We need poets as much as we need warriors
Poets are as important as warriors, although I find that many warriors would beg to differ.
By Warriors, I mean people biased toward execution (pun intended!), who like the rush of making things happen and getting things done. And by Poets, I mean those who lean more toward explanation—people who get their kick from ideas instead of activity, who like to put things into words. Basically, Warriors are more about deeds, while Poets more about words.
Of course, as with most categories, we exist on every point on the spectrum from one end to the other. But it’s a useful way to think about how people are different.
Monster-Hunters Need Their Bards
In late 2019, a show dropped on Netflix that captured the dynamic of these two categories and the tension between them: The Witcher. (No fear if you haven’t seen it—I’ll provide the necessary context, with minimum spoilers.)
The titular character of The Witcher is Geralt of Rivia, a magically enhanced monster hunter-for-hire who is among the last of his kind. For years, Geralt has travelled the land, working tirelessly to rid communities of troublesome monsters. But when the monsters are banished, so is he; the people pay him no respect or gratitude for his work, and even the money they do pay him is often thrown at him. It’s seen as dirty work, doable only by a dirty man.
All that changes when he meets Jaskier, an initially unsuccessful bard who’s also itinerant. Jaskier quickly realises what Geralt is and insists on tagging along with the reluctant warrior, announcing to him:
“Ooh, I could be your barker, spreading the tales of Geralt of Rivia!”
To Jaskier, it’s perfectly obvious that they complement. each other. He is a Poet who cannot find the fame he longs for without more interesting stories to tell, while Geralt, a Warrior who solves monster-sized problems no one else can, continues to be treated like an outcast wherever he goes. But what if the hunter had a bard with him who would weave those fights into poems set to unforgettable music? The hunter can get the recognition he deserves, and the bard the success he desires. And both become able to command better pay for their efforts. Win-win-win.
It’s a great parable for why storytellers matter: Geralt, as the witcher, fights the monsters, but it’s Jaskier, as the bard, who ensures he gets the respect for his work by spinning it into a narrative.
Jaskier demonstrated an understanding of something well understood by monarchs and warriors going well back into ancient history, all the way back to cavemen painting drawings of the hunt on cave walls. They understood the importance of the scribe, the poet, the bard. It did not matter how great they were, if it was not recorded, whether in song or on parchment, they would soon be forgotten. They may have done the deeds but if no one told the stories, they could not truly leave a legacy.
And this goes beyond just the vanity of wishing to leave a name. It’s about preserving—and when necessary, remaking—a culture.
Poets as Culture-Makers and Teachers
Stories are how we remember, not just as individuals, but also—maybe especially—as communities. Find people agreed on any purpose and you have found people who share a common story. It’s the scribes, the writers, the storytellers who create the ideas that spread across space and time—not only uniting large numbers of people, but also connecting them to the generations that came before. Movements and revolutions, whether in towns, countries, businesses or the entire planet, don’t take off without a compelling story driving them that people can buy into.
That’s part of why a marketing genius like Steve Jobs was so great with an engineer like Steve Wozniak (and later with Jony Ive). It’s why a historian like Yuval Noah Harari can say that nothing he said in his groundbreaking book, Sapiens, was new info—but it wasn’t until he put it together in an accessible form that it became a cultural understanding. It’s why a writer like Malcolm Gladwell can be described as “an unabashed populariser” whose genius is in his ability to “render the complex theories and dogged statistical research of academics palatable to a mass audience often by anecdotally illustrating their effectiveness.”
I said earlier that it was obvious to Jaskier the bard that a partnership with Geralt was a brilliant win-win for both of them. It was not, however, obvious to Geralt himself. His initial reaction to Jaskier was to literally punch him in the balls—as far as Geralt was concerned, he talked too much. And like many people who are biased to action, Geralt considered that a waste of time. The popular Chinese proverb says, “Talk does not cook rice”—Geralt would agree, and he’d be right. But there’s also a Nigerian axiom: “Eat alone, die alone.” That’s what talk is for—for not eating alone.
After all, if rice is cooked and no one knows, is it really edible? If something important happens and no one knows about it, does it really make an impact? To some degree, yes it does—but ignorance of it ends up affecting us in ways we can’t imagine, including history repeating itself in negative ways: when we don’t know what happened before, we’re almost doomed to repeat it.
There’s another aspect to this culture-making work of the poet, though. Beyond preserving the legacy of the warrior and ensuring that great deeds remain in the cultural memory and are built into the collective identity, poets also make great teachers.
We’ve probably all heard the saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” The problem with that saying—and there’s truth to it—is that we see what it describes as a problem. What if we saw it as how things were meant to be? As recognising that, actually, some of us are meant to do, and others, of us are meant to say.
Because, if you have ever struggled to learn a skill, you probably know from experience how bad skilled people can be at teaching. They’re so good, they sometimes can’t really grasp where you’re struggling. Complex actions are so intuitive they can’t even see all the steps involved, much less understand what step you’re struggling with. And they can also be so good at the thing they do they aren’t able to see the bigger picture it’s a part of, and how it fits in with all the other moving parts. They’re often too keen to get on with things to be interested in understanding and articulating. That’s why, the odd exception aside, professional sports players don’t necessarily make great coaches, and the greatest coaches often were never more than average players, if they played at all.
We need those who can teach those who will do. It’s the Poets who often have to teach the Warriors—or at least preserve the teachings of other Warriors.
