A recurring theme of my time at the International Bar Association (IBA) meeting in Dublin last week was the relationship between law and literature. It is appropriate that this should occur in Ireland, with its significant contribution to the English language canon.

It began at the opening ceremony when the outgoing president of the IBA, Akira Kawamura from Japan, gave his presidential speech. This was an excellent presentation, one of the best from an IBA president – even if he did begin by declaring loudly ‘Welcome to Dubai!’ (the venue for last year’s IBA conference, with an unfortunate similarity in its first three letters). He quickly recovered, and taught me something about the relationship between Ireland and Japan. There was a a 19th-century Irish author called Lafcadio Hearn, who wrote Japanese fairy tales, ghost stories and legends, and is apparently known and beloved by generations of Japanese schoolchildren. The Japanese Post Office even issued a commemorative stamp in his honour on the centenary of his death in 2004.

The theme continued at a conference dinner hosted by the Law Society of Ireland, where the Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, was the speaker. He gave an address entitled: 'The Web and the World'. The title gives nothing away, but in essence it was a riposte to WH Auden’s line on the outbreak of the Second World War, contained in his heartbreakingly beautiful poem In Memory of WB Yeats: ‘For poetry makes nothing happen’. Seamus Heaney doubted that that was true. Interestingly, he was defensive in tone, assuming that lawyers definitely make things happen, but poets might not.

The first question is whether lawyers make things happen in the sense that Auden meant it. Seamus Heaney assumed that we do because we handle cases that can change lives, affecting groups or sometimes even whole countries. But I could just as easily have written on the outbreak of the Second World War: ‘For lawyers make nothing happen’. The lawyers and judges of Germany had been killed, imprisoned, exiled, cowed or corrupted by the time that Hitler started his military manoeuvres in the late 1930s. I am not aware of a single law or lawyer that constrained him in his monstrous ambitions and killing sprees. Why do poets have to be so defensive?

If I understood him correctly, Seamus Heaney’s defence of poetry lies in the way it is able to describe the unacceptable, to capture the absence of laws in a tyranny, say, and to provide the phrases and images that lead people towards formulating justice and the defence of human rights. He quoted the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer to that effect. That may be right, but it is part of a larger argument. In my view, poetry – which is not constrained by external reality to the same extent as a novel – is able to describe anything, particularly ideas which are just out of reach and not yet articulated, and to do so memorably because of two of its features, brevity and music. So, the present and the past can be illuminated by ideas. In effect, poets come first, and lawyers second as implementers. He did not quote Shelley’s famous saying that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ from his 1821 Defence of Poetry, but that was the subtext.

It is good that a lawyers’ conference should provoke thoughts about our role. Overall, the IBA conference was well organised, extremely well attended and rewarding. But maybe, since art is my theme, I will put in a plea to the organisers to ditch the film which now traditionally starts the opening ceremony. It must cost thousands, and is a case of triumphalism gone mad. While still on the subject of the ceremony, I wish the organisers could just once have confidence in hiring a lawyer as keynote speaker rather than a non-lawyer celebrity (this year, Joseph Stiglitz), who – interesting as they are – do not contribute to the central debates taking place in our profession.

I shall end with law and literature. At a time when Europe is facing its next great crisis, there was a session at the conference on ‘The euro area crisis – thinking the unthinkable’, which dealt with the legal consequences of possible future developments. Lawyers will follow whatever events emerge, and help to repair the consequences. I do not mean to be disloyal to my chosen profession, but here is the ending to WH Auden’s poem about WB Yeats mentioned above, with its specific call to the role of poets in such times:

‘In the nightmare of the dark All the dogs of Europe bark, And the living nations wait, Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace Stares from every human face, And the seas of pity lie Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right To the bottom of the night, With your unconstraining voice Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse Make a vineyard of the curse, Sing of human unsuccess In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart Let the healing fountain start, In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise.’

Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs