In Soviet Russia, poets were what they had for culture heroes in place of rock stars, movie actors and gurus, and poets were taken seriously enough to be exiled to the Gulag with regularity. In Chile, Victor Jarra was considered enough of a threat to be executed in a particularly public and nasty way.
Greek poet Nikos Kazantzakis devoted thirteen years to the creation of a 33,333-verse epic, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. He also wrote The Last Temptation of Christ, which was placed on the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books. His own Greek Orthodox church refused to give him a Christian burial, and according to one of my college English profs, Kazantzakis was buried on an island and every year a delegation of pious citizens would row over there to piss on his grave.
In pre-Soviet Russia, Alexander Pushkin was the perfect example of a poet who signified. Playwright Viktor Legentov said of him, “He penetrates every sphere of our lives.” His Eugene Onegin appeared in eight yearly instalments, between which all of literate Russia waited impatiently. He influenced even such greats as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol, and his prose works were translated into music by Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. His work inspired the creation of over two dozen operas. He wrote a drama, Mozart and Salieri, on which the movie Amadeus was based. Only about 10% of Pushkin’s enormous output was published during his lifetime. Today his papers are kept locked in a steel vault in the former St. Petersburg customs house, where they used to keep gold.
Unfortunately, in his poetry Pushkin found it necessary to condemn serfdom and other social abuses, which brought down the wrath of Tsar Alexander I, who banished him to a backwater in Moldavia. He was allowed to continue writing, but the Tsar himself decided to undertake the task of censoring Pushkin’s work. What an honor.
The “enemy of all authority,” as the secret police called Pushkin, was shot in a duel. It was the custom, as with Tolstoy, for thousands of people to surround the home of a great man who was on his deathbed. When Pushkin died in agony, the Tsar would not allow a funeral to be held in the cathedral, only in the church used by the stable keepers.
There are times and places when being a poet means something. In America, the worst thing we do to poets is ignore them.