A well-known line from a well-known poem by W. H. Auden is “…poetry makes nothing happen.” It comes in section two of “In Memory of W. B
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. Yeats” where it competes with several great lines.
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.
This was published in the collection Another Time in 1940.
I hear in this Rilke’s Sonnet 3 of Book One of The Sonnets to Orpheus which was published in 1922. Here’s the German:
Ein Gott vermags. Wie aber, sag mir, soll
ein Mann ihm folgen durch die schmale Leier?
Sein Sinn ist Zwiespalt. An der Kreuzung zweier
Herzwege steht kein Tempel für Apoll.
Gesang, wie du ihn lehrst, ist nicht Begehr,
nicht Werbung um ein endlich noch Erreichtes;
Gesang ist Dasein. Für den Gott ein Leichtes.
Wann aber sind wir? Und wann wendet er
an unser Sein die Erde und die Sterne?
Dies ist nicht, Jüngling, daß du liebst, wenn auch
die Stimme dann den Mund dir aufstößt, – lerne
vergessen, daß du aufsangst. Das verrinnt.
In Wahrheit singen, ist ein andrer Hauch.
Ein Hauch um nichts. Ein Wehn im Gott. Ein Wind.
I wanted to offer Rilke’s German to be sure I wasn’t just “hearing” the translation I know best. But as I can’t speak or read German and will assume as much of you who come here (and also assume you skipped ahead) here is an English translation by Stephen Mitchell:
A god can do it. But will you tell me how
a man can penetrate through the lyre’s strings?
Our mind is split. And at the shadowed crossing
of heart roads, there is no temple for Apollo.
Song, as you have taught it, is not desire,
not wooing any grace that can be achieved;
song is reality. Simple, for a god.
But when can we be real? When does he pour
the earth, the stars, into us? Young man,
it is not your loving, even if your mouth
was forced wide open by your own voice–learn
to forget that passionate music. It will end.
True singing is a different breath, about
nothing. A gust inside the god. A wind.
So, you hear that last line of Auden’s in there, “A way of happening, a mouth,” readily enough, but I think it also says much the same thing–“forget that passionate music” holds much the same meaning as “your gift survived it all” (that is the passionate singing of self and nationality, silliness.)
Anyway, that is preface and preamble to my response to this which I read today in the NYRB blog, “The Great Poet’s Brawl of ’68,” by Charles Simic. The brawl, as it turns out, was not great (we’ll leave the poets alone). Simic is remembering from his privileged perspective in the pantheon of important (i.e., published and laureled) poets, a poetry conference: “The biggest and the most illustrious gathering of poets I have ever attended took place in June of 1968 at the Stony Brook World Poetry Conference.” The piece is a scant six paragraphs but manages to convey the irrelevance of poets and poetry conferences. It ends in this fashion, further casting an unflattering light on our electric-bodied singers:
As soon as the fight started, Allen Ginsberg went down on his knees and began chanting some Buddhist prayer for peace and harmony among all living creatures, which not only distracted those fighting, but also startled a few puzzled couples who had discreetly retreated into the bushes during the party and were now returning in a hurry with their clothes in disarray. As for what started the fight in the first place, even the ones who had bloody noses had no idea, though later that night I heard it may have been an insult to someone’s girlfriend or wife that led to a bottle of champagne being broken over their head. Whatever the reason, there was never another meeting of warring poetry tribes to ascertain whether what we witnessed was an explosion of collective animosity or a defense of an unknown woman’s honor.
We’ll leave the movie clichés alone, or rather, let them stand.
A friend remarked on this piece: “not much has changed really — there are still warring jealous factions in what is a bread line.”
It’s an odd coincidence for me that I came to this gaze at the Muse’s minions hard upon an essay in the journal Sulfur (#8) from 1983 by Eliot Weinberger about another poetry event on May 26, 1982, at Town Hall in New York. This one was to benefit the nuclear weapon freeze movement.
Organized by Galway Kinnell, it was called, immodestly, “Poets Against the End of the World,” and it featured, inauspiciously, 13 poets–[list of famous poets]–as well as movie stars Jill Clayburgh and Ossie Davis as emcees. It was probably the best-attended poetry reading in New York since the Vietnam War….The drift of the evening was, as might be expected, “poetry as life vs. the bomb as death.” Practical considerations, and other political issues, were largely skirted.
