In one of my classes the other day, as a starter, I put the above quote on the board and asked them to figure out what it meant and how far they agreed.
Some interesting discussion. One young man in particular decided that it was a ridiculous idea because, Historians were intelligent, had qualifications, wrote facts about historical events but poets, they were just playing with words and you didn't need qualifications.
I suggested that perhaps History is not always as trustworthy as we would like to think and that we had to think about who wrote the history books, who was allowed to write them. Was it equal? Women, POC? The poor? Unfortunately not, it was often, historically, told from a very politicised vantage point and the facts selected to be written down as history were not only not unbiased, but also supported the ideologies of whomever held the power at that time. Whereas perhaps poetry can be more honest, because poets, artists, creatives in general are often aligned only with themselves.
Discussion in the class, most students agreed with this but the boy said that just because a white man wrote history books, doesn't necessarily mean that they are lies. That it would be racist to suggest that :-)
I used the example of Christopher Columbus, how that aspect of history is taught in America and when I was younger here in the UK too. How he is hailed as the man who discovered the Americas and there is even a Columbus day in the States, that still gets celebrated. The boy looked dumbfounded. I carried on. History has told us, taught us this side of what happened but that obviously, what we now know, as a more conscious world, is that Christopher Columbus invaded America and preceded to steal it, violently and brutally, from the Indigenous Native Americans, and put a stamp of Western Civilisation upon it. So what we are celebrating, what history and the political interpretation of it, encourages us to celebrate is actually genocide, not discovery, as his-story has reframed it as.
The boy interjected. "Yea, we got taught about the native Americans too, and I bet kids in America do too. It's not like it's a secret. I mean, that was awful, as slavery was, but that happened ages ago. America isn't like that now, there are laws, like there are in most western, civilised countries."
He looked at me. This whyt, middle classed, 16 year old, entitled little boy. He knew that I knew what he meant by that comment and he wondered if I would dare react to it. This was an English class, not politics or philosophy. And surely he should have the right to his opinion.
I continued by explaining to the class that Columbus day still being celebrated in America, shows us that history is watered down, reframed and sanitised for the purposes of political ideals. Children are not taught the truth and realities about the genocide of the native American people. It is couched as a war, which it was not. This is to uphold the racist ideals that underpin white supremacy in America and across most of the world and went further to explain that if BLM did not exist as a movement now and all we had was the Police/state's version of events (police brutality against Black men) to go down in history, this idea of white supremacy and Black deviancy, corruption, immorality, would be further embedded and become part of our legacy for the future.
The boy glared at me. "In the future people will believe the history books, not poets, not terrorists. And BLM are like terrorist poets, no one will believe them!" The class was shocked, silent. He was furious and embarrassed. He had exposed himself and simultaneously failed to prove me wrong, shown himself to be quite basic and narrow in his understanding of the world.
I concluded. Plato wrote this a long time ago when the role of Historian was revered, idolised, in a way it isn't nowadays. What poets, artists, creators have on their side now, is the ability to document history as it happens, on film. So it is harder for the powers that be to lie, or get away with lying. History will still be written to support a particular perspective but the artists, the creators, the poets and the freedom fighters can validate their perspectives and provide a very valuable counter.
The class was dismissed and much as I thought about keeping the boy behind, I realised it would be more beneficial to leave the discussions in the class to percolate in his mind.
The truth is, poets ARE Historians, they just don't get paid for it or invited on TV to make history programmes.
Today, in the wake of the state sanctioned murders of Brandon Bernard and Casey Goodman, I hope that history is being rewritten by those beautiful poets, artists, writers and freedom fighters, who bare witness to the atrocities we are living through.
Poetry is closer to vital truth because it is an internal dialogue made visible and we are generally more honest with ourselves than others.