Poetry makes nothing happen? Might as well say poetry makes everything happen.
“Poetry makes nothing happen” was never a slogan; our lazy literary culture has made a catch-all catchphrase out of four words in a subtle, discursive poem with a complex argument.
George Szirtes gave this a sharper focus in his 2005 TS Eliot lecture, Thin Ice and the Midnight Skaters. Previewing his lecture in the Guardian, he wrote:
“‘If poetry makes nothing happen what use is it?’ scoffed a recent letter in a serious newspaper. It is not a new question, if a bit Gradgrindish in nature. 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….