Ten Questions: The Role of the Poet

The next topic in the Ten Questions subject index (see top of left sidebar). The question referenced

1) Shelley’s 1821 In Defence of Poetry – a mind-twistingly complicated epistle which asserts that poets’ ability to apprehend and represent order makes them “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (and yes, I know that’s a criminally simple summary – go ahead and read the whole thing for yourself, then, or you may prefer this not-any-less-complicated but much much shorter synopsis) – and
2) a 2003 interview with Canadian poet George Bowering, who referenced Shelley’s assertion, but in a context that inferred (to me, anyway) that a poet has a legitimate contemporary mandate to serve as an agent of political change,

then asked if the poets thought The Poet has a role to play in contemporary human affairs.

The ten poets’ responses, excerpted here, ranged across the board, as you will see. Some thought such assertions over-inflated the role of both poets and poetry; others were somewhat more on the fence, thinking things could go either way, depending. Tony and Paul grappled very interestingly with the notion of the poet as political activist (the engaged poet?). I found Tony’s comments to be particularly illuminating. Scavella and Katy seemed to be somewhat in Shelley’s camp (correct me if I’m wrong, guys) — in the sense that they both seem to feel that a high ability to manipulate words and language — to name, to order, to create experience — gives the poet deep and fundamental social/moral authority not possessed in the same degree by others. (Read Scavella’s and Katy’s full responses, both very meaty and thought-provoking, at the side-bar link.)

As I informed you at length in this post, the part that interests me in all this is contemporary “engaged” poetry, and what exactly that means. Some cross between the Tony/Paul take and the Scavella/Katy take, methinks.  With a dash of Existentialism-speak, maybe.  Still very much muddling through that question.

In that vein, here’s a comment to that same post I wrote in reply to a comment from Rob:

Absolutely, people should write what they want to write. What’s interesting, though, are the prevailing conditions that somehow dictate that in general what people overwhelmingly want to write about is, as you say, “minor epiphanies from domestic settings.” It seems that the same conditions also dictate that in general we are fated to automatically interpret everything (poetic) we read through the same minor “domestic” optic – ie seeing only narrow “domesticity” where much larger contexts are in fact in play.

I think the US-UK poetry blogosphere has its own closed dynamic in this regard (and this may be a good or bad thing for poetry, I don’t know which). Elsewhere in the world, it seems to me that a failure to engage with the supra-domestic (in both writing and reading) is prima facie evidence of failure as a poet and as a reader.

Which is not to say that any point on this scale is right or wrong — we are all much more a product of the civilizational forces in play around us than we are definers of them, and it would be silly to expect any sort of majority to swim upstream against those forces regularly, in any consistent mainstream way.

Still a lot of thinking to be done on this one.

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Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

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