‘This machine surrounds hatred and forces it to surrender’ were the words inscribed on the banjo of American folk legend and activist Pete Seeger, who died at 94 in late January 2014. Reading the tributes to Seeger, I was struck by a recurrent theme: his moral courage, which he lived out unrelentingly across a lifetime. Commenting on the ‘not common behaviours’ which made his life exemplary, a New Yorker post by biographer Alec Wilkinson wrote of ‘his insistence on his right to entertain his own conscience’.
That ‘insistence’ began early; Seeger preferring to face jail rather than invoke the Fifth Amendment defense when called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, and refusing to name personal and political associations. He avoided jail only on appeal in 1962. In October 2011 he was among the leaders of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ march.
The tributes also led me to think of the ways in which other high-profile figures in popular music – Bob Marley and Bob Dylan – have in the past century harnessed, insisting on their same right, the active, lyrical power of poetic language to express moral and political dissent.
This is one of the reasons for the diminished audience for poetry in the 21st century; its audience, lean as it has often been, has been further subsumed by other arts. Of course, at the same time, the meld of lyric and instrument harks to the days of the lyre, the bard and troubadour, lyric’s origins and tradition.
Yet there is an essence in poetry, where a poem can be a pure or unique instance of language (to use Paul Celan’s thinking), giving it the capability to be a stand-alone language of resistance. It has been often, in the works of accomplished poets, a language of essence, able to name what is essential to the fully lived human experience, and what depraves it.
There are abundant examples. Celan himself – in the words of translator Katherine Washburn, after being earlier a ‘pure poet of the intoxicating line’, and in the steep of the Surrealists – became ‘heir and hostage to the most lacerating of human memories.’ As a Romanian-born Jew, Celan worked in a forced labour camp for 18 months from 1942-1944. Both his parents died in Nazi camps. Just one excerpt here, from his 1952 book, Poppy and Memory:
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue (trans. Michael Hamburger)
And another, from the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, from ‘Victim No. 48’:
He was lying dead on a stone. They found in his chest the moon and a rose lantern. They found in his pockets a few coins, A box of matches and a travel permit. He had tattoos on his arms. His mother kissed him and cried for a year. Boxthorn tangled in his eyes. And it was dark… (trans. Abdullah al-Udhari)
Both poets wrote other poems with dissenting force rising from more opaque and abstracted language. This is a cardinal point: the poetic force is not reliant on a singular poetic or only poetry that has an immediacy or transparency of meaning. It can be present in all kinds of poetry, including those whose language is complex, or difficult to access and decode. In fact, a capacity for ambiguity and subtlety – and an interrogation of the ability to speak at all – might be exactly what is required in such a poem.
This force is pressured by the complexities of linguistic play; pressured by the porous intricacies between poet, poetic voice and subject; and between the poem and the reader. Where it is calculable about political dissent, it can be pressured by multiple, insidious forces which need to be traced. A lucid and intelligent essay on this subject, ‘Poems from Guantanamo: Testimonal Literature and The Politics of Genre’, by Nina Philadelphoff-Puren, is part of the selection by editors Ann Vickery and John Hawke in their 2014 Poetry and the Trace (Puncher & Wattmann). It is worth reading.
The audience for poetry of moral witnessing has not always been, as it is usually today, small. During many socially traumatised times in history, in fact, the ability of poetry to express human conscience has seen it embraced as significant to a massed community.
The poets of these territories and events have also been embraced as public figures whose poetry and project is important to their community of origin: Yannis Ritsos, Pablo Neruda, Anna Akhmatova, Federico Lorca, Nazim Hizmet, Darwish and Miroslav Holub are 20th-century examples. Poets such as W.H. Auden (in poems which include ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ and ‘Refugee Blues’) or Wislawa Szymborska (‘Reality Demands’, ‘The End and the Beginning’) exemplify the duty and capacity of a poet to respond to their world, as human community, at large.
Also important about these poets’ contributions is their works’ reinforcement of humanitarian values – their insistence on nobler attributes against a certain era’s atrocities is distilled for the record. The poems are not only for their times. In these cases, the poet is not just a poet, but also an auditor of communal memory. The hook of poetry into the greater communal, in times where a society is embattled and pervaded by the injustices, remains alive.
The communal uptake in recent years of a traditional folk-couplet form, the landay, by Pashtun women in Afghanistan, demonstrates this. An extensive 2013 article in Poetry Magazine relays the story behind the contemporary adoption of this short, oral poetic form –its only rule is syllabic count, a first line of nine, 13 for the second – among Pashtun women living in Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan.
The author, New York poet and Guggenheim Fellow Eliza Grizwold, in her research collected examples of these modern landays on trips beginning in 2012 and interviewed their disseminators. These women create new landays or re-write existing ones, and go on to share them, at the highest personal risk.
Translated by Grizwold, with the assistance of Pashtun speakers and translators, some examples:
You sold me to an old man, father. May God destroy your home, I was your daughter. * I dream I am the president. When I awake, I am the beggar of the world. * The drones have come to the Afghan sky. The mouths of our rockets will answer in reply.