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This article is taken from PN Review 234, Volume 43 Number 4, March - April 2017.

On the Watch John Lucas
WE ALL THINK we know Auden’s dictum that poetry makes nothing happen. But we mostly misquote him. Because Auden didn’t say quite what he’s usually praised – and occasionally criticised – for saying. The last word, ‘happen’,  is not followed by a full-stop but by a colon, following which the poet goes on to say that poetry survives


In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows 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.


A moralised or fabled landscape? Perhaps the river runs through Auden’s favoured limestone country of ‘short distances and definite places’, far from the reach of officialdom, and free to flow into and meander about everyday life? The trick of reversing epithets – towns are naturally busy, griefs are often raw – is one Auden used on other occasions at this period. (‘And when he cried the little children died in the streets.’) Or is this not so much trickery as tricksiness, a way of avoiding his own subject – the death of W.B. Yeats.

Because Yeats certainly thought his poetry had made things happen. ‘And did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?’ True, many years later Paul Muldoon asked sardonically, ‘Would certain men have stayed in bed/If Yeats has saved his pencil lead?’ (‘7, Middagh Street’ in Meeting the British.) But the answer, whether ...


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