Toby Martinez de la Rivas
It is a pity that ‘The Defence of Poetry’ is so ill-served by the quotability of its final sentence. There are many rich and powerful attestations throughout the work – ‘Poetry…subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things’ (698); ‘Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man’ (698); ‘Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will’ (696); ‘Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted’ (680) – but what sticks in people’s minds is the political aspect: that poets are legislators. This has created an expectation that poems are ill-equipped to meet.
In July 1965, as the Vietnam war raged, Jack Spicer gave a speech to students at Berkeley in which he cautioned not against political activism, but against the idea that poems could change anything. In doing so, Shelley’s name inevitably surfaced:
‘Q: It has been said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the universe. Would you agree with this?
JS: I think Plato was much better on saying the thing, where he said that a poet shouldn’t be allowed in society. What I mean is, sure, Shelley had this great stuff of saying that, but where did Shelley land?
Q: But don’t they pull the strings behind, you know? They’re unacknowledged.
JS: Well, what poet do you think has pulled the strings? [Laughter] No, no, this is a serious question. No, of all the poets in the world, what poet has pulled the strings?’
Spicer doesn’t tell the students not to write political poetry, but he does warn them that as an effector of political change, a poem is a more or less useless artifact. Unless you suppose a Trump or a Franco gives a damn for a few poems.
I remember a short story my father gave me to read when I was young. It was by Ray Bradbury – ‘A Sound of Thunder.’ I remember the quote at the beginning of the collection was by W.B.Yeats from ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’:
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun. –
That’s the same W.B. Yeats of whom Spicer says:
‘Willy Yeats did serve in the senate in Ireland, but Willy Yeats also didn’t do anything while he was there. He made about three speeches, which haven’t even been reprinted yet on account of the fact that they were so dull. And Willy Yeats I think is a great poet. I don’t think Shelley is, but I think that Willy Yeats is, and here’s a new nation, coming into being and all that sort of thing. All the place for the great poet to come in to be the great senator, and what happened? Nothing.’
Anyway, in ‘A Sound of Thunder’, a new technology exists which allows people to go millions of years back into the past and hunt the biggest of big game for thrills – the Tyrannosaurus Rex. The company that owns the technology – TIME SAFARI, INC. – selects dinosaurs that are about to die through natural causes – being hit by a falling tree, or running off a cliff – and bring the hunter to a point in time just before, in order to have the excitement of shooting this ultimate trophy without unduly ‘changing the past’. The company has built a path through the jungle suspended in air thanks to anti-gravitational technology which the hunter must never leave. On the morning the protagonist – Eckles – leaves for his hunt, having paid millions of dollars for the privilege, America has just elected a decent, liberal president – Keith – narrowly beating a dictatorial, right-wing agitator – Deutscher, ‘a militarist… anti-human, anti-intellectual’. People are happy and optimistic. But on the hunt, Eckles panics when he sees the giant dinosaur, steps off the path and runs into the jungle. After a while, he sheepishly returns but, when he gets back to the present, something has subtly altered. There is a different smell in the air; the light is almost imperceptibly changed. And the new president of the United States is not Keith, but Deutscher. Eckles looks at his shoe – on the sole, stuck in the thick Jurassic clay, is a single butterfly. A tiny ripple in the fabric of the past has become a tragic tsunami in the present.
But if tiny ripples can become tsunamis of tragedy, they can also become rainfall in the desert. In the R.S. Thomas poem ‘Nuance’, Thomas argues that prayers – like poems – are not about moving mountains. They are not revolutions that shatter orders, but tiny nudges in the being of God. He plays a long game, Thomas, because his poetry is not embedded in the immediate and the self-gratifying, but in the massive structures of the universe. He says:
… To pray, perhaps, is
To have a part in an infinitesimal deflection.
Poems cannot change things in the way poets would like when they claim for themselves the political mantle implied by the word ‘legislators’. But poems can, like prayers, be an ‘infinitesimal deflection’. Who knows who will read one down the line? Who knows what little shift might occur in them? And what effect that will have? What little seed might be planted, and what fruit will ultimately hang on it? That is enough to keep writing them – blindly; even when you can’t see the way.
Bradbury, Ray. ‘A Sound of Thunder’, in The Golden Apples of the Sun. Ebook, Harper Voyager, 2014.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. ‘A Defence of Poetry’, in The Major Works. Ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill. Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. 674-701.
Spicer, Jack. ‘California Lecture: from “Poetry and Politics”. Poetry Foundation. www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69432/california-lecture-from-poetry-and-politics. Accessed 11.06.2021.
Thomas, R.S. ‘Nuance’, in Collected Later Poems: 1988-2000. Bloodaxe, 2011.
Toby Martinez de las Rivas is the author of Terror (Faber, 2014) and Black Sun (Faber, 2018) and appeared in Penguin Modern Poets 7 (Penguin, 2018).