Of course to be against nuclear weapons, against species extinction, should go without saying (but apparently it doesn’t). What Weinberger calls attention to is the fact that the poets thought that their statements in support of this obviousness “were actually doing something” and that this “is depressing.” This “allows the non-political to seem political, without affecting the poetry itself and without jeopardizing university positions or government grant patronage.…[W]e’re in for the same old poem about a daffodil, but now that daffodil will be seen in implicit (unspoken) contrast to the destruction of all daffodils.”
But listen to where Weinberger suggests we all ought to put our energies. We need
to cure the psychosis that is driving us toward the war that will end all war and peace. For 40 years the West, and particularly the United States, has been caught in a mass hysteria that all of us, believers, and non-believers alike, suffer from daily. I am speaking of the madness of anticommunism…as a religious crusade, the equation of communism with the Enemy, with Satan.
We have a nuclear arsenal in the name of anticommunism; we kill, directly or indirectly, hundreds of people every day in shifting sections of the world in the name of anticommunism; we give billions to murderers abroad because any enemy of our Enemy is our friend. One-fourth of all American children liv in poverty because of anticommunism. Because of anticommunism our government spends more on the food for the dogs of Army officers than on the school lunches for our children.
We would now write “antiterrorism” but we would mean the same thing.
The problem of writing poetry in the shadow of the mushroom cloud (and now, let’s add climate catastrophe) is that “it has destroyed the central myth all poets live by: ‘Whether or not I am read today, future generations may read me.’…[N]uclear war, more than the death of the living, means the obliteration of the future living.”
Moreover, American poetry, especially that written by those born after 1945–the Irradiated Generation–seems to be written if not in an ivory tower then in a gompa: a community of like souls in a remote mountain fastness….On the aesthetic right, poetry is seen as a medium suitable only for anecdote and reminiscences of summer camp. On the aesthetic left, there is a talking in tongues, as though the Pentecostal fire had truly descended. It is, almost all of it, a poetry written from a Confucian wisdom–when the times are bad, head for the hills–that is no longer applicable. In the nuclear age, there are no hills, no world to be in reclusion from. Herakleitos seems more to the point: “You cannot hide from that which will not go away.”
I find I simply want to reproduce Weinberger’s essay (it can be found in his collection Works on Paper if you can’t lay hands on Sulfur 8). But I’ll end with his call to poets to look at how they are positioned. In academia, in the bread line of industrial poetry practice in universities, begging for alms from the very state which made and deployed the bomb, the state which has added jihadists to the “Red Menace” to be the perpetual objects of our “two-minutes hate.” A revealing aside from Weinberger which we now shrug our shoulders at (much the same way we shrug at Chomsky happily embedded at MIT, our most effective institution of war technology):”(…how do we reconcile the fact that one of the finest publishers of poetry, the University of California, is also the designer of all nuclear warheads?)”
Should Shelley have the last word? I’m not so sure. This is likely as famous as Auden’s line though perhaps less well-known, or known only to laugh at.
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
I suppose, though Shelley, like all of us, must have confronted mortality (but, as an atheist, without the safety net of a savior God), he did not have to worry about The Bomb or Climate Catastrophe or cascading species extinction, etc., and you can see this in his assertion that poets are “the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” That is an excellent claim.
Unfortunately it seems we are in an age without reflection. Rilke maybe lets us have it both ways: “true singing is a different breath, about/nothing.” I am however partial to Bobby Frost’s “The Oven Bird” (1916):
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Ah, what to make of a diminished thing…war? Something manly obviously. Oh, hell, let’s end with Mina Loy because she’s one of the great poets of the early 20th century and you more than likely have never heard of her. Song #2 from “Songs to Joannes.” Here’s what to make of a diminished thing.
In which a wanton duality
All the completions of my infructuous impulses
Something the shape of a man
To the casual vulgarity of the merely observant
More of a clock-work mechanism
Running down against time
To which I am not paced
My finger-tips are numb from fretting your hair
A God’s door-mat
On the threshold of your mind