Our worlds are always ending, but through poetry they are remade.
Next fall, I start teaching an English course I have designed for on-level high school seniors (“on-level” means not Advanced Placement). I came up with this course title, “Visions of Apocalypse: From Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre,” after the curriculum committee rejected my initial title—Poetry and People. “Very few high school seniors will sign up for a course called ‘Poetry and People,'” the committee agreed.
My revised title possesses more verve and vigor, yes, but the humbleness of my first title, Poetry and People, pleases me, too. I wanted my students to know that poetry is for people: high school seniors and iron workers and moms with three children under seven and priests and bus drivers and office workers and business owners and migrant workers and fast-food servers and voice coaches and football players and anime lovers. It’s not exclusively for rarified folks—for example, AP English teachers and AP English students (although, full disclosure, I did fall hard for poetry in my own AP English class at Capistrano Valley High School—T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” being the poem that stopped me from living my life in the same way as I had been before).
Here’s the thing I’ve discovered that I want to share with my students: More than any other type of literature, poetry survives. Homer’s epics, Shakespeare’s plays, The Bible’s verses—all are examples of the enduring power of poetry. The essential question of the course, when the title was Poetry and People, was “why does poetry survive so much, and how can it help me survive?”
It’s risky to design a course for high school students that centers on poetry, but W.H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” inspired me to do so because, in addition to being the most enduring form of literature, poetry is also one of the most subversive forms, and high schoolers are totally into subversion (defined by my Macbook dictionary as the act of undermining the power and authority of an established system or institution). Auden hints at poetry’s subversive power when he says,
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.
Auden’s line “poetry makes nothing happen” often snags readers’ attention and keeps it there, but his word “executive” must be understood as the contrast to this “nothingness” that poetry makes happen. The word “executive” comes from the Latin “exsequi,” meaning “carry out,” “follow up,” or (according to Macbook’s dictionary), “punish” (as in execute). These executives do not dwell in the valley made by poetry while they’re carrying out, following up, or punishing; they are up in their steel-and-glass towers, cutting labor costs to increase their companies’ profits, strategizing how to maximize exposure for their products or services and therefore consumption. These executives work so hard to make money make more money that they are always up in the air. For those of us who live down on the ground in “ranches of isolation,” “Busy [with our] griefs”—turning fifty, losing a parent or a child, paying taxes, coping with illness or addictions, working and living paycheck to paycheck, feeling unrepresented by our representatives—in our “Raw towns that we believe and die in,” when the mouth of poetry speaks, we are more likely to hear it.
In Auden’s poem, poetry is a river that flows through the valley it has made. It may be out of view or irrelevant (why “tamper” with it?) unless we’re on the brink—of loss, of falling, of going down—or unless we already exist down in the valley somewhere near this river. Maybe we live close enough to this river that we can hear its rapids; maybe we can see the cottonwoods that grow along its banks, this river called Poetry that has the power to refresh us, to sustain us. Let’s wade in the water, why don’t we? Perhaps we’ll give ourselves over to the current and be borne along.
Poetry is not merely soothing. It’s energizing and invigorating—even scary. Poetry’s power to frighten was the force that stopped me on purpose. This stanza that opens Eliot’s “Love Song” changed my life:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.”
Auden argues that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and this is true: it has the power to make us do nothing, to stop us long enough on purpose that we notice that something more, something deeper is calling us not just to notice, not just to follow up, but to follow it down.
What is it in poetry that calls us? Who is the Caller?
Tanguy’s image, “Neither Legends nor Figures” is taken from The Menil Collection website: https://www.menil.org/collection/objects/5146-neither-legends-nor-figures-legendes-ni-figures