It's often taken to be a negative comment on the effect, or lack thereof, of poetry on the world. Does poetry matter? Knowing Auden, you would have to wonder if that's what he really meant.
Another case like that would be these three lines from William Butler Yeats:
I think it better that in times like these
A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right.
Actually, both poets had a political side. W.H. Auden went to Spain and supported the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War, and Yeats supported Ireland in the uprising against British colonial power. He even served as a Senator for the newly-formed Republic of Ireland.
Here's that line from Auden's "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" with a bit more context:
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.
Just three days after Auden arrived in New York in early 1939, news came that W. B. Yeats had died. Yeats was 73; Auden was 31. He quickly wrote "In Memory of W. B. Yeats."
It's not a protest poem in the traditional sense at all. So why is it in his post?
Read the complete poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" and you'll see that it has two ideas in it. It starts with unrhymed verse paragraphs that suggest that poets can't do much more than create a way of being remembered. The second section is in stricter form and argues that poetry is more powerful than time or death. There's an unresolved feeling to the poem as to which is true. Perhaps, Auden wasn't completely sure. I'm not sure myself.
Our April prompt is poems of protest. They might be poems against the war or following a prompt from ProtestPoems.org or in protest of what is happening in Tibet or Darfur or any number of world situations. But Poets Online is not a political website. So, your submissions can also be poems of protest against more abstract or personal concerns.
If you feel the need for writing prompts with more meaning, sign up for monthly poetry prompts at ProtestPoems.org and visit the Poets Against the War site. Post a comment below and let us know about other sites that encourage action-poetry.
Back in February 2003, First Lady Laura Bush canceled her symposium on "Poetry and the American Voice" because she learned that some of the poets on her guest list refused to attend in protest against the impending war. A spokesperson for her said that t it would be "inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum." As a reaction to that non-event, the Poets Against the War movement was born. Since then, the group's volunteer editors has reviewed more than 22,000 poems.
And just last month, we crossed the 5 year mark for the war in Iraq. Since 2002, at least 775 men have been held in the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. A poetry collection was published in August 2007 that gives voice to the men held at Guantánamo. Poems from Guantánamo has poems by 17 detainees, most of whom are still being held there. The poems may not be poetry of the highest quality, but they are a powerful use of poetry, and they make something happen.
There's an extended discussion online about this in "Conversing With the World: The Poet in Society" by Rachel Galvin.