The Age of the Storyteller
That said, there’s been an interesting development over the past couple decades: the Internet has ushered in the age of the poet.
I mentioned earlier that the Poets among us have always been recognised as important by the Warriors, and valued by whatever community at large they belonged to. But I don’t think they have always been respected. Communities always reserved their greatest respect for the Warriors, the people who fought for and protected the community, the monarchs, the ones who actually made things happen.
Poets provided enjoyment but they were seen as definitely secondary—people didn’t exactly respect them. They recognised their importance, sure: you couldn’t get and hold the attention of people for very long without them. But recognition did not necessarily translate into respect: as anyone over 30 might recall, it wasn’t so long ago that to tell your parents you wanted to be a Poet—a purveyor of stories, in journalism, acting, writing, whatever it was—was to risk their disappointment. Heck, even telling mine I wanted to specialise in psychiatry (the haven for medicine’s Poets) instead of the Warrior-like surgery, was not exactly met with initial excitement.
But thanks to the internet, us Poets have come to the fore in ways unprecedented in human history. You see, the internet thrives on words. Think about it: blogs, Facebook posts, tweets, podcasts, are all primarily verbal. And even with the rise of video, many of the most successful YouTube channels are talking heads giving their opinions and interviews. Even TikTok is brimful of words. All told, we very likely collectively consume more words each day than we have on record from all of human history before the Internet came.
And so for the first time, Poets of all kinds are gaining an unprecedented level of respect. One-man media “companies” are not even a surprise anymore. Thanks to the internet everyone can find an audience to tell stories to. The Poets who used to be tolerated because they were necessary have somehow become the most important group of people. And kids? They’re growing up wanting to be YouTube stars: aspiring to say things more than to do them. It’s never been a better time to be a Poet.
Which brings me to something Jaskier understood.
Right before his first meeting Geralt he had just taken a seat after being heckled by the drinkers who didn’t appreciate his tunes. To make conversation, he asks Geralt for a review, and the hunter’s reply is that the creatures in Jaskier’s song don’t exist. Jaskier wonders how he would know and that’s when it dawns on him who and what Geralt is, and his interest is truly piqued. Later Jaskier says,
“Maybe real adventures would make better stories…You smell of death, and destiny. Heroics and heartbreak.”
Real adventures give stories zing and make them sing, which is what helps them really catch on. And that’s important, because in the Age of the Poet, we have an even greater responsibility with our stories.
The Poet’s Responsibility
The responsibility of the poet is twofold: to say things worth hearing and to make hearing them worth it. Discharging the first responsibility requires taste—the ability to recognise what’s worth hearing—while discharging the second requires skill. Taste is what Jaskier shows when he recognises that Geralt is a potential source of stories and songs that would matter. Taste can be developed, of course, and although some come naturally better equipped with it than others, we can all develop better taste. A great place to start is simply to spend time with and study the best storytellers in our culture until we develop our ability to recognise stories worth telling.
Skill is what most people think about growing, of course, and what most books for Poet types are about: growing in the craft of telling stories well, of making videos, of writing and acting and teaching. There’s little for me to add here, except to point out something important: one of the most important skills is that of negotiating the power and precision trade-off. That is, understanding that saying things powerfully will often require simplifying them, and saying things precisely will often dilute their power.
An example of this happens in The Witcher, when shortly after they meet, Jaskier is trying out lines for a song he’s writing about Geralt. The song is about their first shared adventure, which had begun with hunting down a “monster” and ended in their capture, and subsequent release, by elves. Jaskier’s lyrics frame the king—who he had only moments earlier declared great respect for—as weak before a powerful Geralt, to which the witcher responds: “That’s not how it happened—where’s your newfound respect?” Jaskier is silent a moment before he replies:
“Respect doesn’t make history.”
What Jaskier says here is in line with the tradition of warriors and their poets going back centuries: it was normal for poets to exaggerate the power and ability and wisdom of the warriors, to turn leaders into legends, and make new myths about monarchs. And we see it to this day in biographies, although more subtly. And while I am absolutely not encouraging embellishment in the name of good stories, the fact remains that making things worth hearing, making them land with power, will often involve some loss of precision—there’s a reason why records and academic papers, in which precision is the primary aim, are often dry. On the other hand, you will note that the most powerful stories in our culture: be they poems, movies or myths do not focus as much on precision. The skill is knowing when to focus on which, and how much of one or the other to trade off.
This is important because part of success in being a poet-type is that you will be accused—and rightly—of lacking precision. A quote about Malcolm Gladwell from over a decade ago captures this issue well:
Malcolm Gladwell is an interesting guy. He’s an amazing writer and storyteller — perhaps the greatest storyteller of this generation. And, as such, he’s amazing at taking complex ideas or research and making it seem simple and easy to understand. I have to admit that I really enjoy reading almost anything he writes for the pleasure of seeing how it’s written. That said, I’ve found his books to be unsatisfying in the end. Great, fun reads at the time, but I kept feeling like I was waiting for more. I was waiting for the actual substance to back up the amazing thesis.—> Mike Masnick
But if you do try to be more precise you’ll only end up losing the power your words need. You’ll just have to take responsibility for your artistic choices in negotiating the inevitable trade-off of power and precision.
I leave you as I began, with wisdom from Jaskier the bard:
Geralt is usually so stingy with the details.
Jaskier understood that details matter: just not every single one.