Auden famously wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.” This has been interpreted by many to mean that poetry is really a frivolous enterprise, something you’d only engage in for fun. There’s something to that interpretation. After all, Auden said elsewhere that he thought of himself as “God’s fool,” good for entertainment only—an important but very much extraneous job.
Alan Jacobs has a slightly more nuanced view. In a talk he gave here in Birmingham last fall, he said the emphasis should be on the second word: “makes.” Poetry makes nothing happen, Jacobs explained, but it can prompt a lot. It’s a carrot and perhaps a stick, but not the horse itself.
Like generations of upstarts before me, I’m here to suggest yet another interpretation, one that hopefully complements Jacobs’ rather than refuting it. Mine is based on a pun that Auden was probably familiar with: the similarity of the words “nothing” and “noting” (that is, paying attention). As countless highschool students have been told, the title of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing carries both of these meanings. The play is about eavesdropping, miscommunication — noting — and, ultimately, a big fuss over nothing at all. (Yet it’s still amazing and wondrous. How do you do that, Bill?)
If we read Auden’s line as “poetry makes noting happen,” we hear him say that, though poetry doesn’t do much, it does make people pay attention. This wouldn’t be the first time Auden pointed out such a thing. In his Horae Canonicae, he spoke of “that eye on the object look” that artists display. Artistry means paying attention, for the artist as well as for the audience.
Does it work in the context of the poem? Here’s the second part of Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” from which the line is taken:
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.
It seems to me that both meanings make sense here: poetry does not force anything, does not fix anything. But it does survive as “a way of happening, a mouth.” Though it may not do much, it creates an opening. And open spaces can draw the eye.