Monthly Archives: August 2021

Making Nothing Happen

It was probably inevitable that the two most famous quotes about poetry’s purpose, Shelley’s ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ and W. H. Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ would be so contradictory: poetry is a house with many rooms.

David O’Hanlon-Alexandra’s ‘New Defences of Poetry’ project, now available on its own website here, marked the bicentennial of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’ by inviting defences of poetry today and received a wonerful range of responses. (I was very glad to have a piece included.)1

I particularly appreciated Polly Atkin’s essay ‘Poetry as its own defence’, which puts Auden’s quote in its proper context. Often invoked ‘to gesture to the redundancy of poetry’, Auden’s words, which are lifted from the poem ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, are their own defence:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
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.

For Auden, through Yeats (and now through Auden) poetry is a mouth: as Atkins memorably puts it, ‘a conduit for speech, meaning, knowledge, understanding.’ The phrase ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ ought to be read not only in the context of the line (poetry makes nothing happen, but ‘it survives’, which is something), not only in the context of the whole stanza (which, like Auden’s Yeats, is a bit silly, if knowingly so) but in the context of the whole poem, which ends on a very different note:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Here, poetry is an attitude to the world – a way of expressing hope. That doesn’t feel like ‘nothing’.

I am with Atkin, too, in being sceptical of Shelley’s figure of the poet as ‘interpreter of the sacred and the arcane’, this idea that poets have exclusive insight into moral or spiritual truths beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Not only does the evidence just not bear this out, it is a profoundly elitist idea – or at a least slightly cultish one – implying a hiearchy with poets (and perhaps their fans) at the top.

But it’s also an idea which, at least on these islands, seems to be rearticulated in new ways in every generation: W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Ted Hughes all went in for it and you can still smell it lurking at the bottom of a lot of theories about what poetry might be. Auden, for me, represents a dissident tradition: respectful of poetry’s ‘gift’, he knew that poets themselves are as human as the next person.

My own piece was the result of a long running, entirely one-sided, argument with Ben Lerner and his book ‘The Hatred of Poetry’, in which the poet argues that poety’s power depends on its unique familiarity with disappointment. I think one reason I am troubled by Lerner’s argument is that even in its apparent humility (poets are failures, poetry is about failure) it reminds me so much of that Shelley-esque notion of poetry possessing some unique moral understanding, an understanding that resides somewhere in its poetic essence, where only the truly sensitive can find it…

1 David’s introduction says everything I would want to say and more about why criticism, poetics, whatever you want to call it, is important. It is also generous survey of the ‘defences’ themselves, which are a treasure trove.

Bleistein with a Cigar

Review: T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, Anthony Julius, 1995

The great strength of Anthony Julius’s study of T. S. Eliot’s literary Jew-baiting is also, in a way, its weakness. Julius does not linger on the poet’s motivations, his influences, his reception or even his later work, but instead focuses – almost to the point of exhaustion – on how Eliot used anti-Semitism – its images, its ways of thinking, its resonances – to make poems. The skill with which he did so, Julius argues, makes these poems not only a product of the anti-Semitic imagination, but a contribution to it.

Julius is a barrister not a poet or a critic. He picks his ground carefully. Later in life, Eliot protested that as a devout Christian he could not possibly be anti-Semitic, since anti-Semitism was theologically unsound. The tortured reasoning is beside the point: Eliot was deflecting the charge onto his own character, away from the poems. Julius does not fall for the trap. The case is clear and convincing: Eliot’s early poems ‘exclude’ Jews by presenting them as objects of disgust and deirision.

That much was clear to me the first time I read the Collected Poems. In the same way that the image of the Jew, for Eliot, conjures up a putrid atmosphere, poems like ‘Gerontian’ and ‘Burbank with a Baedeker’, squatted there at the beginning of the book, colouring the way I read the rest. Reading The Waste Land I was always waiting for the suggestion that Jews are implicated in the horror. It never comes, but only because Ezra Pound, of all people, excised an interlude known as ‘Dirge’, which depicts Bleistein’s corpse decaying beneath the Thames. The phrase ‘neither gentile nor Jew’ remains. I still find it hard to read those words without hearing a sneer.

This is an important book. Before Julius, no one had laid the charges so thoroughly. But it is also an uneven one. Partly this is a matter of style: Julius does not really have any. He reads best when he is dissecting naïve notions about poetry’s intrinsic lack of content (the idea that if a text includes an argument or a statement, or is morally suspect, then it is not a ‘true’ poem): critics have apparently argued that Eliot’s poems cannot be anti-Semitic, because no good poem could be. Since the poems are good, they can’t also be anti-Semitic.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to treat arguments like these with the short shrift they deserve. Poetry does not have the magical ability to dispel the accumulated weight of history and culture. Words mean things. The horrifying thing about the poems is that they are well written. Yet Julius will also riff for pages on the implications of a particular line or image, and while this is part of his method, it is hard to follow and often feels overcooked. It is not necessary to believe that Eliot understood or meant every single unsavoury implication of ‘Rachel nee Rabinovitch’ with her ‘murderous claws’ to believe he knew exactly what he was doing by putting her in the poem.  

When T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form came out over twenty five years ago it caused a storm. But it was a storm which, as Tom Paulin observed in the London Review of Books, went nowhere. Instead, the debate the press – and in the LRB’s letter pages – settled swiftly into the familiar, boring and largely irrelevant question of whether or not Eliot’s other poetry could be enjoyed guilt-free (of course it can).1

That reception said something depressing about literary culture in the UK, but it also had something to do with the book itself. In focussing on the form of the offending poems, Julius does not go into any depth about what Eliot’s anti-Semitisim might have meant for his broader development as a writer – both with regards to his critical writing and his reputation.

There are important questions to ask here about the relationship between anti-Semitism, modernism and reactionary conservatism – about how appealing Eliot’s view of the world was (and still is) to writers and readers and how comfortably a little bit of Jew-baiting fitted into the programme. As late as 1934 Eliot was arguing that ‘reasons of race and religion combine’ to make any large number of ‘free-thinking Jews’ undesirable in Christian society (specifically in the education system).

Julius includes tantalising hints about the importance of defacement and ugliness to Eliot’s ideas about poetry, and about Eliot’s conflicted notion of himself as an intellectual. He even suggestions that anti-Semitism might have been necessary to Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism, in that it offered a world-view with the Jew at one extreme – representing everything Eliot detested about modern society – and the Christian at the other (the English Christian, too, Paulin would stress). But these threads are never picked up, and, in their absence the debate about the book slipped into clichés. A quarter of a century on, the critical reckoning Julius and Paulin were calling for has yet to really get going.

1 As an example of how low the reception of Julius’s book sank, the LRB received – chose to publish – this letter: “It is an astonishing weakness of Tom Paulin’s review that he shows no awareness of the insidious ambiguity of the term ‘anti-semitism’ or of the great damage done to the fabric of Western nations by Jewish interests during the last few hundred years.” You can read the article and responses here.