In W.H. Auden’s poems, there are “happenings” and there are “ways of happening.”
Poets create ways of happening, and this is why such people are generally considered useless – at least by the practical people in our society who concern themselves with politics and finance. The way something happens is unimportant. All that matters is that things happen. Progress, get on, grow the economy.
When a life is reduced to happenings, things are very simple. Three or four things will happen to a person in a life, and then the course of that life is set. A first love, an inspiring lesson, a career decision – three or four happenings to set a course, and the rest is just the flow of pure being. “That’s just the way I am,” you can say by the time you reach the age of 25.
Where did you go to school? Who was your first love? What was your first job? Where do you see yourself in five years? Four questions and a life is mapped out, for all practical intents and purposes.
Auden is ambiguous on the question of whether even a poet can escape the bounds of a life determined by happenings. W.B. Yeats, the subject of one of Auden’s most famous poems, was himself a poet, a dreamer, a creator of ways of happening; and yet, like the rest of us he is “silly.” Like the rest of us he is confined to seeing the world in terms of “things” and so in terms of “certainties.” And now that he is dead his poems have left him, his physical form emptied of his own dreams and ideals and certainties, and his words are merely things in a world that is not his own, to be read by people with their own needs, to signify new certainties, to be used independently of the will and desires that their author once had.
(Sources: “Detective Story”, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” and “Brussels in Winter” by W.H. Auden. Image is from Pixabay.)