherst College for much of his life, with stints elsewhere. He spent his last decades crisscrossing the country, appearing at colleges, reading and lecturing to large audiences. He believed firmly in poetry as a means of shaping minds in important ways.

In “Education by Poetry,” one of his finest essays, Frost argued that an understanding of how poetry works is essential to the developing intellect. He went so far as to suggest that unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values, “you don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you.” Those are very large claims.

Poets do make large claims, and they are usually a bit exaggerated. In his “Defense of Poetry,” Shelley famously wrote: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I prefer the twist on that offered by a later poet, George Oppen, who wrote: “Poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world.”

I don’t especially want poets to make laws or rule the world. For the most part, they would perform very badly in those public ways. The world of the poet is largely an interior world of the intellect and the emotions — where we mostly live, in fact. And poetry bolsters that interior realm. In a talk at Princeton University in 1942, when the world was aflame, Stevens reflected on the fact that the 20th century had become “so violent,” both physically and spiritually. He succinctly defined poetry as “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pushing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of poetry, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.”

The pressure of reality is indeed fierce, and yet poetry supplies a kind of counterpressure, pushing back against external forces that would overwhelm and obliterate the individual. Poets give a voice to the world in ways previously unacknowledged. We listen to the still, small voice of poetry when we read a poem, and that voice stands in ferocious contrast to the clamor in the culture at large and, often, to the sound of society’s explosions.

I always define poetry for my students as a language adequate to our experience — to our full experience, taking into account the interior valleys, the peaks, the broad plains. It gives voice to tiny thoughts, to what the Scottish poet and scholar Alastair Reid, in a lovely poem, calls “Oddments Inklings Omens Moments.” One does not hope for poetry to change the world. Auden noted when he wrote in his elegy for Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen.” That is, it doesn’t shift the stock market or persuade dictators to stand down. It doesn’t usually send masses into the streets to protest a war or petition for economic justice. It works in quieter ways, shaping the interior space of readers, adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.

Language defines us as human beings. We speak, therefore we exist. We have the miraculous ability to gesture in words, to make statements and requests, to express our feelings, to construct arguments, to draw conclusions. Poetic language matters because it is precise and concrete, and draws us closer to the material world. In Nature, Emerson argues that the sheer physicality of words points us in directions that might be called “spiritual.” He puts forward three principles worth considering:

“Words are signs of natural facts.”

“Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.”

“Nature is the symbol of the spirit.”

Those statements formed a platform of sorts for the Transcendental movement, which studied nature closely for signs of spiritual life. The principles remain worthy of reflection. At some level, words suggest natural facts: “rock,” “river,” “bird,” “cloud.” The leap comes in the second statement, which posits a spiritual world. One can, I think, leap beyond conventional notions of spirituality here and acknowledge a deep interior world wherein each of us lives, no matter what our religious persuasion. I think of a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.” The mind has those heights and depths, and few have not sensed them, stood in awe of their terrifying majesty. That is the spiritual realm, which one can extend in any direction. Nature becomes, at last, Emerson’s “symbol of the spirit,” and poetry itself embodies that nature. It is part of it. It mirrors the vast interior world, populates it with images and phrases, provides a basis for the reality of individual lives.

I could not live without poetry, which has helped me to live my existence more concretely, more deeply. It has shaped my thinking. It has enlivened my spirit. It has offered me ways to endure my life (I’m rephrasing Dr. Johnson here), even to enjoy it.

Jay Parini
Posted on Denise Low, Kansas Poet
(Thank you to Writer Not Reading for bringing this essay to my attention)

In 1989, the American poet Dana Gioia lobbed a grenade into the cosy world of the US creative-writing industry. His essay, “Can Poetry Matter?”, spoke wittily and despairingly of “poets” graduating from courses who teach and produce fresh multitudes of versifiers, publish in the same magazines and reverently review one another’s books, most written in the same chopped-up free verse that has been the favoured form in the States since the 1950s.

Jay Parini admits in the opening line to his new book that “poetry doesn’t matter to most people”. Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us why, or why it should, or what we should do about it. He gives us a tour of poetic theory, from Aristotle to Derrida, and chapters on metaphor, voice and language. He offers worthy sentiments. “The language of poetry can save us”: how, and from what? “Poetry is useful because it draws us closer to the earth.” But one of the reasons why people have turned away – only a couple of generations since Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost could pack halls in the US – is given by Parini’s admiring quotation from Mary Oliver: “There isn’t a place/ in this world that doesn’t/ sooner or later drown/ in the indigos of darkness”. The poem, Parini says, “invites comparison with such poems as John Donne’s ‘Death Be Not Proud’.” It may do, but not to its advantage.

So why does poetry matter? One reason is that many people still enjoy some sorts of poetry. The one sort they have never liked is the sort they are told to like. Parini falls into the error of assuming that “free” verse is somehow more genuine than formal. But some of the most gifted of American poets (Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht and Gioia himself) have used the controlled music and passion of formal measures. None is mentioned here.

