The Poet’s Role

(Related Whale blog post.) 

QUESTION #1: In this 2003 interview, Canadian poet George Bowering quotes Shelley: “The poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” Do you think the poet has a specific role to play in human affairs in this century? If so, what is it?

1. ROB
No, I don’t think poets have a specific role to play. I think that poets write poems, the poems they want to write, and that’s about it. Of course, poems have their effect on the world, some more than others, but that’s a different question.

I believe that writers in general, and poets in particular, have roles to play in human affairs, in whatever century they find themselves. Writing is the one art that marries thought directly with craft. The other arts tap more directly into the subconscious (if that exists) or, better, the unarticulated, while writers have the challenge (often missed by this generation of keyboard-typists) of translating impulse, emotion, the ineffable, into consciousness. The process of naming is a process of making conscious the meaning of something. Words name, and writers manipulate words (or are manipulators of them). Poets do the most manipulating, because poetry is the most compressed, the densest of all writing. So the role of poets is the most dense, the most intense, of all writers. And because writing is where thought meets impulse, where the unconscious is translated into consciousness, poets have a role to play.

That role, though, is likely to change from person to person and from society to society, depending on context and the need for that translation; so my answer to your specific question would be “No”. Paradoxically, that is.

No. I think, honestly, that a lot of poets want to feel better about their chosen art form, so they artificially elevate it. But it is what it is, a fairly insignificant diversion.

But, then, I think fairly insignificant diversions are what make us human and not woodchucks. We get to do things that have no other purpose but to make our lives more beautiful.

The poet is surely the legislator of the poem, but I don’t think he has some large-scale role to play in human affairs. The poet, or rather the poem, plays an important role for readers, who go to poetry for the same reasons they always did, alone and as individuals. But most poets don’t set out to guide or instruct anyone. Mostly they’re talking to themselves. And the audience, which is limited, isn’t made up activists and aid workers. Only a small part reads to reflect on culture, the state of the world, the local police, etc. Many readers are looking for poems about flowers and anthropomorphosized animals. Not that there’s anything wrong with flowers. They can do us a lot of good. In winter, I am particularly fond of the amaryllis.

This is difficult territory to traverse because there are two activities going on, the theoretical/political/social and the technical, what you think and how you write. The irrelevant poet is someone who is only interested in poetry and not in the relations that poetry might have to the world. The earnest boring poet is someone who is primarily driven by the theoretical/political side. But it isn’t a question simply of avoiding those extremes. The relation of craft and content, or of practice and theory or however you want to phrase it, is delicate and inscrutable.

It seems to me that the poet needs to be basically in thrall to technique, interested in how to write and in what makes good writing, but part of what makes a good writer is bringing one’s intelligence and writing skill to bear on the world outside poetry. The best poets re-imagine the world, or imaginatively reconfigure the world, and it seems to me that neither the poets who bang on about their own feelings and personal relationships nor the ones who seek to make political points or exemplify political systems are doing that to any appreciable degree.

It’s very difficult for a poet to write well in the light of a perceived responsibility to engage with matters outside the poem – whether these are political, historical, moral, theoretical, aesthetic, etc – because as soon as you have a conscious desire to do so, you’re serving two masters. The poems I write with too fresh an impression of an extra-poetic idea in my mind tend to be uniformly dreadful. I am increasingly impressed by Louis MacNeice’s prescription, ‘I would have a poet able-bodied [able-minded]…a reader of newspapers…informed in economics…actively interested in politics’. That is, you have to be interested in the world as well as in poetry, and somehow and somewhen the poems will come.

It’s my opinion that the poet has a role only if he/she can break through the restrictions of most contemporary poetry and its limiting world of publication, academics, and false postures of gentility or linguistic revolution. God knows what that role may be. I’ve only begun to figure out what it isn’t. It isn’t an insular world where only poets read other poets. It isn’t a political world where it’s who you know or where you teach or when you read or what you publish or why… Well, actually, that’s all that really matters: why you write it. After all is said and done, no one reads poetry any more. And even most other poets only read it so they in turn will be read. So why write it? If poets would follow that question to the ends of the world, then maybe they’d have a role to play while still in it.

No, I can’t say that the poet has a specific role to play–more like a multitude of possible roles. The relative obscurity of poetry makes the legislator role increasingly unlikely, though there’s clearly still room for exceptions from Dana Gioia (though he’s well acknowledged) to Poets Against the War.

First of all, I don’t share Shelley’s ultraromantic notion of the poet as a special, privileged individual who is somehow set apart from (and above) the rest of the human race by powers far beyond those of mortal men. That, in fact, is a very damaging and misleading view (although one that appeals to some people, obviously) because it falsely asserts the poet is different from the rest of us when in fact whatever value is to be found in a poet’s work comes from her identity as one of us, a fumbling participant like the rest of us in the complex, confusing, at times incomprehensible maze of this life.

On the other hand, I think poetry (as opposed to “the poet”) has something important to offer to those who take the time and make the effort to receive it. As I used to tell my students, all good poetry (and fiction and drama) has only one real subject: human nature. In poetry we see and can learn a great deal about ourselves and other people, both those like ourselves and those very different from ourselves. That is a fundamental element of poetry and gives it a profound value for those who chose to spend time with poetry.

The poet’s specific role is to tell the truth, or to uncover the truth, as he or she sees it, using memorable and precise language. This happens in a number of ways. Poets may tell the truth in openly political poetry, as Tom Paulin has done. But when poets make poems, truth-tellings, then that has political implications no matter what the apparent subject of the poem. Politics is based on twist-speak, on the perversion of language to purposes other than truth. If poetic enactment is proper use of language, it must also be a political act – a legislation, a coding of the law, and a liberation from untruth – even in the twenty-first century.

