does poetry have any agency in the world?

It might not seem so, but poets have made some stirring arguments that it does, says Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley

Tuesday February 26, 2008

 Iraqi poet Ahmed Abdel Sara recites a poem in the ruins of Baghdad's al-Mutanabi street
Seeking 'redress' ... Iraqi poet Ahmed Abdel Sara recites in the ruins of Baghdad's al-Mutanabi street in 2007. Photograph: Ali Al-Saadi/AFP

This Friday I'm taking part in an event at the London Word festival called Making Nothing Happen: Writers and Writing in a Threatened World. The festival's publicity blurb subverts the event's problematical title:

"Inspired by WH Auden's quote that 'Poetry makes nothing happen', the organisers of the inaugural London Word festival will be hoping that their evening of readings and discussion concerning climate change and global terrorism will make something happen - at least in the collective minds of the event's audience." But "Poetry makes nothing happen" was never a slogan; our lazy literary culture has made a catch-all catchphrase out of four words in a subtle, discursive poem with a complex argument.

George Szirtes gave this a sharper focus in his 2005 TS Eliot lecture, Thin Ice and the Midnight Skaters. Previewing his lecture in the Guardian, he wrote:

"'If poetry makes nothing happen what use is it?' scoffed a recent letter in a serious newspaper. It is not a new question, if a bit Gradgrindish in nature. What does music make happen? Or visual art? The writer might have been thinking of social change."

Listing various poems which had worked towards such change, Szirtes continued: "The subject of poetry being life, and politics being a part of life, poets have written as they thought or might have voted. Whether they actually made anything happen is not clear. The quotation about poetry making nothing happen is, in fact, half-remembered from the second part of Auden's In Memory of WB Yeats, that goes:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows 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.

"Those who want poetry to make things happen forget the last line of the above: that poetry is itself a way of happening. But what does it mean to be 'a way of happening'? Does it mean anything at all?"

Auden wrote his elegy after Yeats's death in January 1939, as the world was preparing itself for war. In his book The Poetry of WB Yeats, written during the conflict and published in 1941, Louis MacNeice wrote:

"If the war made nonsense of Yeats's poetry and of all works that are called 'escapist', it also made nonsense of poetry that professes to be 'realist'. My friends had been writing for years about guns and frontiers and factories, about the 'facts' of psychology, politics, science, economics, but the fact of war made their writing seem as remote as the pleasure dome in Xanadu. For war spares neither the poetry of Xanadu nor the poetry of pylons."

Writing during the Irish Troubles in her study Poetry in the Wars (Bloodaxe, 1986), Edna Longley observed that all Northern Irish poetry since 1969 had "shared the same bunker":

"Thus what Derek Mahon calls 'An eddy of semantic scruple / In an unstructurable sea' might as well concentrate on 'semantic scruple'. Neverthless MacNeice, knowing Yeats and Ireland, did not follow Auden into his post-Marxist conviction that 'poetry makes nothing happen': 'The fallacy lies in thinking that it is the function of art to make things happen and the effect of art upon actions is something either direct or calculable.' [The Poetry of WB Yeats, 1941]. Yet Auden's own phrase in his Yeats elegy - 'A way of happening' - defines the only social and political role available to poetry as poetry."

The wide spectrum of poetry does of course include polemical poetry which lends its voice to political and cultural debates, and I included a good many such poems on environmental issues in my anthology Earth Shattering: Ecopoems - by poets from Gary Snyder to Heathcote Williams (and at least one angry poem I chose by Ted Hughes might fall into that category). But we should start from a position that poetry, like music or art, is not supposed to make anything happen, except in our responses to it.

Seamus Heaney thinks that poetry has a special ability to redress spiritual balance and to function as a counterweight to hostile and oppressive forces in the world. He calls this "the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality". Heaney's personal mantra is a phrase by an earlier Nobel prizewinner, the Greek poet George Seferis, who felt that poetry should be "strong enough to help". He wasn't calling for straightforwardly uplifting verse, but saying that he valued poetry's "response to conditions in the world at a moment when the world was in crisis". This is what Heaney means by redress, whereby "the poetic imagination seems to redress whatever is wrong or exacerbating in the prevailing conditions", offering "a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances."

David Constantine developed this theme in his essay The Usefulness of Poetry (2000), showing how Bertolt Brecht's dogmatic requirement that lyric poetry should be "useful" was subverted in his own work. The effect of Brecht's poems on the reader is not an engagement with his political ideas, says Constantine, but rather "a shock, a quickening of consciousness, a becoming alert to better possibilities, an extension, a liberation", for such poetry is, "to put it mildly, a useful thing if, when reading it, we sense a better way of being in the world".

This is the perspective we need in considering the so-called "role" of poetry in the ecological debate: a "way of being in the world" or what Auden himself called "a way of happening". My own approach to compiling an effective anthology of ecopoetry was to draw on poems addressing both environmental destruction and ecological balance. Earth Shattering has poems on destruction to alert and alarm anyone willing to read or listen as well as poems which illuminate the ecological balance of the rapidly vanishing world.

As the world's politicians and corporations orchestrate our headlong rush towards eco-Armageddon, poetry may seem like a hopeless gesture. But if Seferis and Heaney are right, poetry can at the very least be "strong enough to help". At Friday's event I expect to be preaching to the converted, but in presenting particular poems from Earth Shattering as part of my argument I hope to show that poetry's power is in the detail, in the force of each individual poem, in every poem's effect on every listener or reader. The same should be true of the poems Mario Petrucci and Melanie Challenger will be reading at this event. Anyone whose resolve is stirred will strengthen the collective call for change. And let them go out and read these kinds of poems to others, post them on websites, read them in school classrooms or on political platforms. Let's have ecopoems on the Underground, in newspapers, on radio and television.

Last year I took part in Irish broadcaster RTE's radio arts show, which devoted 20 minutes to a discussion of Earth Shattering and the issues it raised. Trevor Sargent, Ireland's agriculture minister and former leader of the Green Party in Ireland, was the other contributor to the programme. He read John Powell Ward's poem Hurry Up Please, It's Time, earth cries by Jean "Binta" Breeze and Jane Hirshfield's Global Warming. I read Norman Nicholson's Windscale, Gaia by William Stafford, and Demolition Ireland by John Montague, prompting Trevor Sargent to declare that this poem should be required reading for every school in Ireland. Sargent said he had never seen "such a comprehensive book of ecopoetry" and that it was "very pertinent and relevant". When politicians start talking this way about poetry - and ecopoetry in particular - maybe we are finally getting somewhere.

But in Ireland people still think poetry is important. If our own politicians spent just a couple of minutes each day reading these kinds of poems, they might be better fitted to carry out their duties more responsibly. We might even be able to trust some of them then to act in our interest in what they do to tackle the problems of environmental destruction and global warming.

· Neil Astley is the editor of Bloodaxe Books. Making Nothing Happen is at The Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate (opposite Liverpool Street Station), 7-9pm. Tickets cost £5/£7. londonwordfestival.com

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