What Does Poetry Make Happen?

0614891200 Jay Parini in The Australian:

One does not hope for poetry to change the world. W.H. Auden noted when he wrote in his elegy for W.B. Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen”. That is, it doesn’t shift the stock market or persuade dictators to stand down. It doesn’t usually send masses into the streets to protest against a war or petition for economic justice. It works in quieter ways, shaping the interior space of readers, adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.

Language defines us as human beings. We speak, therefore we exist. We have the miraculous ability to gesture in words, to make statements and requests, to express our feelings, to construct arguments, to draw conclusions. Poetic language matters because it is precise and concrete, and draws us closer to the material world. In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson argues that the sheer physicality of words points us in directions that might be called spiritual. He puts forward three principles worth considering:

Words are signs of natural facts.
Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
Nature is the symbol of the spirit.

Those statements formed a platform of sorts for the transcendental movement, which studied nature closely for signs of spiritual life. The principles remain worthy of reflection. At some level, words suggest natural facts: rock, river, bird, cloud. The leap comes in the second statement, which posits a spiritual world. One can, I think, leap beyond conventional notions of spirituality here and acknowledge a deep interior world wherein each of us lives, no matter what our religious persuasion.