Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Shelley’s words came to my mind while I was reading a report about Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, an excellent speaker and leader but not inclined to poetry.
He was talking about leaders. Political leaders cannot be trained but must be found and be people with passion, he said at the Lee Kuan Yew Institute of Public Policy. Yes, it is named after him. A National University of Singapore graduate school where former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan will begin teaching next year.
What has that to do with poetry, one may ask.
Well, poets, too, can’t be trained and must have passion.
So says James Fenton, a poet himself, in his book, An Introduction To English Poetry.
Poets can’t be trained like musicians, he says. Poetry has “no equivalent to the practising of scales or other finger exercises”.
And yet there is music in poetry. One can hear the sound of the waves in Tennyson’s famous lines:
“Break, break, break
On thy cold grey stones, o sea!”
The sensuousness is palpable in Keats’ Bright Star:
“Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon in death.”
Words can be music and more in a poet’s hands. Fenton explains how the poets achieve the effects they do in his short, excellent primer on the rhythms of poetry.
Shelley also compares poetry with music and other art forms in A Defence Of Poetry – and finds it superior to them all. He concludes:
“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
He could say so in his time because the Romantics were transforming not just poetry but music, art, the entire Western culture.
He noted the achievements of his contemporaries:
“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.”
But what struck me most was what he had to say about writing a poem. It just happens. “A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry,'” he said.
He called it a divine inspiration. He soared to poetry as he described his art – mysterious in its origin and fleeting in its inspiration:
“Poetry is indeed something divine… What were virtue, love, patriotism, friendship—what were the scenery of this beautiful universe which we inhabit; what were our consolations on this side of the grave—and what were our aspirations beyond it, if poetry did not ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar? Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.”
Poets are no longer the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Singers are more popular now. Even leading journalists, bloggers and other opinion makers command greater influence today. But nothing can compare with the beauty of words put to verse. Or arranged like a poem. Think of the Serenity Prayer:
- God grant me the serenity
- To accept the things I cannot change;
- Courage to change the things I can;
- And wisdom to know the difference.