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This review is taken from PN Review 225, Volume 42 Number 1, September - October 2015.

Home in Wandsworth Home Various Writers
OFF_PRESS/Safe Ground, 2015 (173pp)


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.

(from W. H. Auden, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ (1940), section II)

When Auden’s elegy in memory of Yeats is brought to mind I suppose most of us remember Auden’s assertion that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. It’s a heavily-qualified assertion – five lines later the poet conceives of verse-making as ‘[a] way of happening, a mouth’ – yet at this stage of the poem one believes perhaps that poetry endures only as agency. That is, it flows, like the material contained in some sort of conduit, away from isolation or grief, the quotidian rawness that impels its making.

That may or may not be true. The matter contained in section II of Auden’s elegy can be read as a challenge masked by inversion of the genre’s conventional themes. The resulting irony begs questions: what way of happening? what kind of mouth?

I don’t think Auden believed for a second that poetry made nothing happen. A conduit is ...


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