In his poem, In Memory of W B yeats, the poet, W H Auden wrote
“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 is one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, I do, however take issue with his view that poetry (and writing more generally) makes nothing happen.
In Oliver Twist Dickens portrayed the English poor law in all it’s brutality. He laid bare the cruelty of the workhouse and the corruption of those who, like the fictional Mr Bumble the Beadle grew fat by abusing the system. Oliver Twist is unremitting in it’s highlighting of the abuses perpetrated by Bumble and his ilk, however Dickens humour also helps to ensure that the novel remains widely read to this day. Who can forget his description of little Oliver daring to ask for more gruel in the workhouse? Dickens was not responsible for bringing about the abolition of the workhouse, however Oliver Twist undoubtedly stirred the conscience of Victorian England, indeed the novel continues to move our conscience in the early years of the 21st century.
To take another example, George Orwell’s terrifying portrayal of totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a world in which much of the population of Oceania is constantly observed by the telescreen, influenced and continues to influence those who oppose totalitarianism. Although a man of the left Orwell has been cited by people of both left and right in defence of pluralism. Auden’s view that “poetry makes nothing happen” was not shared by the regimes who banned Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and his much shorter novel Animal Farm. The former Soviet Union and other authoritarian states believed that writing can make things happen, why else would they have prohibited the works of Orwell and other critics of authoritarianism?
Doubtless the greater prosperity enjoyed by democratic societies had a profound impact on the populations of Communist societies. Despite the attempted jamming of western media pictures of life outside the Communist bloc did penetrate behind the iron curtain. The inhabitants of Czechoslavakia, Poland and other states which came under Soviet influence wanted consumer goods, however the intellectuals among the populace desired freedom and the writings of Orwell, Kafka and others kindled in them this desire for democracy.
In conclusion it can be said that Auden is right in the sense that writing in and of itself makes nothing happen. However the influence of authors such as Dickens and Orwell should not be underestimated. When combined with political and economic forces words can (and are) powerful tools for good or ill.