I have mused before on whether or not literature “matters” in the sense of having force in the world, let alone the universe. In a recent essay, Michael Chabon contemplates giving up entirely in the face of the uselessness of art. In the piece Chabon tenders his resignation, ostensibly as the Chairman of the MacDowell Colony but really as a person who believes in the power of art to impact the world for good. He writes, “I wonder if it’s possible that I was wrong, that I’ve always been wrong, that art has no power at all over the world and its brutalities, over the minds that conceive them and the systems that institutionalize them.” This line of thought can feel so blatantly obvious as to beg the question of why I ever appreciated art in the first place. To jump straight to the Holocaust, even loving the violin did not prevent Eichmann from enacting his portion of genocide.
Yet over the past few days, wallowing in the dregs of a particularly stressful couple of weeks, I’ve found myself turning and returning to poetry specifically, those snatches of lines and bits of meter that rattle around in my head like ghosts or kittens, now romping, now purring, now sleeping, now romping again.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
[Life] is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
I am reminded of W. H. Auden’s assertion that “poetry makes nothing happen.” This line appears in Auden’s elegy for W. B. Yeats and people have often read into it not only Auden’s grief for the loss of one of the world’s great poets but also his despair over the looming shadow of World War II. What is the point, Auden seems to ask, of poetry when it cannot halt the death of one of its masters or hold back the rising tide of war? The line so resonant, in the face of grief or horror or rage; when racked by doubt or despair it feels so completely true: Poetry makes nothing happen.
But if you read the poem more closely, Auden suggests that making things happen or not happen is not the task of poetry:
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.
Instead of making things happen, poetry “survives.” It becomes a thing both slippery and strong, impossible to pin down, impossible to shut up, impossible to kill, impossible to buy and sell. Like wind and rain and rock faces, poetry is. We are wrong to ask poetry to fix the inevitable sufferings of human existence but we are not wrong to seek meaning in its truth.
Chabon comes to a similar sort of resolution in his essay, determining that maybe art at least makes “the whole depressing thing more bearable.” He writes, “Art bridges the lonely islands. It’s the string that hums from my tin can, over here looking out of my little window, to you over there, looking out of yours.”
Perhaps the most spectacular part of that oh-so-fragile connection? It remains unbound by time. Auden and Yeats and Shakespeare and Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot and Mary Oliver, all of their tin cans continue to send out their vibrations, always ready for me, for you, for us to pick up our own cans and listen in. All art, poetry included, survives and says not only, I exist, but also, I am ready to be heard. I am a way of happening, a mouth, always speaking and always needing someone to hear.