Poetry makes nothing happen.
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Discuss. (I don't agree with either of these)
It sounds like an undergraduate exam question - and we were in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, surrounded by the buildings of the University of London. The first quotation was the theme of the Second Light Autumn Poetry Festival I attended last weekend. The second I put in to show the opposite extreme.
The phrase Poetry makes nothing happen was often repeated, often interrogated. Kate Foley's stimulating workshop was accompanied by an excellent handout -
'Yes, it does! and isn't it possible that W H was sticking one finger up and having a laugh? After all, the nothing that poetry creates ... suvives in the valley of its making. It is A way of happening, a mouth, when farmed it may make a vineyard of the curse. A cornucopia of rich, fertile images suggests that it may even help us to dodge ... the brokers ... roaring like beasts on the floor / of the bourse.
Despite his canny and outraged grasp of the realities of the dark world we live in and have done, since prehistoric people took stone tools to butcher the woolly mammoth, he could still celebrate the paradox that poetry can teach us how to praise.
The question for us as poets is now to live and write faithfully in the paradox.'
The conference culminated in Kate's adjudication of the annual Second Light Poetry Competition and readings by [some of] the winning and commended poets. The poems are published on the Second Light website and in the current Artemis Poetry magazine (issue 23, November 2019).
I was particularly impressed by 'Poet at War' by A C Clarke, winner of the long poem category (unfortunately the poet was not there on Saturday). The poem is a sequence drawing on themes and imagery in the work of the French Surrealist writer, Paul Eluard, while he was serving in the French army during the First World War:
Today he passed the ruins of a man.
A brood of fledgling ringdoves cooed
from the tree which shadowed him.
I had three poems commended in the competition. 'As the grass of the field' had been rejected seven times by magazines (and I tinkered with it after each rejection) but I have always had faith in it. This was finally justified by its commendation! 'Breakthrough' imagines inhabitants of another planet picking up the sound of a Bach Partita and marvelling, 'This is what their planet was like'. 'Red Kites' is a good news conservation story.
A big thank you to Dilys and Anne of Second Light for the excellent organisation which enabled the festival to be so successful. The setting for the readings and the festival weekend was the elegant Regency building of the Art Workers Guild. On the window facing the street was a poster -
* This motto seemed apt for the Art Workers' Guild - mending and restoring things rather than throwing them away, making something new out of old objects. Alas, a cursory email search revealed that it has been quoted by politicians as diverse as Donald Trump and Ed Miliband. G K Chesterton used it in an essay (did he originate the phrase?). I still think it has worth in today's too often throw-away society and it can be applied to the environment, to individual relationships and to social interaction as well as to material things.