‘Poetry makes nothing happen’


It is essential to look to the reaction of the reader when considering if poetry can make anything happen. One view is that if a reader goes on to do something as a consequence of reading poetry, then it has made something happen. Alternatively, one can argue that poetry has made something happen when it has had an effect on the reader, regardless of whether that person goes on to do anything.

Philip Sidney

Philip Sidney

Poetry can create in us politically charged persons and we can affect change. Philip Sidney in ‘The Defense of Poesy’ (1595) writes that poetry seduces the reader, ‘infecting us with many pestilent desires; with a siren’s sweetness drawing the mind to the serpent’s tail of sinful fancies…’[1] There is the suggestion of danger, that the excitement of thought towards to the realization of injustice and dissatisfaction can be a threat to the rule-makers of an existing society.

W. H. Auden’s ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ (1939)[2] explores sociopolitical issues as a means of honouring the dead poet, who was committed to political campaigns in his life and poetry.

Auden demonstrates vast inequalities in society, ‘ the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse’. Here the simile suggests the carnal attitude of the brokers and all the upper class in society that they represent. We experience their aggression in the plosive ‘b’ sounds that punctuate the line. The floor of the stock exchange takes on a new sense where Auden has comically used this figure of speech to continue the animal theme. The next line, in ironic juxtaposition, talks of the sufferings of the poor. That they are ‘fairly accustomed’ to their plight gives this a throw-away tone as Auden momentarily habituates the language of the brokers. Alternatively, if ‘fairly’ is interpreted to mean ‘what is just’, then the line becomes more blunt, summarizing the dated view that it is the fault of the poor that they are poverty-stricken and so they deserve their sufferings.

W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden

But what has this made happen? The poem is here speaking of a world that has been and still goes on this way regardless of the poet. The poet’s works have failed to inspire change in society.

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives…

A way of happening, a mouth.

Auden claims that poetry itself doesn’t make anything happen; it provides ‘a way of happening’, i.e. a vehicle for potential change. It requires the readership to respond to it. When people are inspired by poetry, they ought to act upon this, and only in this way can poetry affect change. Percy Bysshe Shelley in ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821) famously argued that poets were ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’[3]. The Latin, legis-lator, properly two words, means the “proposer of a law”, while it is up to the people to work to put a law (any change) into place.

But poetry has its limitations; it can’t bring back what is lost. Wilfred Owen in ‘Futility’ (1918)[4] evocatively captures his pain at the loss of a comrade. ‘If anything might rouse him now/ The kind old sun will know.’ This bitterly ironic reference to John Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’[5] subtly reminds the reader that poetry is merely the re-using of words and that words are not things but mere signs for the thing that they denote. These objects, too, can mean different things. The sun in Donne’s poem is a disturbance to lovers, totally inappropriate to the subject here. Owen suggests that words are inadequate. Just as the sun won’t revive the fallen, neither will poetry. It makes nothing literal happen.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

This is a view supported by ‘Cauliflowers’[6] by Paul Muldoon. This poem, a sestina, consists of subtle repetition of sounds: ‘Regain’, ‘Regan’, ‘Oregon’; ‘Jerry-can’ and ‘trepanned’; ‘Margaret’ and ‘Magritte’; ‘hose-pipe’ and ‘pipe-bomb’. It seems this poem is written by the logic of sound over sense. The words are chosen for their sound not their meaning, yet they come together to form a meaningful poem. ‘Magritte’s pipe’ reminds us of the notion that the words are not the things they denote. Meaning is generated by the arbitrary connection of sound. This idea totally removes power from words and suggests that they are incapable of bringing about concrete change.


Paul Muldoon

Paul Muldoon

But Sidney also appropriates poetry with moral function of helping one help oneself, stating that it can ‘move men to take that goodness in hand…’[7] Poetry comforts when it moves the individual reader and so can help that reader cope with and overcome personal issues such as loss.  This argument claims that it is enough when poetry causes a reaction in the reader, to say it is making something happen.

In Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ (1977)[8], poetry is the exploration of grief and can be said to be an aid to the writer as much as the reader. In the poem, Bishop experiments with the struggle for mastery; loss is made into therapeutic play. Bishop practices loss by bringing together loss and language in the repetition of words. The refrain means that the words, ‘the art of losing isn’t hard to master’ take on a new meaning each time. Initially it is superficial, she is speaking in vague terms of ‘so many things’. We sense a bitter tone as she accuses the lost of leaving her, they ‘seem filled with the intent to be lost’. ‘Fluster’ is again on a shallow level; the instinctive panic of search comes to mind. Then we encounter the loss of self- ‘where it was you meant to travel’- you didn’t become who you intended; it is the loss of ambition. Bishop is resilient, ‘and look!’ shows strong animated speech despite the inevitable sadness. The penultimate stanza begins to have shades of regret ‘lovely ones’ and ‘I miss them’. This reflects Freud’s ‘Fort-da’ rule. The little boy throws away the cotton reel and winds it back, asserting control over his loss through his action and language.

Bishop teaches us that she can control the language in the tight formal demands of the Villanelle, but she cannot control loss.

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

When she speaks of losing ‘cities’, ‘realms’, ‘two rivers’ and a ‘continent’, we question whether one can own these things. Bishop suggests that one doesn’t own anything for one can’t control what will be lost. One cannot own keys or a watch just as one can’t own realms or people. This is a disconcerting idea but if we accept the notion that we are not in charge, we will not be so surprised or hurt when we next lose something. And if we can say that we have learnt from this poetry, it has made something happen.

Finally there is a breakdown in the assurance of the statement when she adds in ‘not too hard to master’ where ‘too hard’ dilutes the power of the statement. Instead of gaining energy with each refrain, the resilience gets closer to breaking down. There’s the admission of strain with ‘Write it!’ and the stuttering where ‘like’ is repeated. This is ironic because the act of writing the poem itself reveals that her former losses haven’t actually prepared her for this one. But the formal demands of the Villanelle keep the emotion under control and stop it overwhelming poem.

The Villanelle offers no possibility of linear progression or narrative resolution, which suggests that Bishop is not interested in providing a factual account of her experience but only an emotional one. The repetitive form builds an ‘acoustic chamber’[9] of emotion. This correlates to John Stuart Mill’s view of the purpose of poetry, ‘to act upon the emotions’[10]. Bishop successfully shares with us her grief, allowing the reader to participate and do the same.

Alfred Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam A. H. H.’[11] is another poem concerning loss. It demonstrates how powerfully poetry can affect the reader. The poem honours Tennyson’s dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who to whom he was exceptionally close, having met at university. Hallam was engaged to Tennyson’s sister. The two friends looked forwards to a life-long friendship. Tragically, Hallam died in 1833 aged just 22. He died from a stroke; a blood vessel near his brain suddenly burst. The autopsy stated ‘a weakness of the cerebral vessels, and a want of sufficient energy in the heart’. In his poem, Tennyson evokes the failing heart of the subject as well as the faltering heart of the mourner in reaction to such a loss.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,

/       /     –     –  /        /     –      /

A use in measured language lies;

–   /     –    /    –       /    –       /

The sad mechanic exercise,

–      /     –   /   –    /   –   –

Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

–       /     –   /   –      /     –       /

The meter, iambic tetrametre, regulates the breathing of the reader as the poem is read out loud. This effects the heart beat, it slows down. William Empson summarises this by stating that the ‘rhythmic beat almost synchronous with the pulse seems sincere and to demand sympathy.’[12]

Dark house, by which once more I stand

Here in the long unlovely street,

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

/          –         –     /      –      /     –     /

So quickly waiting for a hand,

–    /    –     /    –    –    –    /

Here the unstressed syllables in succession fasten the beat, reminiscent of knocking, but more importantly, reflecting the quickened heartbeat. The verse is brilliantly experiential.

