Poetry Against Violence: A Prayer For Peace
February 13, 2018
Poetry has ever been a conversation with self, with the other that we tend to call society, with nature and with mystery that envelopes all beings. Ocatvio Paz, wrote in his introduction to Poesia en Movimiento ( Poetry in Motion ) an anthology of contemporary Mexican poetry : “There can be no poetry without history, but poetry has no other mission than to transmute history. And therefore the only true revolutionary poetry is apocalyptic poetry.” Later he adds: “The poet is one whose very being becomes one with his( read ‘her’) words. Therefore only the poet can make possible a new dialogue.”
Pablo Neruda, another great poet of our times, advocated "impure poetry" in his 1935 manifesto, Towards an Impure Poetry, a poetry that carries the dust of distances and smells of lilies and urine: “ The used surfaces of things, the wear that hands have given to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things, all lend a curious attractiveness to reality that we should not underestimate…”He had said in that manifesto. In 1966, again he wrote: “I have always wanted the hands of people to be seen in poetry,” and added: “I have always preferred a poetry where the fingerprints show. A poetry of loam where the water can sing. A poetry of bread where everyone may eat.” We know how this intuitive connection to the masses remained a feature of his oeuvre right from his Residence on Earth and became more intense as he grew turning him into a biblical prophet of sorts, the voice of the voiceless, reminding us of another great poet of our time, Czeslaw Milosz the Polish poet., to whom poetry was “a participation in the humanly modulated time” and who believed that the poetry that does not address the destiny of nations is useless. According to him, “in a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”. He warned the wrong-doers: “You who have wronged a simple man/ Bursting into laughter at his suffering…/Do not feel safe. The poet remembers./You may kill him- a new one will be born./Deeds and talks will be recorderd” ( You Who Have Wronged).
The greatest poets of our time, from Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht and Mahmoud Darwish to Rabindranath Tagore ,Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Bei Dao are united by what Paz calls the apocalyptic element: that one finds in the poets we have cited besides a range of poets from Walt Whitman, Garcia Lorca, Paul Celan, Primo Levi, Yannis Ritsos and Cesar Vallejo to Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmood Darwish, Anna Akhmatova, Cavafy, Zbignew Herbert, , Wislawa Szymborsca and Ko Un, not to speak of earlier poets from Shakepeare to Alexander Pushkin, William Blake, Baudelaire, Rilke , Mallarme, Machado and Alexander Blok. just to take a few names. Their texts instantly make visible the now-obscure links between mantic practices and poetry, between magic, shamanism, possession and oracle on the one hand and poetic vision, inspiration, power and incantation on the other. The poet thus reenchants the disenchanted world by turning poetry into a symbolic act intended to transform the world. Like all genuine poetry, their works oppose totalization, generalization and standardization and are hard to be appropriated by those who turn art into a commodity in the great culture market as well as those who loudly declare their commitment to a simplifying ideology or a political monolith proving that art is oppositional and questions all hierarchies and all the rigid systems and regimes that produce violence of every kind.
This apocalyptic and symbolic function of poetry has assumed a new urgency in our time that , to me, has been marked primarily by violence in its diverse incarnations. Thedore Adorno, the well- known thinker from Frankfurt once said that poetry is impossible after Auschwitz. The statement, clearly, was not meant to be literal; it was an intense comment on the violence of our times that works against creativity of every kind. Indeed the Holocaust produced its own variety of great poetry: remember Nelly Sachs, Abba Kovner, Paul Celan and several others who still remind us of those ominous days of the genocidal mania. It was about such poetry that the Polish poet Tadeuz Rozevicz had said in his introduction to the anthology of post-War Polish poetry: “…a poetry for the horror-stricken, for those abandoned to butchery, for survivors, created out of a remnant of words, salvaged words, out of uninteresting words from the great rubbish dump.”
The history of poetry in our time has also been a history of censorship, exile and martyrdom. We have the examples of Lorca and Neruda, Nazim Hikmet and Ossip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and Bella Akhmadulina, Ai-Ching, and Stu Tao, Shamsur Rahman and Tasleema Nasrin, Benjamin Molois and Kensaro Wiwa, Cherabandaraju and Saroj Dutta, Subbarao Panigrahi and Safdar Hashmi, Najet Adouni and Al Idrisi Kaitouni, Sepide Jodeyri and Zuhair Kutbi, Wael Saad Eldieu and Adel Labad, Mehdi Moosavi and Muawiya al Rawahi , Saw Wei and Jin I Choi, just to take a few examples, who had all raised their voice against some form of dictatorship, discrimination and injustice for which they had to suffer insult, imprisonment, life in a labour camp, exile or death. Plato who had kept poets out of his ideal republic should be pleased that he has had several followers in our time: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, Pol Pot, Mao, Pinochet, Id-i-Ameen, Sani Abacha, Ayatolla Khomeini, Saddam Husain and many other champions of totalitarianism and fundamentalism of diverse hues, from Burma, Tibet , Indonesia and the Koreas to Russia, China, Iran, Egypt , Syria, Turkey ,Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia, at times even avowed democrats eager to defend the status-quo. They have found their new heirs in many of the present leaders of the world from Trump and Brexit to Modi and Orban, whose power, once free from the democratic system that restrains them to an extent, can be fatal to cultural freedom and every form of diversity. James Joyce once said of writers, “Squeeze us, we are olives”, meaning the writers yield their best under oppressive environments. While it is true that various forms of oppression have produced some of the most passionate poetic works of our time, it is equally true that they have also silenced a lot of real and potential poets. Brecht was right when he asked, “Will there be poetry in dark times?”, and answered, “Yes, poetry about dark times”. Remember, in his poem ‘To the Posterity’ he had bemoaned the cruel times when a talk about trees could be a crime since it also carried a silence about so many crimes. We too are passing through a bleak time when all optimism looks facile and the only honest poetry seems to be of despair and sarcasm.
