Plato, in The Republic, wished to ban all poets. He felt their work was neither ethical, philosophical nor pragmatic—that poetry kindled undesired emotions, wreaked havoc upon true knowledge and was furthermore useless. What Plato failed to see (and I realise this critique may be coming a bit late in the game) is that kindling undesired emotions (like fear, sorrow, anger etc.—nevermind lust!) is not only cathartic but often a hearts-and-mind-altering experience which puts the reader into direct emotional contact with a broader array of humanity than otherwise possible, it literally helps to foster and engage our empathy, our feeling for common humanity; while I can think of nothing more useful to society than bashing the arrogance of true knowledge, which is never more than socially approved ideology designed to propagate the status quo (and thus keeping the fat cats fat).
The problem, though, is that poetry really doesn’t do much of this anymore. The undesired emotions poets once stirred have long since lost their symbolic importance, become nothing but weak floral imagery stripped of its’ petals, as likely to rouse a spirit of lust or revolution as a bare ankle in public (incidentally “bare ankle” is the least Googled concept in the history of the internet). Its euphemising is mundane, its philosophy self-evident and its posturing literally intolerably obnoxious.
Added to this is that poets lost most of their desire to shock and awe ages ago—and perhaps lost the knack for it as well. As poets kept breaking more and more aesthetic rules—abandoning rhyme and rhythm, euphemizing about modern mundaneity instead of God and Country etc.—they unknowingly built a tradition of constantly excusing themselves and religiously bowing down in (pseudo) humility and claiming themselves unworthy of anything ranging from their own talent to the presence of tradition, readers, other writers, whatever you threw at them (if you discount the regular generic rant of sic transit gloria mundi, a mandatory behaviour without which poets become outcasts from award-winning cocktail parties—do you now understand why I’ve been writing for the Grapevine all this time? Without this column I would have to buy my own booze).
The people once known to be carriers of dangerous ideas gradually became apologists for their art, their outlook and their own existence, incapable of saying anything important, victims not only of a constantly stronger and more demanding social fabric but caught up in an endless circle of bickering between the stupidly incorrect and the morally austere; modernity having forced intellectual revolutionaries to become Victorians in sexual matters, censors in ethical matters and bigots towards the (seemingly) less educated (The ‘oh, she conjugated a verb in the wrong way, I wish somebody’d rip her titties off’ sort of view on life). None of which is anywhere near dangerous enough to warrant attention.
And when Icelandic artists engage in the political (mostly because it’s a post-crisis fad) it’s mainly to relegate 19th century ideas about nature and class—that mountains are beautiful and Icelanders’ve all been equal all along (well fuck you very much)—if not downright to promote their own populistic disavowal of the political, as rampantly stupid now as when the Führer started the trend almost a century ago.
Plato, as I said, wished to ban poets from the Republic, for emotionally and philosophically undermining the state and thus being useless to its existence. I, on the other hand, would argue that precisely because poets do NOT undermine the state—emotionally, philosophically, politically, epistemologically, sociophilologically etc.—they certainly are becoming useless enough to warrant their total excommunication, not only from the best of cocktail parties, but from the Republic itself.
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