Jeffrey Bilbro

Jeffrey Bilbro is an Assistant Professor of English at Spring Arbor University in southern Michigan. His first book is Loving God’s Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature, and he and Jack Baker have a book forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky, An Education in the Virtues of Place: Wendell Berry and the University, that explores how Berry’s vision could shape a more healthy form of higher education, one that encourages students to lead placed lives.

A Way of Happening

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden flatly declares in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” yet Auden goes on to suggest that poetry is nevertheless “a way of happening.” Auden is not alone in questioning poetry’s usefulness; Plato, after all, banned poets from his ideal republic. Yet perhaps poetry’s particular powers—and limits—are especially important in an iPhone culture. Personal technology caters to our every wish in order to make the world a more convenient place for us to navigate, but poetry resists the utilitarian, self-oriented posture that certain technological devices encourage. Rather than using the tools at our disposal to force the world into conformity with our wishes, perhaps we should rejoice in poetry’s delightfully non-coercive ability to lead us into greater intimacy with the truth about who and where we are.

If Auden is right that poetry is a way of happening, it is a way marked by attention, precision, care, and delight—virtues iPhones don’t generally encourage. By practicing such virtues, we might begin, as Wendell Berry writes in “In Defense of Literacy,” to learn “a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it.”

Auden’s struggle in his poem centers around whether Yeats’s poems did any good: they could not prevent his own death, nor could they resolve Ireland’s ongoing political struggles, the onset of World War II, or poverty. The poem’s first section vacillates between the hope that Yeats’s life and words might live on after his death, inspiring and guiding his readers, and the apparent reality that poems don’t change anything important. On the one hand, Auden imagines Yeats’s readers chewing on his words, ruminating on them in the core of their being: “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” On the other hand, this doesn’t seem that significant “in the importance and noise of to-morrow / When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse, / And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed, / And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom.” Ultimately, there isn’t much hope that Yeats’s poems will accomplish any significant change: the stock exchange will go on humming, the poor will stay poor, we will remain isolated in our cells, and World War II will proceed unimpeded.

The second section implies that Yeats wasn’t an exceptionally special person; he was “silly like us.” And his poems haven’t changed Ireland, its madness and cloudy weather continue in spite of them (that’s definitely one thing poetry can’t do—make Ireland have sunny weather). This leads Auden to his famous statement of poetry’s futility:

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.

Poetry can’t force change, it can’t coerce anyone to do anything, it doesn’t work by the instrumental logic of cause and effect. Rather, it survives, it continues in places hidden away from business executives and politicians, places of solitude, sadness, and rawness. Yet these are the places where humans live, and thus Auden writes twice that poetry “survives”; it is “a way of happening, a mouth.” This poetic mouth contrasts with the utilitarian mouth in the first stanza: “The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day. / What instruments we have agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day.” Poetry embodies a different kind of mouth, a non-instrumental way of relating to others. So while poetry doesn’t make things happen, it is a way of happening, a way of talking and living that stands in opposition to the world of utility and force, of war and the stock exchange.

Yet a utilitarian mode of relating to the world is precisely what iPhones and similar kinds of technology encourage. Jamie Smith makes this point in reference to a recent Michelob Ultra commercial “in which the world obeys the touch commands of an iPhone screen. Don’t like that car? Swipe for a different one. Wish the scenery was different? Swipe for an alternative…A way of relating to a phone has now become a way of relating to the world.” As Smith explains, the way of relating to the world that an iPhone cultivates is centered on me and my desires: “To become habituated to an iPhone is to implicitly treat the world as ‘available’ to me and at my disposal—to constitute the world as ‘at-hand’ for me, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed.”

Poets like Auden remind us that words cannot provide an “at-hand” world to us, a world that we can manipulate to cater to our every desire. War, poverty, death—these are realities that cannot simply be swiped away by better technology. Poetry, in its blatant inability to make anything happen, reminds us that none of the technologies we rely on to make things happen can actually deliver on such a promise.

