One. Grand claims are made for poetry. The romantic poet Shelley said that the poets are the unacknowledged legislators
of the world. Two. If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,
what is their relation to the acknowledged legislators?
Poetry must feel at liberty to deal with public issues and in times of
crisis people have asked ‘where are the war poets?’ as C. Day-Lewis did in World
War Two. Three. Poetry is universal it seems to occur in all known societies. In anthropology there are very few things at which that
is true. Four. Poetry seems to serve a purpose related to religion and ritual.
It’s concerned with the ethics of a society and its sense of its place in
the order of things. If religion declines, poetry, like music, can move in to serve
its function. American poet Wallace Stevens says ‘exceeding music must take the place of empty heaven and its hymns’. And of course, like music, poetry collaborates with religion too. Bach and George Herbert and Hopkins. Five. As well as being public, poetry specialises in the expression of the personal. It’s been thought most
effective in areas which are most personal like love and death and
appreciation of nature. Nowadays, poetry is perhaps most commonly resorted to at
funerals and weddings. Six. The medium of poetry, like that of music, is sound. Poetry must have at least the possibility of being performed out loud. Tennyson
called Milton the ‘mighty-mouth’d inventor of harmonies’. Seven. Poetry
uses language in unusual ways. Binyon’s lament ‘For the Fallen’ says ‘they
shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.’ Maybe the unusual ways of arranging
language makes the hearer concentrate more and perhaps remember it better. Eight. Often the special uses of language have been thought to be of the essence of
poetry. Things like rhyme and rhythm and scansion. But writers tend to say those things are decorations and options in poetry and
not essential to it. Nine. Poetry operates at length, as well as in the short lyric
and song. So for the great subjects, poetry is used by Homer and Virgil and
Milton in the large social epics. Ten. It’s a paradox that poetry, like all artistic
forms, is made up and yet somehow is often said to have a higher access to
truth. Philip Sidney said ‘the poet nothing affirms and therefore never lies’.
Perhaps in the age of fake news, poetry should be turned to, to take up its
legislation again.