And yet, whatever the mode of response, it is impossible for the genuine writer today to ignore the violence that threatens to drown our beautiful world. Blood floods our bedrooms and our drawing rooms are strewn with corpses and that is often the blood and corpses of those who have neither drawing rooms nor bedrooms. Even the ivory towers of pure aesthetes are being swept by the winds of violence and change. Poets can no more be comfortable with ahistoricity, even if they transmute it, as Paz says, into apocalyptic visions.
Violence in our time springs from so many sources. Indeed there are the big and small wars often engineered by divisive forces and imperialist agencies, we have seen, from Vietnam to Iraq to Syria how wars can be conjured up by hegemonic nation states. Tagore had seen Nationalism itself as a violent ideology as it is based on hatred of other nations and peoples than the love of one’s own nation and people and led to a form of collective hubris and greed that inevitably led to direct or indirect war. Today we understand his meaning even better as Nationalism is being turned into a ritual performed under pressure, a form of theocratic jingoism based on othering and discrimination that claims omnipotence.
Another form of violence springs from social inequalities: of class, caste, race and gender. Capitalist violence that emanates from greed and consequent exploitation- “capitalism comes into the world dripping blood’, said Karl Marx-, upper caste violence based on discrimination, denial of opportunities and silencing of historical memory, the violence of the White races against the Blacks and Browns, non-tribal people against tribal populations, and patriarchal violence that takes several forms from linguistic and emotional violence to the physical one, inevitably produce counter-violence from the victims who try to resist the violence from above; but even counter-violence, however sympathetic we are towards it, is also violence and as Brecht says, even anger against injustice contorts our human features. By now any intelligent student of history knows that violence cannot end violence and "an eye for an eye only turns the whole world blind", to recall the words of the greatest spokesman of non-violence in our times. We have seen this dark logic at work in the countries that sought to change their destiny through violence: they had to employ greater violence to sustain their regimes until some of them collapsed for lack of any means to know the truth, why, to know even their own people’s thoughts, as they had silenced all opposition by brute force- which is blindness of the worst kind.
Another is communal violence, of which we have seen some rabid outbursts in India recently. This happens when religion gets divorced entirely from ethics, from God, if you want, gets congealed into dogma and fanaticism and begins to create a scape-goat, an ‘other’ in its own image held responsible for every suffering that one endures. It shows patriarchal proclivities, manufactures an artificial tradition and a distorted history dismissing elements that do not suit its design and uses racial symbols and archetypes to appeal to the popular unconscious. Thus it is also a form of cultural and historical violence. This communalism shares with fascism its basic features, what Umberto Eco calls ur-Fascism in his book , Five Moral Pieces, an ideology that sees dissent as betrayal, defines nation negatively to the exclusion of minorities thus promoting xenophobia, fears difference, advocates action for the sake of action, rejects modernism, looks at pacifism as collusion with the enemy, scorns the weak, appeals to the middle classes, encourages the cult of death, upholds machismo as a value and opposes all non-conformist sexual behaviour, treats people as a monolith, derides parliamentary governments, promotes what George Orwell would call ‘new speak’ that sees everything as black and white , and avoids any kind of intellectual complexity, limits the tools available to critical thinking, fears writers , artists and thinkers and creates a cult of tradition taking truth to be already known.
Techno-fascism too is a form of corrupt power as it ruins our physical and spiritual environment, exploits the natural resources with no consideration for posterity, pollutes our air, earth and water and imposes on everything the tyranny of the rational, measuring everything in numbers and quantities and rejects all that is incalculable, immeasurable and unsayable-which is the very substance of poetry-as they are impossible to digitize. It also produces speed that Milan Kundera in his Slowness calls the ‘ecstasy of technology’. The speed of modern life leaves little room for meditation or even the pleasure of reading and writing. He speaks about the need to retrieve that lost joy of slowness, of lying on the meadow, ‘idly gazing at God’s windows’, a joy getting lost in the louder and faster entertainment provided by the machines.
Another kind of violence comes from the market that forces the writer to be loud and to join the bidding in the culture market while art demands subtlety, suggestion and understatement: it is like a subterranean current that slowly works on the foundations, uproots the status-quoist values and creates new ones. Market is the new Midas turning everything it touches not into gold, but into commodity and artists who answer its temptations are sure to sell their soul to this Mephistophilean spirit since genuine art, by its very nature defies commodification and totalization.
