Poets customarily ask if poetry has a practical impact and often come up despairing. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden said, and he was right if happening is meant as carpentry, which is what the question is about–in essence it asks why can’t poetry be a blueprint? The late Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski once wrote he’d like to be the sort of poet whose songs call trees and stones to come forward, that he might build houses for people. The line is about as far as one can get from Auden–even as the wish may be impossible it musters intention. In this way the line is ridiculous.
Saarikoski knows it. Ambition, intent, and their failure together frame the insistence poetry must carve a plan, however utopian and improbable. Poetry makes nothing discernible happen but it’s blueprint is, much like Italo Calvino’s invisible cities, enticingly clear. Poetry can be concerned with the potential city–an urban romanticism surely, but one yielding a realized eschatology, as Kenneth Rexroth once said of “Leaves of Grass.” Whitman’s Manhattan offers a vision of what America could be, or may still become, a harmonious, loving, broad minded portion of the Earth, elect and free. Whitman insisted spiritual and civic life, a life equally enacted of mind and body will simultaneously propose and affirm true democratic love.
Makes nothing happen? Call the walking stones. Tell them.