I recently went on a residential writing course in Christchurch, and at one point we decided to recreate the ‘Team Photo’ of the Bullingdon Club on the stairs:
A startled and apologetic builder came out of the door behind us and it felt like something significant. But anyhow, I have been thinking about POETRY and POWER.
At the end of Shelley’s ‘Defense of Poesy’:
The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Poets often acknowledge their unacknowledged POWER; poets are rather fond of that last sentence; poets don’t really convince even themselves.
POETRY is POWER
Language (persuasion) is POWER, and poets can win as long as the game sticks to those limits. But established POWER moves easily from persuasion to coercion whenever it serves it better, and even coerces with the implicit promise that it can do so, and so poets (and the others who know that language is the only game in which they can win) protest desperately the unfairness of it all. I suppose it depends on whether you think persuasion or coercion comes first.
All bad art is propaganda, unwittingly or not. Bad art is always more persuasive, as it is easier to stir up accustomed channels of thought than it is to make ones. All easy art is bad art. Good art is unpersuasive first; good art is on the losing side. Good art should be difficult because it should be disrupting a person’s patterns of thought, rather than reinforcing them. To be responsible, this is why criticism is important and why art shouldn’t get an easy ride.
MONEY is POWER
As Robert Graves said, there’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money. This doesn’t get us further. But what about the relationship between publishing and power. (I am thinking about what Adorno/Horkheimer wrote about writing poetry after Auschwitz, in which they really mean publishing/selling poetry after Auschwitz. But I’m not sure I really agree with them.) Luckily for us, few mainstream publishers (with which we could perhaps edge closer to A/H’s censure) are interested in poetry.
If MONEY is POWER and TIME is MONEY then TIME is POWER
Another point here, which I’ve not the reading to go further, is the argument that writing poetry is a luxury, is to not have to work. It is also to not be exercising POWER in other ways. It is privileged to be able to spend three days writing poems in an Oxford college. But then this feels somewhat inescapable.
I feel like we’ve not got anywhere.
Anyhow, with equally questionable success, here’s our attempt. I’m in the middle at the top of the steps, which seems uncharacteristically forthright.