Poets and prophets

The prophets have gone, but the poets remain. The secular age has exiled the prophets, but has exalted the poets, as long as these give up any prophetic pretensions they might have. But why should a poet claim to be a prophet?

For most of the history of poetry, poets were also instruments of prophecy. Poetry has never been totally innocent. Rhetoric is never innocent, and we fear manipulation and deception whenever silver tongues are found. Why don’t we expect the spectre of the dark arts in a poetic line or recitation?

The ancients had no doubts about the power of poetry to move hearts, minds, mountains and the veil from over future events. Poets are responsible communicators or dangerous enunciator. The force of metaphor and allusion could lead to cosmic disruptions. The Romans had a word for it: it was vates, a word meaning both poet and prophet, not separately but together. A poet endowed with the power to pack the past, present and future in metric order.

A vates was – poetically – a servant of the gods, a familiar of the heavenly household. As master of the enchanted line, the ancient poet could take a divine voice. Ovid called himself a vates of Eros because he spoke the will of the god of sex through his erotic lines. The poet Virgil was held by medieval commentators as a prophet who foretold the birth of Christ, closing the gap between pagan and sacred poetry.

More recently, Leonard Cohen’s biographer Sylvie Simmons reported how Cohen found out about the 9/11 attacks from a hotel receptionist in India. “Not long after, Leonard’s phone rang; a journalist from the New York Observer wanted his reaction to what had happened, since Leonard after all predicted apocalypse in his last album The Future” (I’m your Man). For a moment, the ancient poet-prophet synthesis inhabited a modern poet. The mysterious capacity of poets to tap into the unknown and the unseen has not been generally recognised in modern poetry. But there is something uncomfortably puzzling in poems that seem to transcend their own time and their own historical context.

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