What is the role of poets in society?

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Philosopher George Santayana defines poetry as “metrical discourse” in the essay “The Elements and Function of Poetry.” His definition provides a useful framework for developing one’s own thinking about the role of poets in society. Any determination of the role of poets in society will, of course, be subject to interpretation and debate. Yet, poetry is undoubtedly a distinct literary art form. As such, both the historic and current role of poets in society is to engage, to influence and to inspire readers with mastery of language as intertwined with ideas and emotions.

Poetry reaches audiences as a distinct literary art form for several important reasons. It conveys and shares some of the similar characteristics of prose (tone, setting, mood, characterization, etc.) in very few words, as compared with, for example, a novel or a short story. In addition to employing very few words, poetry is uniquely controlled in terms of use of language. Because poets aim to convey as much as they can with as little as possible, they pay particular attention to features such as the way words sound in succession and how words look on a page. Historically, poetry follows very specific rules that control characteristics such as meter and rhyme. For the most part, free verse is favorable among contemporary poets, yet that only means that modern poets feel free to make their own rules for individual poems or bodies of work. In so doing, the poets of today still identify their writing as poetry, not prose.

As such, the role of poets in society is to master language in ways that inspire readers to experience something transcendent, useful and meaningful for their lives. Ideally, a transcendent connection to both inner and outer lives should happen at the moment of reading the poem, at a minimum. Yet, hopefully, the power of the words holds sway in daily life in general, moving forward. An ongoing, meaningful impact is a reasonable expectation of both reading and writing poetry. For the most part, as compared with prose, poetry can be contemplated and even memorized with minimal effort, particularly short verses and lines of poetry.  For example, consider this fairly brief poem “He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven” by William Butler Yeats, the last line of which is considered one of the most often quoted:

He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

In researching or contemplating the role of poets in society, some evidence might be found to support the idea that poetry is languishing as a literary art. This viewpoint renders both the poets of the past and the present mute, if not irrelevant. Yet, mastery of poetic language, as evolving or emergent, opens up a multitude of discursive possibilities. In order to further investigate and to fully comprehend the role of poets in society, it is necessary to read poetry, to become familiar with individual poets and their body of work and ultimately to attempt poetic language by writing poems.

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