The final section of Auden’s poem reflects on what might characterize the way of happening that poetry invites us to inhabit. While the “dogs of Europe bark” and each nation is “sequestered in its hate,” the poet offers a non-coercive, free alternative: “With your unconstraining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice.” Auden particularly alludes to the way that poetry or verse is a kind of plowing: “With the farming of a verse / Make a vineyard of the curse.” “Verse” means “to turn,” and the lines of a poem, like the lines of a plow, go back and forth in an attempt to break up the fallow ground of our hearts. This verbal turning opens a “healing fountain” that teaches free men how to praise. The purpose of such versifying, Auden suggests, is to cultivate in individuals, cultures, and nations a way of being that forms an alternative to the power games of war and international finance, power games that the iPhone invites us to play and win; if we can’t swipe away war itself, we can at least swipe away uncomfortable news and distract ourselves with something more appealing.

But Yeats is dead. World War II still happens. The poor stay poor. In the face of such intractable realities, what can poetry do? Auden’s humble vision for poetry—it makes nothing happen but is rather a way of happening or a way of being that leads us toward praise, gratitude, and community—seems inadequate. How is poetry a way of being in the world? What might this way of being look like?

Richard Wilbur, a contemporary American poet, picks up such questions in an apparently simple poem, “An Event.” Wilbur’s poem describes a flock of birds that rises up from a grove of trees and flies south. This seems like a banal image, but Wilbur then meditates on the power and failure of words, on what poetry and language can and can’t do. So despite the singular title, there are actually two events in this poem: the first is that of the birds flying up from the trees, gathering in the sky, and heading south; the second is Wilbur’s poetic attempt to verbalize this reality. The poem, in many ways, is about the relationship between these two events.

The poem begins with a striking image of reversed time, of seed leaping back into the hand that sows it on the fields. Wilbur describes their motion in more detail and focuses on the paradox that while made of many individuals, the birds appear as a single drunken fingerprint traced across the sky. Yet after using these similes to describe the flock, Wilbur admits that his images are not adequate to the complexity of the real birds and the real flock. Their reality refuses “to be caught / In any singular vision of my eye / Or in the nets and cages of my thought.” Reality exceeds language, and if we think words can control the world and make it “available” to us, we will be proven wrong each time.

In fact, it is precisely this frustration with the inadequacy of words to control others that leads some people to resort to technology like iPhones, which can indeed make things happen. When circumstances don’t work out the way we’d like, we use technology to change them. And as Auden pointed out, when nations don’t do what we want them to do, we go to war to make them conform to our wishes. We want to make the world fit our desires, and when words fail to serve this purpose, we often grow frustrated with them. This is why Auden reminds his readers that poetry makes nothing happen; it operates not by force or coercion, but by sitting in our guts and reshaping our deep longings, our vision of the world and of the good. Poetry offers an alternative way of relating to people, not as avatars on a screen we control, but as irreducible, mysterious beings we will always be seeking to understand, to know, and to love rightly.

So when the birds fly from Wilbur and his images, organizing themselves not according to his metaphors but “in some formation of their own,” he responds not with frustration or anger but with delight:

Delighted with myself and with the birds,
I set them down and give them leave to be.
It is by words and the defeat of words,
Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,
That for a flying moment one may see
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.  

Wilbur sets down both his words about the birds and the birds themselves, giving them leave to be. The cross-purposes between the “birds” and Wilbur’s “words”—expressed in a lovely rhyme—forms the tension in which we live. This is why we see meaning both by words and their defeat; the failure of words to fully capture and control reality is not a tragedy to be mourned but a gift to be celebrated. This means the world is greater than we can understand or imagine, and that poetry, vain though its attempts inevitably are, offers us a means of gratefully exploring or glimpsing these mysteries.

As a profoundly Christian poet, Wilbur’s delight at the “defeat of words” surely depends on the redemptive defeat of the Word. When the creating Word dreamt the world, he knew this dream would lead him to the cross where, rather than forcing his creation to obey him, his “unconstraining voice” would invite creation into greater intimacy with its triune Creator. The kenosis of this Word calls us to humble ourselves likewise and obey the command to, as Auden writes, “love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart.” Instead of relying on technology to make the world conform to the shape of our crooked hearts, these poets call us to reshape our hearts to conform to the image of the Word who made us. Such hearts, formed by a poetic “way of happening,” might find expression through mouths that speak “a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it.”