Home Arts Does Poetry Matter? Five Poets Wrestle With this Auden-Inspired Question.

Does Poetry Matter? Five Poets Wrestle With this Auden-Inspired Question.


by Nat Frothingham

MONTPELIER — PoemCity 2015, a month-long celebration of poetry, will kick off April 1 at 7:30 p.m., with a Farmer’s Night appearance by poet Major Jackson at the State House. Five Vermont poets explored the meaning of a single line from a W.H. Auden poem written shortly after he learned of the death of Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Auden’s poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” is a tribute and a meditation on whether poetry matters and whether it mattered in 1939 when Hitler’s armies were massing and marching. A single line from Auden’s poem strikes with surprising force: “For poetry makes nothing happen.”

Here is the stanza from “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”:

   You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:

   The parish of rich women, physical decay,

   Yourself.  Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry

   Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,

   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.

The five poets who shared reactions to Auden’s line appear below.


Mary Elder Jacobsen, North Calais

Mary Elder Jacobsen. Photo by Debbie McFadden Elder.
Mary Elder Jacobsen. Photo by Debbie McFadden Elder.

Auden said that poetry makes nothing happen. But poet Mary Jacobsen noted that Auden also draws attention to the power of poetry to survive expressed in Auden’s line, “Your gift survives it all.” Said Jacobsen, “It survives in the midst of everything that happen — madness, grief, weather.”

“The poems live on,” Jacobsen said. “Poetry doesn’t fix anything. The poems don’t change anything.”

Then Jacobsen talked about two instances where she had been able to read one of her own poems when people were getting married. “I discussed the idea of writing a poem.”  At the reception, Jacobsen said to herself, “Yes, I’m  going to read this for them. When people were standing up and giving toasts, Jacobsen told a friend that she had written a poem. But she hesitated. Her friend said, “Yes, you can do it, Mary, because you believe in poetry.”

After Jacobsen read her poem, someone she didn’t know came up to her and said, “Your poem made me love my husband more. When you get a response like it tells you that poetry matters and it has an effect on people.  That you have moved them to laughter or tears or contemplation — that’s what poetry does when you reach someone.”

Lisa Mase
Lisa Mase

Lisa Mase, East Montpelier

Reacting to Auden’s astonishing line, poet Lisa Mase said, “It’s an interesting line.  Maybe that line comes out of that hateful period.”

“Why are you a poet,” Mase asked, “if poetry makes nothing happen?” From her own experience as a poet she said, “Poetry shines a light on universal themes that do inspire change, that do make people grow.” And yet she acknowledged Auden’s defeatism. Mase said Auden is exploring what she called “The painful beauty of human contradiction.”

As Mase shares her poetry with other poets, they often say to each other “Why are we even doing this?”  And she answers that question, “At the end of the day (poetry) nourishes us. Even though it doesn’t nourish anyone else, it nourishes us.”


Elizabeth Robechek, Montpelier

Elizabeth Robechek
Elizabeth Robechek

In pondering the meaning of Auden’s line, Elizabeth Robechek said her first reaction was to wonder if that were true. “Words, prayers, sometimes make things happen. Words happen and things happen as a result.”

Robechek said a common popular reaction to poetry is that it’s an upper crust kind of thing.  But she disagrees.  “I think it is mainstream. I think of poems as carrying that body of sensation around things that happen.  It could be that poetry makes everything. My profession was as a landscape architect. As a semi-retired person, most of my focus is on an art project that includes my drawing and art work and poems.”  Two of the eight books are out already: “Removing My Seed Coat” is the first. “Germination Power Surge” is the second. “It’s the muse. The muse is what you know.”

Lee Bramble, pen name of Tom Ragle
Lee Bramble, pen name of Tom Ragle

Lee Bramble, Marlboro

“He may be right,” said poet Lee Bramble about Auden’s categorical remark. “He may be right in the everyday, physical world. In that everyday, physical world you might learn to milk a cow or make a better widget. What poetry is for me,” Bramble said, “is felt experience as opposed to practical experience.”

“I came to Vermont in 1958 to write poetry seriously and earn a living any way I could.  But I took a detour unexpectedly,” Bramble said. Bramble, (the pen name for Tom Ragle) was president of Marlboro College for 20 years. And after Marlboro he was a visiting professor at the University of Vermont and did a number of other things and didn’t get back into writing poetry seriously until he retired. “I don’t have a large number of poems,” he said.  “Poetry means a great deal to a small number of people,” Bramble said. “I am exploring my felt experience. I am mining my experience in pursuit of meaning.”

Huck Gutman
Huck Gutman

Huck Gutman, Burlington

About Auden’s line, poet Huck Gutman said, “It’s one of the lines I’ve thought about most of my life — many, many, times. It’s written in 1939 as World War II was beginning. There’s a sense that poetry is not able to prevent catastrophe.” Gutman said Auden’s tribute to Yeats came at a moment when Auden himself was struggling with self-doubt. Auden is questioning what poetry can do in the all-too-public world of markets, money, exploitation and power. “We live in a similar time. Poetry may make nothing happen,” Gutman said. “But it flows through our lives. It survives.”

Turning to music, Gutman said, “Where would we be without music. But it makes nothing happen.” Returning to that line, Gutman said, “The line you focus on is one of the most memorable lines of the 20th century. Does poetry matter?  I do think most poets wrestle with that.”