Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. So said Percy Shelley (1821). Hogwash, you say? Well, the elected ones aren't legislating so who is it leading us to the abyss and numbing our souls?
I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than / Than teach a thousand stars how not to dance. e..e.cummings
Shelley was referring to the way poetry can stir the mind and set free both our imagination and rational thought process. When metaphorical language penetrates and rocks the spirit it can transform what seemed like a mountain into a dune. The intractable problems we face require re-framing and a replacement for dead language.
What we hear in Washington is rhythmic noise. We don’t even need to make out the words. Robert Frost believed that our cadences are charged with a sonic meaning. Unfortunately today’s Lingua Franca is vehemence and vitriol. Poetry is a language of harmony however the muffled meaning. Comprehension enters before any explication can happen. There is no reason to translate the rhetoric when you overhear the blather.
Shelley argues that we enter the world with the linguistic impulse to make order out of it. Today we are witness to the clamor, the glut of sensory input and welter of information all of which insist on some sort of filtering. Enter the poet to take this material and shape it into something with harmonic resonance. This very act is moral with an element of unity and delight out of which comes civilization itself.
Tom Robbins said his Quasi Motto is yanking the bell rope despite physical affliction. Joy in spite of everything.
Frost was a grumpy New Englander whose poetry about roads not taken and the something that is that doesn’t love a wall are beloved for their levels of truth and the rhythms of speech. Once again the poet makes beautiful that which appears distorted. That beauty is not necessarily free of ambiguity but it alters our angle of vision and according to Shelley lifts the veil.
As legislator of the world Shelley saw the poet bringing together analysis with synthesis, the known and unknown. He wrote that reason is to imagination as the body is to spirit, as shadow to substance. In bridging these differences he offers a glimpse of what might be out of the chaos of what is. It can be the voice of suffering as well as the moon in her phases.
Poetry can also be banal, a part of the static which assaults us every day. This is not what Shelley had in mind. He saw the poet as prophet not as prognosticator but as one aligned with the flow of history.
As Cummings suggested it is more preferable to listen than to teach. And we have more to learn from Nature before we destroy it. Poets know this. We would do well to praise that alien figure fast approaching instead of shooting or shouting at it. It is called the Future. It is of our doing. Poets are revolutionaries, essential in the healing of this world’s failed imagination. Creativity itself is faintly subversive lobbying for what is yet to come. Coexistent with the language of belligerence is a universal one of creativity understood by all nations.
It may not be possible to define exactly what it is in poetry that can save us yet as William Carlos Williams wrote, men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. Even if it seems like poetry makes nothing happen, the world would be impoverished without it. It is a tough argument to make but Shelley seems to be saying that poetry brings order and unity into the world in a way that cuts across borders. As legislators they could do no worse than what we’ve got.
Every morning Peggy writes a poem. Most of them tunnel between a morning observation over breakfast and the carnage happening in the vast elsewhere. A dog-walker in an orange cap becomes a Separatist in Ukraine. How does change happen? Maybe it seeps into consciousness with a continental leap when our sentinels are asleep at the gate.