Percy Shelley, in his essay “A Defense of Poetry” claims somewhat wildly that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I’ve always loved this exuberant statement, though I recognize its obvious absurdity. Poets, in their hovels and cafes, hiding in their hermit huts, scribbling their obscene odes and barbaric yawps in a haze of heartbreak and drug daze can hardly be considered fit legislators of their own usually miserable lives, much less legislators of the world, god forbid. (Though the world’s current miserable state does seem to reflect the lives of the poets sometimes…) Still, I admired Shelley’s stance, his exaggeration and boldness, and I had some glimmer that poets and artists should at least be inspired to strive toward truths that would influence the world for the better. It was, after all, exactly this romantic image of the power of words to shape the world in the science fiction trilogy The Fall of the Towers that brought me to poetry in the first place.
But the older I’ve grown the more I’ve come to see the literal truth of Shelley’s dramatic figure of speech. From the altitude of age I can recognize just how much the images and ideas created by writers form the geography of our society, the landscape of our lives, the superstructure on which we build our sense of ourselves and our relations to others.
Most people don’t know that the poet James Dickey came up with the slogan “It’s the real thing” which propelled Coca Cola’s advertising through several decades. Equally powerful was the— to my knowledge— anonymous poet who crafted the brilliant “Just Do It” phrase that carried with it more than a brand but a whole philosophy of life. I’ll add here that it was equally the writer who coined the phrase and the editor/executive who recognized it for what it was, who bear the credit and blame.
In the poetry of politics, it’s even easier to see Shelley’s link between poetic image and policy. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Pick your example of the words and ideas on which we base our beliefs and our laws.
And I don’t mean to say this is necessarily a bad thing. It may be that “Just Do It” was a positive meme for the world, advocating action over passivity, energy and exercise and the outdoors over the far too common “why bother?” mentality of the modern world. And how much good has come and is still to come from the forever echoing poetry of Jefferson’s line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…”?
In these days, though, it’s easier to see this power of poetry in its negative forms. Because, like all but one of the most profound types of knowledge and magic, poetry can be used for good or for evil. (The one form of magic that can’t be used for evil is, of course, love…) From the gentle-sounding “pacification” of Vietnamese villages with napalm and 500lb bombs, to the more recent evil poet-genius who first came up with “femi-nazi”— which single coinage set back women’s equality by a generation— the black magic of evil poets seems indeed to have legislated and dominated our world.
Perhaps there is more to the cliched metaphor a “war of words” than we think. What if the deep struggle in our world is not essentially one of guns and bombs and barricades, but rather an endless battle between images and metaphors and ideas? A battle, in other words, between the poets of love and the poets of hate. And here’s the rub. What if we’re losing? What if we poets and writers and artists who believe in peace and love, who want to help shape a better, more compassionate, more equal, and more beautiful world, aren’t trying hard enough?
What if I’m not trying hard enough?