THIRSTY: Was the poet Shelley correct that poetry can be a source of knowledge and power?
DAVID LEHMAN: Yes. I agree with this statement and with most of the claims for poetry that Shelley makes in his "Defence." He does, however, argue that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," and here I draw the line. W. H. Auden expresses my view when he contends that this phrase describes "the secret police, not the poets."
THIRSTY: What role does the poet play in a mature, democratic society? Can a poet in today's world awaken people to change their opinions or even their institutions? Can a poem inspire and move people to rethink their reality?
DAVID LEHMAN: Poetry can change the world one mind at a time. There are faster ways to get your message out, but poetry isn't a matter of "messages." Poetry is strangeness, is beauty shrouded in mystery (or mystery shrouded in beauty). Poetry is meant to give pleasure, to inspire, and to help us as, in Frost's phrase, "a momentary stay against confusion." Poetry keeps the chaos and madness at bay. It is something we need not because it can change our social reality but because it allows us to escape from it.
THIRSTY: How effective are the dead poets of past centuries in informing contemporary life?