Poetry makes nothing happen

That oft-quoted line of Auden’s came into my head again this morning. Oft-quoted, but so often out of context. Here are the lines in full, from ‘In Memory of W.B Yeats’:

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.

What Auden is really saying is that poetry isn’t like gunfire or a bomb blast, it cannot change the world beyond recognition (like war can) but it survives violence and strife to give us something to believe in when it is hard to believe there is anything left. It is a way of finding meaning, keeping sane in the modern world. Auden was writing in memoriam to Yeats, whose ‘gift survived it all’, whose political commitment was never separate from his poetry, whose poetry is still spoken and read today.

I thought of Auden and that poem this morning while listening to Congressman Raúl Grijalva on the radio talking about ‘civility’ in the wake of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Congressman Grijalva said it is ‘civility that is needed in both our discourse and our debate.’ He went on to say ‘words have meaning’; it is the discourse of hatred that has brought about the horrendous state of affairs in America today. The shock jocks, the teabaggers, the birthers are fighting their campaign with words – angry, bilious words. Words are not guns, but they can fire the imaginations of those who carry them.

And conversely, words can provide solace in times of financial despair and continuing war. It is language and discourse (and poetry) that make us civil. Auden wrote those lines for Yeats in 1939. Later in that year he would write a poem commemorating the start of WWII on September 1st. Here are the last two stanzas:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Sixty-two years later those lines were being sent round the world through the internet (I think Auden would have approved) in the wake of another September catastrophe. Why? Because they are still relevant, still powerful, still important. If it seems that the world is unable to live by them, then at least we can continue to repeat them, as a way of showing an affirming flame.

Photograph of Auden in New York in 1960 by Richard Avedon