poetry makes nothing happenW.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”
Many years ago I went to what I like to refer to as the unfamous writing program at Iowa, but I hung out with a fair number of poets from the famous one, and both in and out of seminars, the Auden vs. Williams argument was perpetual. Does poetry make nothing happen? Or is it the thing that prevents us from dying?
Passionate arguments were made on each side, by people who themselves were spending two years of their lives doing nothing but reading and writing poetry (and drinking, smoking, staying up too late, getting involved in ill-advised relationships, and the other things one does in graduate school, although sometimes with good reason—I remember a friend telling me he’d left a workshop, gotten in his car, and driven halfway across Nebraska because he was so upset, which seemed like a perfectly natural reaction at the time).
When I applied to a writing program, I thought I’d be solidly in the men die miserably every day camp. I hated my limited experiences of the working world and wanted nothing more than to go back to a life where reading and writing were valued above all else.
Then, of course, just before I started graduate school, I got involved in Students Against Sweatshops. That summer I sent my union membership card back in the mail the moment I got it. (That year’s vice-president later told me he said, “We got a card back already!” in great excitement, and then the president looked at it and said, “Oh, it’s just Laura.”) By the time I sat down to read and discuss Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, it was hard for me not to scream “great writer and all, but he was on the wrong damned side of the revolution,” because regardless of where the revolution ended up, I couldn’t imagine not joining it at the time.
I tended, then, in these arguments, to come down on the Auden side: poetry makes nothing happen.
No side ever won, as I remember it, though these memories are distant, and based on too many nights of bad beer and secondhand smoke and too many drafty classrooms the next afternoon, marginally hungover and trying to impress everyone.
I never in my life imagined a time when I’d stop reading, but other than the book discussion books I read for work, I’ve barely read more than two pages together in the last month. Books are hard to come by for many people right now, especially if you lack money, internet, or an ability to read ebooks (confession: I hate ebooks) and you don’t have hundreds of them lying around on shelves in your house, many of them unread or worth rereading, as I do.
But as one of my coworkers noted today and as readers advisory experts have counseled for years, reading isn’t just about access: you have to be in the mood to read a particular book, and nothing seems quite relevant or right at the moment. In the weeks after 9/11–and trying to stop another war is another thing I did not have in mind when I applied to graduate school—I mostly lay on my sofa and listened to the radio (and swore at NPR for being such freaking nationalists) and read the hundreds of emails pouring in from the listservs I was on locally and around the country.
We didn’t stop the war—in fact, it continues to this day. We had some marginal success with SAS (and USAS continues fighting on campuses across the country to this day). And we didn’t have poetry, and I don’t know how much we had happen. But we had each other, and we had the things we said to each other, the things we repeated, and as C.S. Lewis says in another essay of his that I love, if you find a man who has read a book over and over again, no matter how bad you think the book is, you may be sure that it is for him a kind of poetry.
I am still looking for poetry that fits this pandemic, though it may not be able to end it. But I’ve come to believe we cannot win the argument—no one can. Poetry makes nothing happen, and we die miserably every day without it.