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 and so, rightly, is criticism.
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 an appropriately diverse and challenging range of responses. (I was very glad to have a piece included.)1
One of the pieces I particularly appreciated was 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 really be read not only in the context of the line (poetry makes nothing happen, but ‘it survives’, which is something), and not only in the context of the whole stanza, which, like Auden’s Yeats, is a bit silly, if knowingly so (Mad Ireland?), but in the context of the poem. Auden puts his faith is not in some abstract thing called ‘poetry’, but in life, however difficult that proves:
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.
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 conservative idea – or at a least slightly cultish one – implying a hiearchy with poets (and perhaps their fans) at the top.
It is 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 ‘poetic reasoning’. Auden 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, if entirely one-sided, argument with Ben Lerner’s book, ‘The Hatred of Poetry’. My broader aim was to defend poetry from those who ask too much of it, or who place it on a pedestal, of whom Lerner happens to be a particularly prominent representative.
On reflection, I think one reason I am troubled by Lerner’s argument is that 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 – quite where is rarely made clear – rather than anything the individual poet actually writes, does or says. (To his credit, Lerner is clear that for him this moral value resides in poetry’s familiarity with failure, but I do not buy this either.)
Sometimes poets take pride in arguing that arguing about what poems are and what they do is impossible. If I was being cynical, which I usually am, I would say we fear taking poetry apart and looking under the bonnet because we worry it will undermine its value: in effect, we think we need to choose between faith and reason. It’s a false choice.
1 David’s introduction says everything I would want to say and more about why criticism, poetics, whatever you want to call it, is so important today. It is also generous survey of the ‘defences’ themselves, which are a treasure trove. There is a great deal to think with in there and I was humbled, frankly, to be in the same store as so many poets/critics I always look forward to reading. In the spirit of David’s call for the project to be a spark for further discussion, over the next few weeks (more likely, months) I am going to try to respond to some the pieces which spoke most to me.
NB the picture is W. H. Auden. His notoriously wrinkly face has been crinkled again by the book cover.