Monday, 6 July 2015

Poetry as Protest
Positive Action and Negative Capability

These are some reflections on the event in which I took part at Ledbury Poetry Festival yesterday. It was the event for which I had originally been booked but owing to various cancellations by other people I found myself in three others: a reading with Chris McCabe and Jo Bell on Friday, a celebration of Maya Angelou on Saturday, and a dialogue with Maddy Paxman about her late husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, on Sunday, right before the protest discussion.

The invitation came about because I had written the introduction to the anthology, Catechism, in support of Pussy Riot (the first link is to this blog where I reprinted it, the second to the English PEN site, the book being downloadable as an e-book here), and a much more recent invitation from PEN to write a short piece about Protest as Dance.

The discussion involved Ursula Owen, Jo Glanville, Josh Ekroy (a late stand in for Sabrina Mahfouz - it was a tough year for late cancellations at Ledbury)

I don't want to rerun the discussion which was very well attended and meticulously prepared by Ursula who asked questions to which Jo, Josh, and myself provided answers as best we could. The central questions were whether there was such a thing as protest poetry (it being mostly assumed there was), whether we as poets felt an obligation to write it, whether poetry was effective as protest, what the subjects of protest poetry might be, what it might mean to write it in a society like ours (in my case in Hungary too) and whether there was solidarity among poets.

My most positive thoughts on the subject are in the Protest as Dance article above which values wit above slogans, grace above rage, and irony over polemic. My doubts, beyond that, are as follows, always accompanied by an on the other hand.

My first doubt concerns the Keatsian imperative about despising poetry that has a palpable design on us. That seems to me less poetry than an advertising of one's views. As I understand poetry it is a series of improvisations that discovers its complex of feelings from a certain instinctively known base. It doesn't exploit language or pretend to know everything: it moves and dances with words in the hope of discovery. On the other hand there is a brilliant history of satirical poems, some delicate, some savage, some both that clearly do have a target. The distinction then is not in the intent to articulate or attack a view but in the extra the verse does: in the nimbleness and surprise of its development. The poem is not a strategy: it is grace and wit in martial action. We have examples of it from Juvenal, through Pope and Swift and Shelley, well into the 20th century and beyond.

My second doubt concerns distance. There seems, occasionally, something almost disrespectful about writing protest poetry about those whose fate we may find difficult genuinely to comprehend, let alone share. We do, of course, have empathy, but apart from actually doing something - one would give water to a thirsty person - how far can we appropriate that person's thirst as an aspect of our imagination. Grub before ethics, as Brecht once said. On the other hand there is no easy answer to this, none at all: one has an imagination, one has feelings of empathy, what to do with them? One is a writer, therefore one writes. Perhaps one just has to be careful, to be a little humble about one's capacities and powers. There is little worse than someone bragging about their great heart. But that may  be my own squeamishness speaking.

My third doubt springs from the second and concerns risk. Few of us in the west risk anything by writing a poem about anything. That can relax us and make us intellectually flabby. We can make grand gestures but the police are not going to take us away. Frankly, we don't matter that much. We present no danger. You can publish the most scabrous cartoons against the government and the ministers will simply collect them as souvenirs. There was in the seventies, eighties and nineties - I have written this before - an almost tangible desire to live under tyranny if only so we might matter, so our poems might develop a moral edge sharp as a razor blade. We could write poems about say, Bosnia, but sending money was more useful. On the other hand we could both send money and write poems and if enough of us wrote poems, enough good poems, we might at least register the fact that some people - some artists - opposed whatever horror happened to be at hand at the time (no shortage of those).

My fourth doubt is about preaching to the converted. There is always a great danger of the good agreeing among themselves that they are in fact the good, and that anyone thinking anything slightly  different must be in league with the devil. (How can you possibly think that!?!) There is a party line in goodness and a poet should be against all party lines, even his or her own. In any case, the trouble is that 'the devil' thinks exactly the same and considers the other party the devil. ISIS has its poetry, as did the Nazis, the Stalins, the Pol Pots, the Francos, and the rest. As does the person who may share some but not all opinions with us. Poetry, like music, like art, does not invariably take the 'good' side.  Metaphor and ambiguity are at the heart of poetry. On the other hand there have been historical moments when a poem could trigger something, or at least encourage. There are the great anthems, the signature songs of movements, the songs sung by demonstrators and battalions (not necessarily our battalions). Poetry, in the sense of 'the poetic' is always needed: it is what makes life worth living, but the acute need can produce the real poem. When you have no shoes you need poems, said the Hungarian poet István Vas. Once you have shoes the poems seem less important.

That is enough doubt for now. I could go on but this much is worth saying. The pure Keatsian is full of negative capability, is always in doubt, but the world is not always Keatsian.

In the course of the discussion Josh and I were asked to read one of our relevant poems. The poems we read are now up on the PEN wall and can be read here. Josh's poem dances and is witty. It doesn't bully its readers nor does it assure them what splendid and heroic fellows they all are. I like it very much as a poem even before I like it as an opinion. My own poem, Cargo, imagines drowning, drowning without trace or significance. I think I can imagine that. Is it a protest poem? I doubt it would be chanted at the head of a procession.


Mark Granier said...

True, and very well marshaled George, as usual.

"Perhaps one just has to be careful, to be a little humble about one's capacities and powers."

Yes. To re-quote Eliot's line from the Four Quartets:
"The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility. Humility is endless."
Not that Old Possum was the humblest of people, especially re his antisemitism. Sometimes (perhaps often) the poem is wiser than the poet.

I recall a certain contemporary poet claiming that (his own) poems could stop bulldozers. But the image that immediately came to my mind when I read this was of 'Tank Man', and the poet's remark seemed to me an insult to that anonymous protestor whose physical presence momentarily stopped an actual army.

I've nothing against 'protest' poetry, and I think some excellent, properly angry poems have been written by poets whose lives were not at risk (Joyce's Gas from a Burner, James Fenton's Tiananmen, various Paul Durcan poems, Rita Ann Higgins' 'Some People', etc.). But I think protest poets should keep in mind at least a couple of the points you've listed, or allow themselves to be aware of how the term 'activist poet' can seem at best an oxymoron and at worst an affront to those whose lives are actually at risk. Or maybe just remember Les Murray's line from 'Demo': 'Nothing a mob does is clean.'

George S said...

Fair comment. Nor have I said anything against protest poetry but , as you remark, have simply entered four caveats. I only note that the category of 'protest poetry' as named makes me uneasy for the reason Les Murray gives. There seems to me too often a collapsing of debate, and above all of feeling, into straight camps of right and wrong, good and evil and the rest. This collapse of values would insist that the average Tory is in the same line of wickedness as Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot. People finish up demonising and baying at each other.

There are exceptions, of course. Fenton on Tienanmen Square is one (I wrote my own poem on that in Bridge Passages having been in Hungary at the time) and the Rita Ann Higgins is all the more excellent for being true in every detail. Adrian Mitchell could hit it off. Les Murray goes by the Keats argument which is a very good argument. I too distrust crowds and don't want to be associated with them, which is the reason I left the major march in Budapest 1989 held way through its course.

From masses to mobs and back is an easy step. One wants the masses not the mob. Dancing between the two is what takes wit, humour, perception and civilisation. Anger watching its own feet while moving forward.

George S said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

Solidarity among poets? Don't make me laugh. They are more competitive than tennis players. We attended Ledbury on Tuesday the 7th. Meeting Rowan Williams, Roddy Lumsden and Judith Palmer more than made up for the inconvenience and expense of getting there. My overriding memory of the day was the horrendous price of Guinness at The Feathers Hotel.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish