Art by Mark Davis
When W.H. Auden wrote those famous words in his elegy, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” he meant something very different than that truncated pull-quote suggests. We need to hear him out:
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.
Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden says—instead, it is the means by which change occurs. In this same way, a highway doesn’t transport you, but try getting anywhere without it. It’s essential.
And poetry still has an effect—as do fiction, essays, raps, lyrics, chants, screams. We can be quiet as unacceptable actions happen around us, or we can use our voices. We can call out and fight the power. And we can be a voice for compassion and dignity, too.
In my lifetime, there has never been since an urgent need for it.