While both Auden and Stevens respond to the actual world in their poetry, they view the purpose of poetry very differently.
“In Memory of W.B. Yeats” and “Of Modern Poetry”
The role of art and artists in relation to society at large has been heavily argued. Is it the job of art to bring attention to the problems that plague the world or is art exempt from political commentary? These opposing views of what poets should seek to do through their work are visible in the works of W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens. These opposing ideologies are the backbone of their poetry, as both of these poets detail the role that poets must play in society and then proceed to emulate this role through their work. Auden believes that poetry should be grounded in the current events of the actual world and sees the absence of this as turning a blind eye to suffering. His work is heavily influenced by the physical, political, and social landscape of his setting which is seen through the changes in his work as he moves from Europe to America. On the other hand, Stevens sees the forceful discussion of the political state of the world in poetry as restrictive. He views poetry’s role as the creation of a collective imagination where the absence of this forced reality is necessary for self-preservation. These conflicting ideologies of poetry’s role in society can be seen through “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” and “Of Modern Poetry.”
In The Poet and the City, Auden discusses the role of modern poetry. Because art cannot be rationalized, he sees artists as being personally responsible for their work. After discussing how, because of capitalism, workers have been reduced to laborers with no meaning behind what they make, Auden states that it is the artist’s responsibility to fascinate those who only have a life of meaningless labor to look forward to. He writes, “It is only natural, therefore, that the arts which cannot be rationalized in this way— the artist still remains personally responsible for what he makes— should he fascinate those, who because they have no marked talent, are afraid, with good reason, that all they have to look forward to is a lifetime of meaningless labor. This fascination is not due to the nature of art itself, but to the way in which an artist works; he, and in our age, almost nobody else, is his own master.” Here, Auden is making it clear that the poet has a social responsibility to their peers because of their ability to control what they make when so many others cannot. He uses the common occupation of a factory worker to make this comparison that emphasizes the social responsibility of the poet on the basis of the fact that they have complete control over their creation. Auden has somewhat of a “with great power comes great responsibility” mentality when it comes to poetry. He feels that it is the poet’s job to interest those who cannot control their work.
Although this idea seems separate from the political state of the world, it is actually grounded in capitalism. Auden is discussing how the rationalization of every occupation has left artists as the only ones with agency because of art’s inability to be rationalized in favor of capitalism. He states that the reason why all workers besides artists have been reduced to laborers is in favor of speed, economy, and quantity—all of which are priorities of the capitalist system. This grounds Auden’s view of the poet’s role in politics. It is because of politics that artists are left as the only ones with control over their creations. This separation is why Auden feels that poets have a social responsibility to stimulate those who cannot do so themselves.
Additionally, Auden’s opinion on the purpose of poetry as one that reflects its conditions of creation is seen through the shifts in his writing after he moves to America. In Auden in America, Nicholas Jenkins traces these differences in Auden’s writing based on his physical location. In noting the changes in Auden’s language after his relocation becomes apparent in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” Jenkins contrasts the cold, desolate European landscape of the first half with words like “ranches” in the second half. He writes, “unmistakably this was not a poem written in Europe, where an American word like ‘’ranches’ or a phrase like ‘raw towns’ would have seemed, literally, out of place.” This intentional shift in language shows how, whether it is the political landscape or physical world, Auden shapes his poetry in the context of the actual space that he is existing in.
Stevens sees the role of poets quite differently in comparison to Auden. Whereas Auden is concerned with responding to the current condition, in The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words Stevens sees the rejection of the pressure of reality (the pressure of reality being the pressure to discuss the political, social, and cultural landscape) in favor of imagination as a radical act. He views the pressure of reality as the determining characteristic of the era and imagination as the only way to combat this pressure. The role of the poet becomes one of collective imagination, as he says, “I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others.” While Auden is concerned with reality informed by current events and sees this as the poet’s responsibility to those around them, Stevens believes that it is not the poet’s job to serve as a moral compass. However, it is important to note that Stevens is not completely against the poet discussing the current condition, but rather the pressure to do so and the way that it cultivates inauthenticity. He believes that if a social or political issue moves the poet deeply enough then the poem will follow.
Stevens also sees the poet’s resistance to the pressures of reality as necessary for self-preservation. He posits imagination as a type of escapism that becomes a bandage for the wounds created by the real world. He ends The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words by saying, “it seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.” While both Auden and Stevens view poets as a voice for the collective, here Stevens says that the role of the poet is to help people live their lives through imagination. He believes that reality can become too much to handle and that imagination is our way of preserving our minds.
“In Memory of W.B. Yeats” displays Auden’s view of poetry’s role. The poem consists of Auden responding to and reflecting on a recent event (the death of Yeats) which perfectly captures Auden’s belief that poetry should interact with the issues of the time. Throughout the poem, Auden conceives the role of poetry as one that responds to the current condition. The poem is split into three parts, all with a distinct purpose, and this movement between the sections highlights Auden’s view. While the first part of the poem discusses the impact of Yeats’ death and how life moves on despite death, the second part is written in the second person as if he is speaking to Yeats, while the third part serves as an elegy.
Auden starts off by reminiscing on the day that Yeats died. He refers to it as a “dark cold day” and goes over the impact that it had. He talks about how the world continues to move not stopping for death, saying, “The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests, / The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays.” Through these lines, Auden is touching on a topic that is woven throughout his work—the way that people and things move on with their lives in the face of suffering and the way that human beings ignore the pain of others. This topic is seen through poems like “September 1, 1939” and “Musee des Beaux Arts” and is echoed here in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” The consistency of this theme, as well as its presence in the first part of “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” displays the way that Auden sees the role of the poet. He believes that it is the poet’s job to respond to the current issues that are being ignored, including the deaths that people hear about and continue working and living through. This is the epitome of the social responsibility that Auden sees poetry as having. Auden conveys this continuation of life in the midst of suffering through the punctuation in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” In every stanza after the first, the lines are all separated by commas and semicolons with periods only used at the end of each stanza. This allows the structure of the poem to mimic the continuation of life after Yeats’s death. The same way that people and things move on and blend without worry, so does each stanza.
The second part of “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” also shows Auden’s views on the role of poetry through the way that it presents the relationship between poetry and the individual. First, Auden positions poetry as something that is driven by the actual world, saying “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry” in reference to Yeats. The use of the phrase “hurt you into” shows how he sees poetry as being driven by the individual’s perception of the events occurring in the world around them. Auden then goes on to say that this madness Yeats introduced through his work lives on in Ireland because of Yeats’s poetry. This description is what leads Auden to the climax of the poem where he states:
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.
When one first reads the line “for poetry makes nothing happen,” it is easy to speculate that Auden is saying that poetry does not push forth real change. Yet, he goes on to call poetry “a way of happening,” detailing how it passes through space, time, and from person to person. This is what actually pushes forth change. Auden calls poetry a mouth, exhibiting how it moves between the words of people. What Auden is really arguing is that the way poetry happens—the way that it lives in the hearts and minds of people similar to an individual that has passed— is what leads to change. This is visible when looking at how he portrays Yeats’ passing in the second section. He does not dwell on the loss, but rather talks about his poetry and its impact as the gift that survived. This surviving gift is what creates change. Therefore, change can only occur if it is written about and if poets respond to the events of the actual world. This shows how Auden sees the role of the poet and poetry as the responsibility to respond to current events so that this way of “happening” can occur. This sentiment is also echoed in the last section where Auden writes an elegy for Yeats. Here, he describes him as a vessel emptied of poetry indicating how the goal of poetry is to entice change.
“Of Modern Poetry” by Wallace Stevens presents poetry in a very different way. While Auden sees poetry as tied to the current situation, Stevens sees poetry as the act of using one’s own imagination to create a collective imagination in which the balance of reality and imagination is essential. The inclusion of reality comes from real people and places, which is seen through the lines “It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place. / It has to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time.” Here, Stevens is evoking the balance of reality and imagination where reality comes from the living. Stevens’s repetition of the phrase “it has to” throughout the poem emphasizes and adds a sense of urgency to what he believes poetry has to do. Additionally, the way that Stevens personifies poetry to convey the action of creating a collective imagination is also seen through the analogy of the actor and the play in the first stanza. In this analogy, the poet is an actor who is speaking the thoughts that exist in their mind to an audience. However, the audience not listening to these words but experiencing them as these words become part of their imagination through the actor’s voice. This then combines the imagination of the actor with the imagination of the audience to create one single imagination. This idea of the imagination of the artist becoming the collective imagination is also seen in “Imagination as Value” when Stevens writes “when one’s aunt in California writes that the geraniums are up to her second story window, we soon have them running over the roof.” This creation of a collective imagination of the geraniums as a result of one person’s experience is the collective imagination that Stevens views as the purpose of poetry.
The structure of “Of Modern Poetry” mirrors the collective imagination that Stevens discusses. Similar to the way that “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” drags on when Auden is discussing how life continues after death, the play analogy also follows a similar pattern. The entire analogy covers nine lines but the only period occurs at the end of the analogy. The discussion of the actor’s role and the audience’s role blend together similarly to the way that the poet’s imagination blends with the readers to create a collective one.
Stevens’s belief in poetry amplifying the power of imagination also appears in this poem through the idea of searching one’s mind. The collective imagination only occurs once one searches their mind and then paints the picture for everyone else through poetry. Stevens refers to this searching of one’s mind as finding satisfaction in everyday things. The idea that the truest form of poetry is the real (this is what creates the balance between reality and imagination) world permeates this poem. Most notably, it is seen in the last stanza where he states: “Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may / Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman / Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.” Before these lines, Stevens separates the “It must” causing it to serve as its own stanza and emphasize the point to come. This ending point, where Stevens says that poetry must find satisfaction in everyday things—skating, dancing, and combing— shows how Stevens almost sees these individual actions as poems in their own right if one searches their mind. It illustrates that Stevens sees the purpose of poetry in the modern world as the creation of a collective imagination.
While both Auden and Stevens respond to the actual world in their poetry, they view the purpose of poetry very differently. Auden sees poetry as having a social responsibility to the world—a duty to discuss the actualities of what is happening and not turn a blind eye, as art is intrinsically political. This view is captured by “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” where Auden is directly responding to the death of a public figure. Stevens’s view of the role of poetry is much less grounded in the current reality. While he sees reality as necessary to balance imagination, he does not believe that poetry should serve as a moral compass. Instead, he believes that poetry should seek to create a communal imagination amongst people through the introspection of the poet. This imagination is what allows human beings to not feel squandered by the realities of life. This view is depicted in “Of Modern Poetry” when he explains communal imagination through the analogy of the actor and the play as well as through the last stanza where he emphasizes imagination in relation to the actual world. However, while both of these views are very different, together they paint a full picture of the opposing, passionate beliefs surrounding poetry and serve to balance one another.