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.