SMOKING MAKES NOTHING HAPPEN

Drugs like caffeine and  nicotine are wonderful stimulants for poetry.

Five packs a day, and you, too, could be a great poet.

In 1939, a transition year marking the start of WW II, the poet W.H. Auden was divided.

Auden was between jobs, homelands, faiths, political beliefs,  romances–as well as drags on his cigarette.

The English poet was about to settle in the U.S. (New York) say goodbye to friend Christopher Isherwood (who moved to California in April) meet and“marry” Chester Kallman–a devotee of anonymous men’s room sex, abandon his atheism for the Church of England, give up his Marxism for a belief in Western Democracy, and abandon travel reporting for college teaching.

In a Nation article in March 1939, Auden played prosecutor and defense—rhetorically dividing himself—in debating the poetic worth of W.B. Yeats–who had died in January of that year.

Yeats’ death surely made Auden,  famous and middle-aged in 1939,  reflect on his own worth as a poet, and, naturally on the worth of poetry itself in a brutal age approaching war.

Are we surprised, then, that poetry’s most divided and ambiguous statement about itself, emerged in March of 1939, in a poem by Auden on W.B. Yeats?

We really don’t need to puzzle over the meaning of “Poetry makes nothing happen,” for it is clearly the utterance of a helplessly divided and self-pitying man: “Poetry makes Auden happen” is closer to an accurate statement, for poetry makes a great deal happen.  Auden, the famous poet, felt sorry for himself as he contemplated the death of another well-known poet (Yeats) falling like a tiny droplet in the ocean, a day when a “few thousand”  were aware of something “slightly unusual.”

Or, if Auden wasn’t pitying himself, the phrase probably sprang from Auden’s sense–which one can detect in the Nation article–that Yeats was (and this is probably correct) a right-wing loon; “poetry makes nothing happen” was a description of Yeats’ poetry, not poetry.

Auden looked around at the world in 1939 and said, rather gruffly, after smoking a pack of cigarettes with a few Pinot Noirs, ‘look, Yeats believed in fairies and Hitler is about to set the world on fire…

It was Yeats–Auden thought he was a freak.

Auden knew poetry–in general–made things happen.

After all, poetry created the poet, Auden, who made the ambiguous statement, ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ in the first place.

The idea that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ is…silly.

Auden married Kallman–and, to no one’s surprise, Chester broke Wystan’s heart.   Shall we say, then, “Marriage makes nothing happen?”

We should remember that poetry is much larger than W.H. Auden or W.B. Yeats, or any individual, and that sordid details and facts pale beside universals, and small facts can suddenly become universals, depending on the context.  We should remember what Percy Shelley, whose poetic treatment of the death of John Keats blows away Auden’s ditty on Yeats, said in his A Defense of Poetry:

The frequent recurrence of the poetical power, it is obvious to suppose, may produce in the mind a habit of order and harmony correlative with its own nature and with its effects upon other minds. But in the intervals of inspiration, and they may be frequent without being durable, a poet becomes a man, and is abandoned to the sudden reflux of the influences under which others habitually live.”   –Shelley, A Defense

A long poet does not exist.

Sure, a poem, or a poet, or poetry might–sometimes–make nothing happen.

Fairy dust and puffs of smoke make nothing happen.  Most of us know that.

But, again, Shelley:

The exertions of Locke, Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau,  and their disciples, in favor of oppressed and deluded humanity, are entitled to the gratitude of mankind. Yet it is easy to calculate the degree of moral and intellectual improvement which the world would have exhibited, had they never lived. A little more nonsense would have been talked for a century or two; and perhaps a few more men, women, and children burnt as heretics. We might not at this moment have been congratulating each other on the abolition of the Inquisition in Spain. But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief. The human mind could never, except by the intervention of these excitements, have been awakened to the invention of the grosser sciences, and that application of analytical reasoning to the aberrations of society, which it is now attempted to exalt over the direct expression of the inventive and creative faculty itself.”  –Shelley, A Defense

What was Shelley on, anyway?

1 Comment

  1. thomasbrady said,

    November 6, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    Terry Eagleton, reviewing R.F. Foster’s Yeats biography in ‘The Nation:’

    “In any case, Foster is himself an offspring of Protestant Anglo-Ireland, and does not intend to be too rude about his eminent predecessors. It is not at all that he is out to whitewash Yeats; he pulls no punches over the poet’s flirtations with Irish fascism (another word the great man couldn’t spell), his fascination with violence, his sympathies for Mussolini’s Italy or his unpleasant eugenic obsessions with stopping the poor from breeding. As with many a Modernist writer, Yeats’s politics were as appalling as his writing was superb, though Foster is not the kind of thinker to whom it would occur to investigate the relationship between these facts. But he is also well aware that Yeats remains a political hot potato in Ireland today, censured by some Gaelic nationalists and wielded as a cultural totem by some of their opponents. Foster naturally wishes to tell the truth as he sees it, but he does not want to provide Yeats’s critics with too much ammunition in the process.”

    Eagleton writes of the “Irish-Anglo Ascendancy.”

    Maybe Porsey could speak to that…