10. KATY
I think you can demonstrate that the poet has always played a part in human affairs, and I don’t see why this century should be any different from all the others. But the part played by poetry isn’t centre-stage, front-page stuff. And I think the phrase “unacknowledged legislator” is more interesting than it looks at first glance: legislators are, etymologically, ‘proposers of law’, and I can barely think of a civilisation which has not become civilised precisely through its systems of ordering language. Oral histories laid the basis for codes of behaviour long before they were ‘codified’ into books. It’s certainly possible to be a proposer of laws without being acknowledged; and even if a certain version of events, or a certain moral truth (let’s say) is absorbed into the main stream (think of Shakespeare), it doesn’t mean people acknowledge its source.

Poetry acts not directly on the world, but on the senses, to produce experience which is extra-sensory, and which influences the person who experiences it in whatever way. This can mean perceiving something in a new way, or simply – to begin with – feeling a given emotion. Poetry, which can be defined as patterned language (the debate around language which is not patterned in any way has yet to be closed!), operates on the senses (and thus on the body) similarly to music, with the addition of verbal meaning.

This element of meaning is critical: poetry is a way of weaving together disparate or even discordant elements into a whole. This is the thing that makes it poetry, that makes it a high achievement of the human mind. It’s our ability to create and perceive order, to reconcile dissonances, which gives us the potential for poetry.

We need to be alert to meaning. Joseph Brodsky said somewhere that a society where people don’t read poetry, where people are only exposed to the kinds of crude usage found in political propaganda will become increasingly vulnerable to cant, because they’ll have forgotten how to discern subtext. (I’ve looked for this quote but can’t find it; this is my own paraphrase of how I understand Brodsky’s remark.) I think all you have to do is look around you to see how this very syndrome is affecting us, as a society, now. You could apply the theory to marketing and advertising propaganda – where we all think we are so savvy these days, but don’t realise we’re buying in to the whole “high concept” concept at the expense of “deep concept.”

So let’s think about poetry acting as a moral barometer, a litmus test of meaning, in civilised life. If poetry “makes nothing happen”, as Auden famously said in his elegy for Yeats, it is no less important for that: we only need to drop a stone into a pond and watch the ripples spread outwards. Poetry is not about trying to make things happen. It’s about ways of experiencing, ways of navigating experience. We might look to Socrates, who told us that “the unexamined life is not worth living” – poetry helps to create the tools for self-examination. Socrates also said: “Let him that would move the world first move himself.”

And anyway, we, sitting at the beginning of an already-beleaguered century, are no fit judges of the importance of poetry in the century to come. I hope this century does produce significant poetry. It looks set to need it. Earlier in the essay from which you take your question, A Defence of Poetry, Shelley wrote:

In the infancy of the world, neither poets themselves nor their auditors are fully aware of the excellence of poetry: for it acts in a divine and unapprehended manner, beyond and above consciousness; and it is reserved for future generations to contemplate and measure the mighty cause and effect in all the strength and splendour of their union. Even in modern times, no living poet ever arrived at the fullness of his fame; the jury which sits in judgment upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed of his peers: it must be impanelled by Time from the selectest of the wise of many generations.

And it also annoys me when people take half of Auden’s meaning. The stanza where he says poetry makes nothing happen finishes: It survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.

7 thoughts on “The Poet’s Role”

  1. Ten answers and no one mentions entertaining an audience? Hmmmmm …

    A role to play

    a couple easy bucks

    mya and me,
    we sold love cards
    at the flea market,
    hand drawn tennessee dawns
    and a poem, hand lettered
    under the fold, sacred
    words everyone recognized,
    five dollars with a pastel
    envelope, her best grin.
    guys who knew their wives’
    softspots bought two or three,
    the radio played all summer
    /’love the one you’re with’/
    as she drew mornings swiftly
    through nights as wide as sin.

    -beau blue

  2. Hey Blue! “Entertain” has a wide definition — wouldn’t it include things like “move” and “affect”, which have strong representation above as concepts? Good to see you here!

  3. I suppose, I like being moved. So, OK. I just noticed no one mentioned the word, that’s all. Too plebe I suppose? See, this is why … this is why I should remain silent. Been warned about it my whole life, but noooo, I just keep doing it …

  4. Oddly, since I was young I always have assumed that poets and story tellers and dramatists had an important social role. I find it hard to understand a prejudice that seems to be abroad in both my country and the USA, for example, against political poetry. Chaucer was very political. Shakespeare was very political. My background is, however, not in English literature, but in German. And there I always found a passionate involvement with the social and political issues of the poets’ day. Schiller, for example, saw the theatre as a classroom. Others have seen the poets’ role as akin to that of a priest, or of a prophet. And satire at its best is always concerned with the deeper social and political issues. It can be very unfunny and bitter. The example of one such poet in my home city, Adelaide, a tough old lady and former school principal, has encouraged me to find a satirical voice of my own, though I would not regard myself as primarily a satirist or political poet. My own leaning is more towards the role of the prophet or the priest (though I am an atheist). And yes, we can find honoured examples in English language poetry.

  5. Very helpful to see these varied responses together, to see they all have a point, that the sum total of their observations leads to a greater awareness than any one of them. This seems itself a possible definition of the poem and differentiates much poetry from the advertising and politically-charged lingoism of much of today’s public discourse: namely, that poetry tends to have an expansive quality — it is larger on the inside than it seems from looking only at its container — while ad-speak and other language meant to persuade an audience to agreement with a finely-controlled point of meaning (and a resulting action). This type of communication actually closes down upon examination, with every element and the energy driving the whole meant to deposit a single controlling seed of meaning that momentarily denies anything that might protest or oppose.

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