‘For poetry’ Auden famously wrote ‘makes nothing happen’. This quote is the prima facie evidence most often used against those who think poetry can make a difference in politics. Yet Auden then goes on to say that poetry ‘survives’ as ‘a way of happening, a mouth’. In this anniversary year of ’68, it is worth remembering that the 1960s seemed to bring poetry as a way of happening into the political realm. Poetry ‘happenings’ took on the mantle of events that could challenge social, cultural and political conservatism. For many, it was at arts events, rather than at the barricades, that the ‘revolution’ really took place.
40 years on, a new generation of poets seem to be reclaiming poetry as a political, not simply cultural, ‘way of happening’. And often it is explicitly associated with calls for political change, from Poets Against War to last year’s Love Poetry Hate Racism events. Poetry once again seems to be picking up the banner of radicalism, especially around environmentalism, as eco-poetry and eco-criticism gain in popularity.
Is poetry reclaiming its radical roots and confronting contemporary apathy? Or this just self-flattery, with too many modern bards mouthing insubstantial political platitudes out loud? Are we using poetry as a cheap vehicle for political opinions? Are we neglecting the genuine potential of great poetry to subvert and unsettle the way we see the world, even if it ‘makes nothing happen’?
editor, spiked; columnist, Big Issue; contributor, Spectator
associate director, Institute of Ideas
novelist; author of Westerman/Crowther series, including Circle of Shadows
poet and joint librarian, The Poetry Library; author, Zeppelins
assistant editor, Opinion, The Times; regular contributor, Times Books
|Dr Gary Day
fellow, Royal Society of Arts; Secretary, British Society of Eighteenth Century Studies; author, Eighteenth Century Literature and Culture
poet, art critic and radio playwright; PhD student, London Consortium.
international poetry activist, anthologist, editor, and poet; editor of the best-selling British poetry CD, Life Lines: poets for Oxfam.
|Dr Shirley Dent
communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor, tlfw.co.uk; author, Radical Blake
An anthology of poems by Guantanamo Bay detainees has been lauded by liberal commentators - but this sort of poetic justice makes a travesty of equality before the law.Shirley Dent, Guardian Unlimited, 2 July 2007
With its simultaneous love and distrust of language, poetry illuminates life for usGeorge Szirtes, The Guardian, 21 November 2005
Poetry written by contemporary poets from all over the world to protest the war against Iraq.
Various, nthposition.com, February 2003