A Man Makes Nothing Happen

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.

A Man Likes to Repeat Himself

W. H Auden’s biographer, Edward Mendelson, wrote,

In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.

According to Mendelson, we moderns are hopeless romantics, allergic to repetition. How would marketing departments across the country feel to learn that their promises to constantly innovate are nothing more than romantic puffs?

Combined with this overweening optimism is the worship of the new. Our culture is addicted to novelty. In the days of Shakespeare, “innovation” meant the same thing as “confusion.” Those who constantly upended the past were dangerous, out of their minds. Now, of course, we are so hyper-aware that others may have something or know something that we don’t, we race to adopt new fashions, electronics, attitudes. We have convinced ourselves that keeping up with the New is our civic duty. And if we meet someone who doesn’t read the newspaper, doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter, and doesn’t have an iPhone, we treat them as some kind of fanatic. They must be tripping on something to want to avoid the New.

A Man Hates Tweet-Threads So Much He Copied This One Into a Blog Post Where It Can Actually Do Some Good in the World (pace E. J. Hutchinson)

I changed the formatting slightly to make it fit here, all credit to Professor Hutchinson. (And hat-tip to David H., who brought it to my attention.)

In 1941-42, W. H. Auden taught two courses at the University of Michigan. His final in one and his research project for the other are both pedagogically astute. A student reports, first about his fall course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature”: “When he finished this, he explained what we should expect in the way of a final exam, four or five weeks down the road, after Christmas vacation. Pens, pencils, papers for the first time in the semester suddenly materialized and flashed into view. [He had forbidden note-taking on the first day of class — ed.] It would be a three-hour written exam. We would write from memory seven cantos of The Divine Comedy, in the Carlyle/Wicksteed prose version — ‘the one used by Eliot in The Waste Land,’ he confided — beginning with Inferno III, and V, then certain Purgatorio cantos (e.g. XXVIII) and finishing with Paradiso XXXIII. The consternation of the class on hearing this was what one might expect: frozen silence. In a few minutes grumblings began to be heard, mutterings. A group of students, forming themselves into a ‘committee,’ declared the exam impossible and inhumane. Auden, surprised, replied that he did not think it was either, but offered to reduce the number of cantos from seven to five. Resistance, nevertheless, continued. ‘Very well. I am going to be driving to California over the Christmas vacation. If I find I can’t memorize these five cantos by the time I reach Los Angeles, I’ll phone your representative and cancel the assignment.’ It was a deal–rather a reluctant one, on both sides. The ‘phone call never came, so the Dante exam was on.”

The student found that with each successive canto the memorization got easier, until he could memorize an entire one in one afternoon. He later said, “This was possibly the most valuable thing I learned from W. H. Auden, and I have never ceased to be grateful for it.”

In the second semester [Auden] taught a class on the analysis of poetry. Here was the project he assigned: “…Auden gave the class its research project for the semester, which was to compile a list, drawn from the O.E.D., of all the variant meanings, including the etymologies, of each word in Milton’s ‘Lycidas,’ from the earliest recorded usages down to those that were current in the year Milton wrote it.”

This is particularly brilliant. It’s the kind of assignment I never considered giving, but, now that I see that someone else did it, I’m struck by the patent obviousness of what a valuable exercise this would be. The former student comments, “Not being enrolled in the class, I never did the assignment; but one of the students who did once said to me that ‘Lycidas’ was the only poem in the English language he really felt he knew very much about.”

~ E. J. Hutchinson on Twitter

Tweet-threads are the worst.