It is obvious that Parini has a great love of poetry and regrets that more people do not share it, but his book might have had more impact as a polemical essay prefacing a powerful anthology of modern poems. Not to despair. Shakespeare still fills theatres and some contemporary poets have large and enthusiastic followings. The trouble, particularly in academic America, is that too many poets decided long ago that what they did was not for the general public, and that public, silently, but with some sorrow, agreed and went away.

William Palmer
The Independent

Photo: Michael Malyszko

From a review of Mary Jo Salter’s latest volume of poems, “A Phone Call to the Future”:

Back in the 20th century, when such things seemed to matter, poets argued about the virtue of meter and rhyme. Occasionally the debate produced insights of lasting consequence, like Robert Frost’s snarky metaphor for free verse (“playing tennis with the net down”) and Charles Wright’s brilliant response: “the high wire act without the net.” But the debate was perpetuated more often by tribal loyalties than by artistic necessity. An argument that forecloses possibilities for art — that says X is good because Y is bad — can rarely be trusted.

Mary Jo Salter came of age as a poet in the 1970s when two tribes, the Language poets and the New Formalists, were sparring. The Language poets (named after a magazine called Language) represented a new surge of experimental writing, while the New Formalists (with whom Salter was associated) wanted to resist the influence of modernism, re-energizing poetry’s relationship not only to traditional form but to narrative. Like Salter, many of the New Formalists modeled their work on a strategically narrowed version of Elizabeth Bishop, a poet who wrote both free and formal verse with homespun virtuosity. But while Bishop continues to be read, the polemics associated with both the New Formalism and Language poetry feel dated, part of the niggling history of taste rather than the grand history of art…

We grow wise when we ought to be depressed, said the philosopher E. M. Cioran; wisdom is a way of controlling or defending ourselves against grief. But the kind of technical mastery cherished by the New Formalists may too easily foster a taste for emotional mastery. The impressionable ear gets used to the sound of well-turned conclusions. Questions are foreclosed; satisfaction sets in.

This is not about subject matter: Bishop’s domestic vignettes feel as spooky and harrowing as Hecht’s poems about the Nazi death camps because she resists all opportunities for emotional closure, preferring to dwell on what she called the “surrealism of everyday life.” In contrast, the new poems collected in “A Phone Call to the Future” feel comfortable with their conclusions, content with the maturity acquired through their realization, however rueful the feeling of lost youth: “You reach an age when classics / are what you must have read.” The satisfaction embodied by such quips seems coercive.

Only a few poets transcend the history of taste to participate in the history of art — and only in a handful of poems. Salter has been struck by lightning more than once, and “Another Session,” from her 2003 collection “Open Shutters,” suggests she’ll be struck again. In this sonnet sequence about depression and its aftermath, a patient confesses to her therapist the need “to be praised / for forcing these indictments from my throat. / For saying them well.” All of Salter’s poems are well said. “Another Session” is, like “Elegies for Etsuko,” a disorienting work of art.

James Longenbach
New York Times

Seamus Heaney thinks that poetry has a special ability to redress spiritual balance and to function as a counterweight to hostile and oppressive forces in the world. He calls this “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality”. Heaney’s personal mantra is a phrase by an earlier Nobel prizewinner, the Greek poet George Seferis, who felt that poetry should be “strong enough to help”. He wasn’t calling for straightforwardly uplifting verse, but saying that he valued poetry’s “response to conditions in the world at a moment when the world was in crisis”. This is what Heaney means by redress, whereby “the poetic imagination seems to redress whatever is wrong or exacerbating in the prevailing conditions”, offering “a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.”

David Constantine developed this theme in his essay The Usefulness of Poetry, showing how Bertolt Brecht’s dogmatic requirement that lyric poetry should be “useful” was subverted in his own work. The effect of Brecht’s poems on the reader is not an engagement with his political ideas, says Constantine, but rather “a shock, a quickening of consciousness, a becoming alert to better possibilities, an extension, a liberation”, for such poetry is, “to put it mildly, a useful thing if, when reading it, we sense a better way of being in the world”.

This is the perspective we need in considering the so-called “role” of poetry in the ecological debate: a “way of being in the world” or what Auden himself called “a way of happening”…As the world’s politicians and corporations orchestrate our headlong rush towards eco-Armageddon, poetry may seem like a hopeless gesture. But if Seferis and Heaney are right, poetry can at the very least be “strong enough to help”…poetry’s power is in the detail, in the force of each individual poem, in every poem’s effect on every listener or reader…

In Ireland people still think poetry is important. If our own politicians spent just a couple of minutes each day reading these kinds of poems, they might be better fitted to carry out their duties more responsibly. We might even be able to trust some of them then to act in our interest in what they do to tackle the problems of environmental destruction and global warming.

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…