Poets and Politics: “Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”

I woke up in Wales on the day after America’s midterm elections in 1994, turned on the telly, and learned that there had been a Republican sweep.

Twenty years later, I woke up in Pennsylvania on the day after America’s midterm elections, turned on the television, and learned that there was a Republican wave.

After the 1994 Republican sweep, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich led impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. Twenty years later, Clinton is one of the most popular men in America, while Gingrich is a nattering bobble-head on TV.

How soon will Americans wave goodbye to the latest wave?

R.S. Thomas might shrug, remark that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and then get on with writing a poem – perhaps similar to the one he wrote in 1953, in which politicians try to energize voters “In the hill country at the moor’s edge” in North Wales.

They “came and spoke to them about Wales, / The land they lived in without knowing it.” “They mentioned Henry Richard and S. R. – the great names; / And Keir Hardie; the names nobody knew.”

Thanks to Tony Brown, co-director of the R. S. Thomas Study Centre at Bangor University, Henry Richard can be identified as a nineteenth-century Liberal, who became Member of Parliament for Merthyr, a coal and iron town north of Cardiff. S. R. was Samuel Roberts, a Nonconformist writer and radical. Keir Hardie was the first Labour MP for Merthyr. All names to conjure with in their political heyday. But . . .

. . . and here RS gets to his point:

It was quite exciting, but in the high marginal land
No names last longer than the wind
And the rain let them on the cold tombstone.

Poets may not make anything happen . . . except for voicing the reminder that the “names” that are riding a wave today will be lost eventually in the depths of oblivion. While the words of such poets as R. S. Thomas and W. H. Auden will continue to buoy up the human spirit generation after generation.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise


Poems quoted in this post:

“poetry makes nothing happen” – “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” W. H. Auden, Another Time (1940), 98.

“In the hill country” and following quotes – “The Minister,” Collected Poems, 1945-1990 (1993), 42, 51.

“Follow, poet, follow right” – “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden, Another Time, 99-100.


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