W. H. Auden: “Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”

What responsibility does the artist have to society? Speaking at Amherst College in 1963, John F. Kennedy gave one answer to that perpetually nagging question. For a politician it was a highly unusual one, though perhaps less so then than now. “Society must set the artist free,” Kennedy declared, “to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” This is essentially the same view of artistic and personal freedom that Stephen Dedalus defends against the nationalist Davin in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. “When the soul of a man is born,” Stephen opines, “there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” It is essentially Rousseauist, corresponding to the liberal idea that individuals best serve the general good through the exercise of their personal freedom. For all its nobility of spirit, this view is frequently contested—even, or maybe especially, in democratic societies. Davin responds to Dedalus as many a politician has responded to the artist or intellectual, by demanding commitment: “A man’s country comes first. . . . You can be a poet or a mystic after.” He finds Stephen to be “a terrible man,” even a bit of a traitor, for insisting so unequivocally on his personal liberty. It is Stephen’s peculiar separateness, his disregard of party or faction, that Davin finds threatening.

Political orthodoxies of both the right and left have often insisted that art should remain subservient to politics, supporting their contention by asserting a utilitarian moral right. Artistic freedom concerns one person alone, or at best a privileged minority, while politics concerns the good of many. Political concerns can seem reassuringly anti-elitist. For collectivists, whether nationalist or proletarian in their orientation, communal benefit always outweighs the prerogatives of the individual. The left in particular has long held that by allowing too much power to the few, liberal governments erode the welfare of the many. And for Marxists, the primacy of individual liberty and formal rights is a sham concealing unjust advantages and systematic oppression.

Yet poetry, relying as it does on the primacy of individual sensibility and the often-contested “right” to free expression, has a long and vexed historical connection to liberalism that has remained deeply problematic to critics from the more radical fringes of the left. For that reason, I am concerned mainly with the relationship between leftist critics and poetry; not because the right is lacking in doctrinal pressures, but because since the early twentieth century literary intellectuals as a group have inclined toward left-wing politics, and also because the left, at least in the West, retains strong anti-authoritarian and libertarian traditions that conflict with tendencies toward censoriousness and control.

In its day, W. H. Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen” was a necessary reproof to an ideologically mandated culture of protest that had a chokehold on the literary left in the 1930s, an example it remains important to consider today. Clashes over the political rights and wrongs of poetry, then as now, are often disguised contests over cultural and academic turf, ideological purity, and even the relative priority of criticism versus artistic practice.

In the classical sense, the term politics refers to a form of activity concerned with public life. In that context, the vicious intensity of the internecine cultural controversies we often see playing out in the pages of journals—or now, on social media—seems quite odd. Often the parties involved tend to share largely similar views on broader issues. The driving force in these conflicts is often “politics” in a less savory sense, as Jonathan Chait recently pointed out: the use of intimidation and rhetoric “to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” Debates over speech and sensitivity often invoke an undemocratic understanding of what politics is and how it works, one concerned primarily not with individual freedoms but with enforcing group solidarity and the hegemony of a prescribed set of opinions.

Auden’s case is revealing. In the 1930s his work developed a following among committed Marxists. Ideologically Auden was a fellow traveler: not a Party member but sympathetic to the egalitarianism of the left. What he perhaps failed to realize, at least initially, was that this audience had certain expectations that did not conform to his traditionally liberal sensibilities. What was expected was overt encouragement of true believers, a celebration of class struggle, and unwavering demonstrations of loyalty to approved causes. Having courted their favor, Auden found himself in the position of having to meet their demands. Along with many other writers and artists, Auden traveled to Spain to support the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. On returning from Valencia, where he had worked as a radio broadcaster for the local government, Auden composed “Spain,” a poetic hymn to the fight against Franco. Fellow volunteer George Orwell commended “Spain” as “one of the few decent things written about the Spanish war” but also noted its less commendable portions:

Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
       Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.

Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
       Today the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
According to Orwell, “the second stanza is intended as a sort of thumbnail sketch of a day in the life of a ‘good party man.’ In the morning a couple of political murders, a ten-minutes’ interlude to stifle ‘bourgeois’ remorse, and then a hurried luncheon and a busy afternoon and evening chalking walls and distributing leaflets. All very edifying. But notice the phrase ‘necessary murder.’ It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word.” Orwell’s criticism was telling. Auden later had fits of guilt about “Spain” and recanted parts of it. He had the bad timing, however, to drift away from the party line just as demands for ideological conformity were growing more strident. By the late thirties, it was clear that the war in Spain had not gone well, that Hitler was rearming, and that fascist movements were gathering strength throughout Europe. Auden became a convenient scapegoat for leftist critics angry at the political fecklessness of their own faction. F. W. Dupee, for instance, was less concerned with Auden’s commitment to anti-fascism than with asserting that poetry was a form of activity requiring political control and supervision. For Dupee, being a radical poet meant doing effective work on behalf of the party. In Partisan Review, he criticized Auden’s deviations from orthodoxy: Auden appeared to be thrusting “deeper and deeper into his own ego” and abandoning his role as “the impersonal voice of a generation.”

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