When we think of poets in contemporary times, what do we imagine? Maybe if we are conservative then a liberal or hippy liberal arts college student, someone spouting fluffy ideas of social-democratic intent; if we are liberal, then maybe we think of the romantic allure of poetry as an art form, foregoing its deeper roots and implications throughout history. No matter from what lens we view poetry, however, we are missing a key point among its history of performance– its period as a profession.
In modernity, what unites us is the negation of poetry as a full-time job. You will not see a job advertisement searching for a bard to recite epics; believe it or not, Microsoft is not looking for a skald to write glorifying poems of their business prowess. As sad as it is we have regulated poetry back into the margins of the socially undesirable: it does not produce a significant amount of surplus-value and so is seen as useless.
But this was not always the case.
Back during the early days of yesteryear, around the 10th century, common poets were found to be pushed away from performance in favor of a Leoðcrӕftig monn, or a professional poet; as such, poetry was a competitive trade (Treharne 114, Medieval Literature: A Very Short Introduction). Why? Because the poets were hired to sing praises in the royal halls and exonerate the king and his conquests.
In a time before mass media, such bard functioned essentially as propaganda for the elite; they created performative epics which praised and honored the deeds of warlords and powerful tribal chiefs. So the more evocative the bard, the more densely they packed their poems with metaphor and allusion and other facets of literary creation which the audience was supposed to be keen and pick up on, the more they would be valued as a member of the royal hall. In this way, bards were a mix of propagandist and artist and the line between the two professions was often blurred, making talented bards a highly valued addition to any influential lord or king.
So while today we may view poets as mere poverty-stricken artists suffering for a dying, or obtuse, art form, this was far from the case historically speaking. Poets and how they plied their trade was an essential function to how a kingdom, fiefdom, or even tribe operated and conducted their activities. Perhaps someday we will rediscover the necessity of poetry, but if not, then the world will certainly be a darker place for its lack.
Treharne, Elaine. Medieval Literature: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: U.P., 2015. Print.