Where are the war poets now? Where are the artists who'll take a stand against the undermining of human rights under New Labour? Where the mock-heroic writers who'll put the collapse of the banking system in perspective? Where's the satirist who could destroy Sarah Palin in a few lines?
The role of the artist in political life has been debated since Celtic tribes employed a poet to write verses on the feats of the tribe's heroes, and merciless denunciations of their faint-hearted, bed-wetting rivals. Tough tribal fighters lived in terror of being singled out for belittlement. That was a high point in poetry's reputation.
It didn't last. Many people today consider poetry should remain aloof from battlefield and political pamphlet, existing only in the souls of its makers and readers: a long-gestating literary art whose truths unfold over time, and shouldn't be rushed. Like Auden's famous line in "In Memory of WB Yeats", they think "Poetry makes nothing happen", and that it shouldn't be expected to.
There was a time, though, when it seemed culture could be engaged with public matters outside the poet's mind – and change a whole body politic. In the late 1960s, when we schoolboys began to write war poetry, stirred by the example of Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten in the Penguin collection The Mersey Sound. When Allen Ginsberg inspired Czechs to rebellion in Prague (and was kicked out as a dangerous radical). When Robert Lowell went on anti-war marches and refused invitations to the White House.
Can we find such impulses at work today? There's an unpopular government at home, an unpopular war in the Middle East, a global financial meltdown, an environmental crisis, an American election of epochal significance – and what are artists doing about it?
These weighty matters were kicked around at a Poetry Society debate last week in London. The theme was, "Where now for political culture?" It wasn't adversarial: the speakers, Blake Morrison and I, were broadly in agreement that poetry did make things happen, but at the margins of history and society – ways of seeing, new roads to understanding, rather than quantifiable solutions to war or genocide. I banged on about the past, and how the evolution of a political conscience can be traced to the rhythms of the poetry you read at school. Blake Morrison said poetry always gives us a history or a context, whether that of Wordsworth or Heaney, and that good poets inevitably write about their time and place, but transcend them. He boldly stuck up for propaganda ("The desire for an outcome doesn't make it less than poetry") and for a kind of public verse that isn't content with being merely "right-minded".
I'd been reading Survivors' Songs, an excellent new book about war poetry by Jon Stallworthy, the biographer of Wilfred Owen and Louis MacNeice, and brought up its implicit conclusion that no good war poetry has been seen since James Fenton wrote about Cambodia in 1981. Stallworthy blames the dearth on the lack of first-hand experience of war since then.
This was a red rag to a lot of poetic bulls. You can count on the audience at a poetry debate to a) take offence and b) rise to a challenge. They brought up the names of poets who've inveighed about Iraq in the past five years; they explained the politically charged nature of rap music; and they mentioned (shyly) their own contribution to political debate in several poems they'd happily show us.
One contribution struck me. A woman said she looked forward to the day when a poem about public events could be so powerful that it could feature on a newspaper's front page. I told her journalism didn't work like that. Other voices wondered if it might be something brilliant but difficult by Geoffrey Hill, or something insultingly accessible by Seamus Heaney. You could hear them wishing it might be something by them. But as I tried to say, No, forget it, it isn't going to happen, I thought: would it be so bizarre, so unimaginable?
If Maya Angelou could recite "On the Pulse of Morning" to rapt crowds at Bill Clinton's inaugural ceremony in 1993, why shouldn't we open our papers to find a dazzling ode to Obama, or villanelle about the banking crisis? All it takes is the desire to utter. And the ability to be better than journalism.