Here’s the simple answer: Shelley wants to make you cool again.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, among other profound and fantastic things, “A Defense of Poetry.” If you never read a single thing by Shelley after this, it would be your loss, but not the end of the world. Ignoring “A Defense of Poetry” as an English kid should make you question your identity.
Shelley believes that poets are like philosophers, and that they should hold power in society. “Poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance and architecture and statuary and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society.” Poets, according to Shelley, “essentially comprises and unites both” the legislators and prophets of the world. How do they do it? “In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful.”
Shelley said that people who read poetry “open themselves to receive the wisdom which is mingled with its delight.” When a poem is good, the reader feels like he or she has gained a token of wisdom, which in turn causes the reader to feel pleasure. (For other writing on the power of good poems, “The Limits of Indeterminacy: A Defense of Less Difficult Poems” by Charles Harper Webb is an excellent resource.) Granted, this is not the only way to read poetry; people read poetry for sound, for pleasure, etc. But when people gain something from the poem—when the kicker hits a reader at the end—that moment is so much more likely to be pleasurable for that reader. This is what makes poets so great: They can teach in the best way, for “Poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure.”
Shelley goes on to say that “Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination.’” Poetry, then, “is connate with the origin of man.” The use of the word connate here is essential; it means that poetry is innate. It also means that poetry has grown out of man, from pieces into a whole form. Shelley describes the ways in which early language played with poetry in sounds and words. Grammar came next in the building of language, followed by form. “Every original language near to its source is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem: the…distinctions of grammar are the words of a later age, and are merely the catalogue and the form of the creations of poetry.”
So according to Shelley, poets are the greatest teachers we have. They are the best resource to understanding life and love and everything right and wrong with the world. And unlike others of his time, Shelley is willing to open up his definition of poetry. “Yet it is by no means essential that a poet should accommodate his language to [this] traditional form…The practice is indeed convenient and popular, and to be preferred…but every great poet must inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar versification.” Listen, creative writing majors of all genres: “The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error.” Is not a prose writer also expected to choose the best possible word to be used in the best possible place? Some may debate on this, however, ultimately the writers of prose will certainly argue that they’ve written the best piece they could. “The parts of a composition may be poetical, without the composition as a while being a poem.”
Shelley expands on this idea further by saying that “A single sentence may be considered as a whole though it be found in a series of unassimilated portions; a single word even may be a spark of inextinguishable thought.” Some writing is so powerful that it may stand alone, though it is only a few words out of a larger text. In other instances, Ezra Pound’s “In A Station of The Metro” is a mere two lines, but the words stick. Haikus are seventeen syllables total—but we all classify that as poetry.
Why defend poetry? “A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” Poets are commentators on our world. Listen to them, for they exist to guide us down the path of moral good. Listen to them; let them pump magic through the veins of our imagination. Listen to poets who lift “the veil from the hidden beauty of the world.” Let them make “familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” Listen to them as they play with sound and mind and soul.
Listen to us.
By Kelsey Styles