Be near me when my light is low,

When blood creeps, and the nerves prick

And tingle, and the heart is sick,

–     /   –      –     –     /     –    /

And all the wheels of Being slow.

–      /    –       /     –    /  –      /

The third line has a caesura, which has the effect of a skipped heartbeat. This is also evoked where there is three stressed beats in the line rather than four. While unstressed syllables together fasten pace, two stressed syllables together slow down the pace. So in the last line, which talks of the body slowing down, we read and hear this slower. E. S. Dallas remarks that ‘the measure of time… which the imagination will provide, is not a uniform beat, like that of a clock, but one like the pulse, varying according to circumstances.’[13]

This poem is important for several reasons. It shows that Poetry can immortalize the poet and their subject; that poetry can invoke a strong reaction in the reader and leave a lasting impression; that poetry can make the reader experience things closely, despite time and distance; and finally that a poet can use poetry as a means of therapy.

Though Auden’s elegy is not overtly comforting in itself, it openly describes similar properties of poetry. A world leaning towards World War Two where ‘In the nightmare of the dark/ All the dogs of Europe bark’ is a world without poetry, is full of ‘Intellectual disgrace’. Auden talks directly to Yeats as though he is alive, entrusting him with the power to save the people, ‘With you unconstraining voice/ Still persuade us to rejoice’. And though poetry did not stop the war from happening, it can heal in the aftermath. ‘Let the healing fountain start’ tells that poetry is healing, guides to goodness, encourages appreciation, liberates. Again we have an example of where poetry is ineffectual in concrete terms, but can be used to console. This paradox is expressed where these uplifting words about the nature of poetry contrast with the meter in this third section. The trochaic heptameter urges the reader forward and the regular AABB rhyme scheme reflects marching towards an impending doom.

The final rhyming couplet adds another layer; it perhaps suggests that if man had paid more attention to poetry, turned to poetry earlier, that war would have been prevented. ‘In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.’ This tells of the power of the poet to provide knowledge and understand that the reader can use to liberate themselves from the constrains of a society who claims they are ‘free men’ though they are manipulated, brainwashed, led to do things they think is their own will, but are false desires implemented by society. ‘Free man’ is overtly ironic and stands out bluntly in the middle of the line.

‘For poetry makes nothing happen’ can be read in two ways: either that it doesn’t make anything happen, or that it makes a happening out of nothing. The latter interpretation is the one with which I agree. If words are ‘nothing’, nothing but signs, then poets, in their artistic arrangement of these ‘nothings’ can make things happen. And not only is poetry ‘a way of happening’, it is also ‘a mouth’ or a way of knowing, where poets use artistic devices to move, teach and comfort, finding new ways of expressing injustice, grief and loss.

[1] Philip Sidney, ‘The Defense of Poesy’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 9th Edn (W. W. Norton & Co., 2012), vol. B, p. 1045. All further references will be to this edition.

[2] W. H. Auden, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. F, p. 2685.

[3] P. B Shelley, ‘A Defence of Poetry’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. D, p 856.

[4] Wilfred Owen, ‘Futility’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. D, p. 2039.

[5] John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. B, p. 1376.

[6] The observations on this poem take their cue from Dr Stephen Cheeke’s lecture on ‘What is a Poem?’ (12/10/12)

[7] Philip Sidney, ‘The Defense of Poesy’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. B, p. 1045.

[8] Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’, The Making of a Poem, ed. Mark Strand and Eavan Boland (W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), pp. 11-12.

[9] The Making of a Poem, ed. Mark Strand and Eavan Boland (W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), p. 20.

[10] John Stuart Mill ‘What is Poetry?’ (1859), The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. E, p. 1088

[11] Alfred Tennyson ‘In Memoriam A. H. H.’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. E, p. 1187

[12] William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (New Directions, 1966)

[13] E. S. Dallas, ‘Poetics’, Victorian Scrutinies: Reviews of Poetry 1830-1870 (Continuum International Publishing, 1972)