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.

“A Succession of Duds” | R.S. Thomas’s Memories of U.S. Presidents

With one exception, R. S. Thomas never talked with me about American politics.

The break in that rule came on November 9, 1994, the day after the mid-term elections during President Clinton’s first four years in office. Television’s nattering heads were agog with the Republican “sweep” that launched Newt Gingrich’s firecracker career, which prompted Thomas to refer to recent U.S. presidents as “a succession of duds.”

How many “duds,” I wondered, does it take to make a “succession”? “Recent” certainly included Clinton and the first Bush. What about Reagan? Ford? Carter? Thomas didn’t say, but surely Reagan was on his list. For President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher saw things through the same eyes, and Thatcher was, for Thomas, “The Iron Lady [who] became / rusty.”

Rusty things are, of course, duds.

From Thomas’s perspective, Thatcher and Reagan must have appeared twinned in dud-ness. Both were bellicose: the prime minister with her Falklands War, the President with his Star Wars Missile Defense.  That militarism would have got right up pacifist Thomas’s nose, and he would have been caustic in his rejection of the greed-is-good, trickle-down economics favored by both leaders.

But . . .

But there’s irony here as there is irony almost everywhere in Thomas’s life. Thomas was well known, and often angrily dismissed, for his insistence that the Welsh people needed to become more defiantly, even more bellicosely, Welsh. But the Welsh, when given an opportunity to vote for some measure of “home rule,” turned it down. Then along came the Iron Lady, and the Welsh, deeply alienated by her English chest thumping and her bugger-the-poor policies, voted in favor of a separate Assembly to legislate on matters pertaining to Wales.

What Thomas, the poet laureate of resurgent Welshness, failed to achieve, the rusty English prime ministerial dud, helped bring about. And wasn’t there a soft chuckle in the heavens?

Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“The Iron Lady became” – “Not Blonde,” Mass for Hard Times, 24.