Auden said, ”Poetry makes nothing happen.” In contrast, Shelley said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” – which sounds rather an excessive, if not bombastic, claim! Certainly, it’s sometimes hard to see how a little poetry magazine can make anything happen except satisfy the reclusive vanity of the editor and the poets. But perhaps we have to think of ourselves as part of a bigger enterprise. Julia Alvarez, in a poem called ‘Poetry makes nothing happen?’ questioning Auden’s statement, says that poetry may help people “see themselves or see the world / in a different light.” The cumulative effect of poetry, novels and all the representational arts, is to help us see ourselves and the world in a different light. That is to say, they condition our sensibilities. We are children of our culture, socialised into value systems and ways of seeing that determine how we act in the world. And part of our culture is high culture, literary culture. And this has, among other things, contributed to the factors that have ensured that progressively (believe it or not, the statistics prove it) the world is becoming a safer place, century by century, decade by decade. Proportionately to the population, violence, measured in term of warfare, murder, rape, domestic abuse and corporal punishment, has steadily diminished throughout history. Any one individual was many times more likely to suffer or die at the hands of his/her fellow man (mostly men) in the past than we are today. This is not a matter of human nature having improved but of the cultural circumstances in which we live having changed. Hobbs’s Leviathan, the state, whether a tyranny, a kingdom, an empire or a democracy, arrogates to itself a monopoly of violence, suppressing privatised violence. Trade and capitalism demand the conditions for their successful operation, namely, peace, trust, co-operation and the rule of law. And then, printing and the rise of literacy have widened people’s range of empathies. And it is in this realm that poetry has helped make things happen. The notions of freedom, equality and human rights, and the feminisation of our culture, are attributable to changes of sensibility resulting from rationalism and reading. Creative writers are shapers of sensibility. The poetry we write is a miniscule part of the drip-drip that changes sensibility and, thereby, the human world. Perhaps Shelley was right!
© Nicholas Bielby, 2017