‘Poetry makes nothing happen’

 . . .  W.H. Auden famously said—after seeing the Spanish Civil War—that “poetry makes nothing happen.” And it doesn’t, when the “something” desired is the end of hostilities, a government coup, an airlift, or an election victory. But those “somethings” are narrowly conceived. The cultural resonance of the characters of Greek epic and tragedy—Achilles, Oedipus, Antigone—and the crises of consciousness they embody—have been felt long after the culture that gave them birth has disappeared. Gandhi’s philosophical conception of nonviolent resistance has penetrated far beyond his own country and beyond his own century. Music makes nothing happen, either, in the world of reportable events (which is the media world); but the permanence of Beethoven in revolutionary consciousness has not been shaken. We would know less of New England without Emily Dickinson’s “seeing New Englandly,” as she put it. Books are still considering Lincoln’s speeches—the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural—long after the events that prompted them vanished into the past. Nobody would remember the siege of Troy if Homer had not sung it, or Guernica if Picasso had not painted it. The Harlem Renaissance would not have occurred as it did without the stimulus of Alain Locke, Harvard’s first black Rhodes Scholar. Modern philosophy of mind would not exist as it does without the rigors of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, nor would our idea of women’s rights have taken the shape it has without Woolf’s claim for a room of her own.

Helen Vendler (from here)

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