The Search for Public Intellectuals: Should Poets Apply?

Citing ‘La Trahison des Clercs‘ (‘The Treason of the Scholars’Julien Benda, 1927)  George Monbiot recently raised some important questions about the need for ‘a disinterested class of intellectuals which acts as a counter to prevailing mores’ (If scholars sell out, where’s the moral check on power ?’ Guardian 14 May, 2013).

His immediate worry was the progressive ‘sell-out’ to powerful corporate sponsors of supposed ‘public’ facilities such as the Centre for Science and Policy at Cambridge University (BAE Systems, BP, Lloyds etc); or Oxford’s new ‘Shell’ geoscience laboratory, part-mandated to help find and develop still more sources of fossil fuels – which attention to society’s broader needs might put in question.

The problems are arguably much greater now than when Benda spoke. Monbiot explains – “Now it is the weak state, not the strong state, which is fetishised by those in power, who insist that its functions be devolved to ‘the market’, meaning corporations and the very rich … and too many ‘scholars’ seem prepared to support this new dispensation”.

There seems plenty of evidence to corroborate Monbiot’s fear, especially as the cult of marketisation shrinks the levels of public investment throughout our societies – but who are these ‘scholars’ anyway, whose voices risk being drowned out by the clatter of their begging-bowls around the corporate corridors? After all, this ambivalence has a long history across our Western universities, and the search for ever-richer ‘endowments‘ is etched deep in many a Vice- Chancellor’s Credo . Benda’s ‘clercs’ are, most nearly, our modern-day ‘public intellectuals’, generally defined as –

‘well-known, intelligent, experienced persons whose writings and other social and cultural contributions are recognised not only by academic peer groups and readers but also by many members of society at large’

According to Edward Said  “Regardless of the field of special expertise, as a public intellectual one is addressing and responding to the problems of his or her society and expected to rise above the partial preoccupation of one’s own profession”.

Or (as defined by Prospect magazine) a public intellectual is ‘someone who has shown distinction in their own field along with the ability to communicate ideas and influence debate outside of it‘.

In 2005, Prospect and Foreign Policy journals conducted an international survey of ‘The Top 100 Public Intellectuals’, though with a total absence of nominated women, it clearly said more about the respondents than the ‘intellectuals’ themselves. However, the findings did allow 22 assorted ‘novelists’, ‘playwrights’ and ‘writer/authors’ into the ‘public intellectual’ category, confirming at least the legitimacy of some of those outside the academy.

Following a repeat of the process in 2013, AC Grayling contributed the comment –

‘Can one give a catch-all definition of what it is to be a “public intellectual”? Consider this list: Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Stephen Jay Gould, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, indeed anyone on Prospect’s list of people who merit or are thought to merit the label. They have very little in common other than intelligence and engagement, and the fact that they speak out. Those three things, accordingly, might be taken to capture the essence.’

So, if ‘intelligence’, ‘engagement’ and ‘speaking out’ are the essence of the public intellectual, and novelists, playwrights, authors and artists qualify, how-come the ‘poets’  are absent from all the lists as our social, economic and broader crises grow? The inertia greeting my own related questions in recent months seems to suggest that there’s little appetite for poetry’s entry into this mainstream debate; and there are some suggestions that even to ask for a more active and involved poetry and profession is in some way foreign and hostile to its creative ethos.

This would seem to be at odds with history as well as social expectation. I’ve reminded us that American Presidents, no less, have not only looked to poetry as significant, but suggested its pre-eminent role in protecting our concerns.

“When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concerns, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses …. The artist becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society…”

(President Kennedy honouring the late Robert Frost, just weeks before his assassination.) I have also drawn attention to the evidence of Richard Holmes (‘The Age of Wonder’) , Ashley Nichols (‘Romantic Natural Histories’) and others, that the so-called ‘Romantic Poets’ were in the very thick of the run-up to Darwin and the great break -through of science.

Coleridge and Wordsworth were rubbing shoulders with Humphry Davy and Priestley. Shelley was experimenting with chemicals in his Oxford rooms . Coleridge at every physiology lecture he could find in London ‘ to increase my stock of metaphors ’. Few of significance were away with their lyres on some mythical Parnassus.

Nor did this prevent Shelley’s interventions into politics when he felt the situation demanded as with his uninhibited ‘England in 1819’

England in 1819

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king –
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, – mud from a muddy spring,-
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow…

Imagine what such a pen would be making of our bloated bankers and the demolition of young hopes…

Involvement and engagement have always been, and should remain, critical aspects of poetry’s collective public role. There are still some positive things at the interface with science – Ruth Padel , Jo Shapcott , Robert Crawford among them – and Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage are among others who might be at no apparent disadvantage to the talkative Graylings and Dawkins.

Yet, how strangely quiet it would all seem to the Shelleys, their Yeats, Frost and Owen successors, even the rumbustious Betjeman!

It is announced that one of the UK’s most energetic independent publishers – Salt – is no longer to publish collections by single authors, because of falling interest in poetry among consumers. ‘Extremely sad news‘ said the Poet Laureate; ‘A great shame‘ agreed her predecessor.

Nielsen Book Scan shows a sharp decline in the overall poetry market in the past year, by 15.9% in value to £6.7m.

I wonder why, and might it be worth a shout ?