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Poetry and radicalism: Mouthing off or making a difference?

Are we neglecting the genuine potential of great poetry to subvert and unsettle the way we see the world, even if as Auden said, it ‘makes nothing happen’?

‘For poetry’ Auden famously wrote ‘makes nothing happen’. This quote is the prima facie evidence most often used against those who think poetry can make a difference in politics. Yet Auden then goes on to say that poetry ‘survives’ as ‘a way of happening, a mouth’. In this anniversary year of ’68, it is worth remembering that the 1960s seemed to bring poetry as a way of happening into the political realm. Poetry ‘happenings’ took on the mantle of events that could challenge social, cultural and political conservatism. For many, it was at arts events, rather than at the barricades, that the ‘revolution’ really took place.

40 years on, a new generation of poets seem to be reclaiming poetry as a political, not simply cultural, ‘way of happening’. And often it is explicitly associated with calls for political change, from Poets Against War to last year’s Love Poetry Hate Racism events. Poetry once again seems to be picking up the banner of radicalism, especially around environmentalism, as eco-poetry and eco-criticism gain in popularity.

Is poetry reclaiming its radical roots and confronting contemporary apathy? Or this just self-flattery, with too many modern bards mouthing insubstantial political platitudes out loud? Are we using poetry as a cheap vehicle for political opinions? Are we neglecting the genuine potential of great poetry to subvert and unsettle the way we see the world, even if it ‘makes nothing happen’?


David Bowden | talks
Gary Day | talks
Paul Dunn | talks
Chris McCabe | talks
Brendan O'Neill | talks | www
Imogen Robertson | talks
Todd Swift | talks


Date and Time:

7 October 2008 at 7:00 pm


2 hours



Vibe Live
91-95 Brick Lane
E1 6QL
020 7269 9220
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Organised by:

Institute of Ideas
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£7.50 (£5)

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