Skip to main content

Auden versus Shelley

‘For poetry makes nothing happen.’ Is that so?
Why do we make and use it, then? Mere vanity?
A language’s trick-pony virtuosity,
fiddling with words until they happen on a thought
that, for a moment, stays and entertains?
I wouldn’t go so far as to support
the opposite assertion; I am not, alas,
an ‘unacknowledged legislator of the world’.
Between the bolder and the sadder voice I hesitate,
and wonder if the neonate explains,
by heartbeat and by cry, the reason why
we call on music’s cousin to accompany
our most exposed occasions of delight, of loss.
Measure begins within the womb
and when the lungs confront the air
those present in the birthing room
hear two of poetry’s polarities:
defiance challenging despair.
From first consoling lullaby
through playground rhymes to last laments,
on tree trunks and on monuments,
it pleases us to versify.
Here’s my defence, for what it’s worth:
the art’s another kind of seeing, all our lives;
a side-door entry to a place of truth.
But Auden put it better and more briefly: ‘it survives,
a way of happening, a mouth.’