Like so many others, I was blown away and inspired by Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration. As an English teacher and writer, however, my reaction is probably slightly different than most folks.
Watching Gorman perform her poem from the steps of the nation’s Capitol Building in the presence of the multitude of senators and representatives in attendance, my mind went immediately to the famous declaration by Percy Bysshe Shelley that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Although, Shelley’s words have often been ridiculed for their hyperbolic enthusiasm regarding the place of poets in society, I cannot imagine a better representation of their actual truth than watching Gorman in her red headband, canary-yellow coat, black-pencil skirt, and black leather boots, standing in colorful relief against the preponderance of black and grey overcoats of the lawmakers and dignitaries seated in front and behind her.
The only bone I pick with Shelley is the need to extend the conversation to include not only poets but artists of any ilk who seek to aid in the betterment of society and/or its individuals. Poets and legislators share the desire and responsibility of changing the world; they just go about it in completely different ways. Elected officials attempt to configure a black-and-white world with clear definitions of right and wrong/the moral and the immoral. With literal language and legalese that demands logic and common sense, they attempt to hammer out achievable legislation that will keep their constituents within the constraints the legislators establish – all done with good intention. Meanwhile the poet/artist portrays the world in vivid colors while accepting the ambiguities of ethics and morality and using figurative language that plays to the imagination and encourages flights of fancy and utopian dreams – all done with good intention.
Evidence of Shelley’s bold assertion is plentiful in American Literature. For example, how many legislators in the Civil War Era were persuaded towards support of abolitionist policies after reading H.B. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin? How many legislators were moved towards suffragist and women-friendly legislation in general upon reading Chopin’s The Awakening? How many more years would have passed before workers were granted basic rights and protections under the law had Upton Sinclair not penned The Jungle? And how many former opponents to Gay marriage have been won over by Sandusky, Ohio’s, own Jim Obergefell’s brilliant account of his groundbreaking Supreme Victory in Love Wins? Quite often, it is the poets/artists who first win over the minds and hearts of the people before the legislators write the laws to reflect those thoughts and emotions. These are just a few examples of major pieces of legislation in the United States that were inspired by literary art. There are myriad other examples from around the world and in the genres of music, filmmaking, theater, etc.
It is because of the power and influence of their art that artists are some of the first people rounded up and imprisoned or worse at the onset of any totalitarian regime. It is the poet and her pen, not the resistance fighter and his gun, that the dictator most fears. So, I encourage you to attend the council meetings and to write to your respective representatives at all levels of government, but I implore you to seek out the artists who, today, are penning the poems, singing the songs, and telling the stories we recite, sing, and retell that will, tomorrow, become the laws by which we live.
With my apologies to P.B. Shelley, Artists are truly the legislators of the world.
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