Baudrillard spoke of globalisation as the "greatest violence of our times" as it imposes cultural amnesia in its victims, forcing them to forget their indigenous traditions in art, culture and knowledge and turning them increasingly into unthinking mimics of the West. Local cultures are the repositories of culturally learned responses built up over thousands of years from which poetry often draws its sustenance. Its loss is no less dangerous than the loss of genetic diversity. Western universalism is trying to drown the pluralistic and polyphonic cultural mosaic of countries like India. The agenda of globalisation is monoacculturation, that is, to homogenise and standardise cultures whereas difference and diversity are the very soul of many cultures in the East. Globalisation kills languages both through jargonisation and the selling of the monolingual idea. It is more a command from above than a decision from below; it anthropologises culture by reducing ethnicity into a brand name. It is a form of recolonisation that brings back colonial imaginaries.
Poetry moves from subjects to gestures and is essentially political not only because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world nor only because of the manner in which it might represent society’s structures or social groups, their identities and conflicts. It is political because of the type of space and time that it institutes and the manner in which it frames this time and peoples this space. The defence of aesthetics is the defence of imagination, pleasure, sensual and intellectual freedom, curiosity, play, experimentation and openness. It opposes the capitalist world view by resisting utilitarian co-option: the shape of a poem, cadences, surprises, sounds and spaces cannot be commodified nor taken as booty. Art is anathema to oppressors as it always generates new ideas, forms, desires, possibilities, energies and love of existing in the world.
Poetry opposes all forms of regimentation and invests the quotidian with layers of meaning. Avant-garde poetry is the inscription of the unresolved contradictions between the aesthetic promise and the realities of oppression in the world. It breaks down the obvious orders and unsettles traditional patterns in an attempt to redefine the sensible. It resists simple interpretations.. The aesthetic regime disrupts the boundaries between and redistributes the sense created by other practices. Poetry, by its very nature, interrogates the hierarchical organization of the community and creates experiences that disrupt the results of domination in everyday life. Poetry contributes to resistance by reconfiguring the realm of appearances and reframing the way problems have been posed. It contests the way capacities, voices and roles have been apportioned in the existing order. Poetic practices redefine what can be seen and said (as defined by the hegemonic forces that constitute and embody the State) and the implicit estimations placed on the members of communities. They deny the rigid identities stamped upon us by the police order and provokes counter-histories that would offer new forms of experience and exchange between art and life.
Genuine poetry has always opposed violence in its direct and oblique, tangible as well as intangible, forms, and more than ever it needs today to raise its profoundly human voice against all forms of violence, the ones we spoke of and the ones we may have overlooked. Paz had foreseen the contemporary situation: “Reality has cast aside all disguises and contemporary society is seen for what it is: a heterogeneous collection of things ‘homogenized’ by the whip or by propagandas, directed by groups distinguishable from one another only by their degree of brutality. In these circumstances, poetic creation goes into hiding.” Poetry, even with its element of play, is no mere combinatorial game that a machine can play. It is more than a mere permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions. It always tries to say what it cannot say and its power comes from its willingness to give a voice to what is voiceless and a name to what is nameless. It advances on the blank page as Nicanor Parra would say. Poetry becomes important, as Italo Calvino says of literature in general, not when it reproduces established values, given truths or ready-made slogans .It is an ear that hears beyond the understanding of common sociology, an eye that sees beyond the colour-spectrum of everyday politics. It promotes self-awareness through a criticism of the status quo and the cultural and material violence it perpetrates. The truth it discovers may not necessarily be of immediate use, but it is sure to gradually become part of social consciousness It is the undeclared mission of poetry today to retrieve the past without being atavistic, to disentangle the effects of power from representations, to re-establish the almost-lost connections between man and nature, to redefine the boundaries between the self and the other and the self and nature in the context of man’s species- arrogance that cripples the environment as well as his own moral and spiritual life, to resensitize man to suffering, alienation and solitude and to give positive non-violence and love which is its greatest expression the central place it ought to have in all human discourse.
Lorca who spoke of the "duende", that sudden epiphany , the vision of godhead, the intangible mystery in the context of Arabic music, also was speaking of the thrill and terror of what Paz calls the apocalypse. But this is not a moment of ignorance, but of awareness of the highest kind, an awareness filled with deep concern for all living things that the Buddha, that great pioneer of the philosophy of non-violence, would have qualified as ‘karuna’ or compassion.
Let me conclude with Paz’s own inspired words before I read some poems as an appendix : “We must find the lost word, dream inwardly and also outwardly,/ decipher the night’s tattooing and look face to face at the noon day and tear off the mask” so that finally we can say, “ I am history/ A memory inventing itself/I am never alone/ I speak with you always/ You speak with me always/ I move in the dark/ I plant signs.”
First published in Newsclick." target="_blank">Counter Currents.
This is the transcript of a talk given at Bombay Poetry Fest.
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