20 January 2014
On the evening of 8 October 2010, while the Nobel committee praised its new laureate, incarcerated Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government put Liu Xia, his wife, under house arrest. Liu Xia, a poet and artist, thus lost her freedom of movement, communication and speech. But last week, her voice came back to us, unexpectedly. Despite her extreme depression, Liu Xia managed to send out to the world a short video of herself, reading poetry. This may be an apt occasion to discuss the power of poetry to speak up, to move in the dark, to plant signs. This week’s Inter-actions presents K. Satchidanandan, who reaffirms poetry as the voice of resistance. In her response, Zahira Rahman urges poets who live outside the canon, deprived and unarmed, to fight with the only weapon they have – their thin, sword-like, incisive poetry.
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Poetry Against Violence
Poetry as Weapon
Three years. It took three years for Liu Xia, spouse of incarcerated Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, to extricate excerpts of her recent poetry from the confines of her house arrest. A poet is muzzled and kept under control, without being given a chance even to know the nature of her crime. In a video sheltered out of her apartment early last week, we see Liu Xia imbue her poems with the faithful depression and melancholy of her everyday. Lines unread, voice muted, face indistinct. Yet she reads on, and then looks up and smiles, relieved, at the camera. That is how it is, when poetry meets violence.
Liu Xia is far from being a tragic exception. The history of poetry in our time has undeniably been one of censorship, exile and martyrdom. The instances would be innumerable: think of Lorca, Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Ossip Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Ai-Ching… James Joyce’s comment on the matter is particularly evocative. “Squeeze us, we are olives”: writers yield their best under oppressive environments. But while it is true that various forms of oppression have produced some of the most passionate poetic works of our time, one cannot deny that they have also silenced a lot of potential poets. Brecht’s question was as accurate as his response: “Will there be poetry in dark times? Yes, poetry about dark times.”
Poetry and violence are tied in many ways. Take, for instance, communal violence. Communal violence happens when religion gets divorced entirely from ethics or from a sense of God. It happens when the spirit of respect gets congealed into dogma and fanaticism, and begins to create a scapegoat, an ‘other’ conceived as responsible for every suffering one endures. It shows patriarchal proclivities, it manufactures traditions artificially, and it defends a distorted history dismissing elements that do not suit its design. Thus, it is also a form of cultural and historical violence. This communalism shares with fascism its basic features, what Umberto Eco, in Five Moral Pieces, had called ‘ur-Fascism’. It promotes what George Orwell calls the ‘newspeak’, a language that can only portray reality as black and white. This form of cultural violence avoids any kind of intellectual complexity, limiting the tools available to critical thinking and creating a cult of tradition taking truth to be already known. Can poetry resist this kind of violence?
But poetry and violence meet at other crossings. Another source of violence is the market. It forces the writer to be loud and to join the bidding in the commercial field, while art demands subtlety, suggestion and understatement. Poetry is – or it should be – like a subterranean current that slowly works on the foundations, uproots the status-quoist values and creates new visions. The market is the new Midas: it turns everything it touches into a fixed state, thus transforming artists into commodities. A Mephistophelean spirit, the market tempts poets, leads them to sell their souls for the promise of quick rewards.
Baudrillard spoke of globalisation as the greatest violence of our times: it imposes cultural amnesia in its victims, forcing them to forget their indigenous traditions in art, culture and knowledge. Local traditions are the repositories of culturally learned responses built up, over thousands of years. That is where poetry 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 such as India. The agenda of globalisation is mono-acculturation — the homogenisation and standardisation of particularly diverse and different cultures. 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.
Genuine poetry has always opposed violence in its direct and oblique, tangible and intangible forms. More than ever, it needs today to raise its profoundly human voice against all forms of violence. Octavio 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.”
If poetry is a play, it is nonetheless much more than a mere permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions. It always tries to say what it cannot say. Its power comes from its willingness to give a voice to the voiceless and a name to the nameless. It “advances on the blank page,” as Nicanor Parra would say. Poetry 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, to resensitise man to suffering, alienation and solitude, and to give positive non-violence and love – its greatest expression – the central place it ought to have in all human discourse.
J. Swaminathan, an admirer and friend of Paz, had seen how, in tribal art, nature and its creation envelop each other. Lorca, who spoke of the ‘duende’ in Arabic Music, this sudden epiphany, the vision of godhead, the intangible mystery, also discussed the thrill and terror of what Paz calls the ‘apocalypse’ – the awareness of the highest kind. But it is out of the penumbral shadow that such awareness emerges:
“we must find the lost word,
decipher the night’s tattooing
And so, when Paz wrote the following lines, was he unconsciously addressing Liu Xia? Or was it, perhaps, her own voice calling through the poet’s nib?
“I am history
“My poetry is lean and starved, not fat and prosaic,” said a young non-conformist, as if he were making an apocalyptic statement. In the classroom, the audience sat, nervous and envying. The poet was addressing younger, less rebellious college students, still inside the market of knowledge. They were, perhaps for the first time, bearing witness to how the norm, the establishment and its conformity, feared poetry, how its curved trajectory hit directly, without meandering.
There will always be a conflict between lean poetry and fat propaganda. The kind of poetry that conforms, promoting images of illusory glory, is an appendage of the global market. Poetry, starved and deprived, has always been the bête noire of the oppressive and enslaving ruling class. The blues, some of the finest lines of poetry, sound like a strangled cry: violence inflicted on human voice to salvage joy out of the ruins of tragedy.
As Liu Xia recites, the violence both of her poetry and of her smiling face, slashed by the camera, targets the perpetrators of crime against her husband. When true creative freedom is in chains, it will never admit censorship, exile and martyrdom. It will sneak out, as Liu Xia’s poetry did, in forms twisted and truncated, perhaps, but always razor-sharp. None of the writers mentioned by Satchidanandan – Lorca, Neruda, Nazim Hikmet… – submitted to persecuting forces. Artists and poets are fatal to republics, to an organized society, to the disciplines of a classroom, to an authoritarian state and to institutionalized religion.
Terry Eagleton warned against treating poetry as only language, and not discourse. For him, the language of a poem is constitutive of its ideas. Poetry is subversion of language, of its form and its meaning. And it is necessitated by intense experiences, though not necessarily the poet’s own. But, according to Eagleton, experience, once a way of resisting commodity, is now just another species of it. In a world where experience is packaged and sold in markets and corporate events, poetry is perhaps the only genuine weapon, the authentic trace of human experience. When images hijack the real, and simulacra rule the world, poetry must renounce its ornaments and be cynic enough to resist commodification. It must be true to its vocation: speaking for those victimized by the power and the capital of our times.
Poetry has always been the leanest of all writings. Through poetry, language, stripped of its fine clothes and padded form, appears naked. Its subtle disguises are meant to pierce and wound, awaken the comatose and raise the dead. Naked, pure poetry claims its truthfulness at its most belligerent.
A Theyyam Dancer
Poetry is not sublimated violence; rather, it is a lethal answer to oppression. The Theyyam performances in Kerala represent some of the most subversive, questioning forms of poetry. When the feudal lords in Kerala allowed aesthetic spaces to permit the poets of the colonized community to perform, they hoped it would sublimate the violent resistance of the oppressed. But poetry, in its true form, attacked obliquely, violently and passionately. Other voices can be silenced, resistance in various forms can be put down, but poetry is sharp-edged and ephemeral at once. Like spirits of fire, it emerges to annihilate dominating and unjust discourses. It carries the imagery of the withstanding soul. And at its most personal and local, poetry transcends all its boundaries – geographical, social, cultural and even temporal. It offers itself free to anyone who is co-hearted, to every ally in the mission to question, connect, share and love, to realize being in non-being, to seek the self in the other and remake institutions.
Even when modernity honored poets and conferred exclusivity upon them, some of the most canonical – Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Cummings – chose to write on the margins. With the postmodern, arrived the Carnivelesque; poetry revealed its disguises and appeared with rebellious intent to wound and be wounded. In subaltern discourses, Keemayanas were written to question the Ramayanas. Written by local poets and printed on spare capital, they questioned the dominant discourse of Rama’s patriarchal authority. The little narratives are not canonical, perhaps, and not acknowledged, but they are, though in choking voices, heard. It is difficult times for the poet, yes, but it is the best of times too, for poets, like olives, are squeezed brutally. They are driven to express their passionate best. The canon is rewritten. Palimpsests surface, and we are introduced to countless rewritings, all bleeding, yet triumphant.
If, as K. Satchidanandan suggests, “poetry is an ear that hears beyond the understanding of common sociology, an eye that sees beyond the colour spectrum of everyday politics,” why fear? With all the agendas of globalisation, poetry, in its profound voice-disguises as tribal, subaltern, feminine, endangered or deprived, will sustain itself. It has always been the phoenix rising from the ashes, disguised and restored in the poetry of Gaddar, Salma, Darwish, Cheran, Tlali, Noonuccal, Ortiz. True poetry has always been poetry of resistance. It topples the conventional, the oppressive, hidden constants. Subverting the norm has been inherent to all poetic exercises. But it is more natural to people like Liu Xia to whom history has been violent in both physical and psychological ways. These poets live outside the canon, deprived and unarmed, denied power and its privileges. Yet, they have always fought with the only weapon they had – their thin, sword-like, incisive poetry.
Recital by young Gaddar
Here is another. Even in translation, this one burns…
It is much easier for you
K. Satchidanandan is one of the most widely translated of contemporary Indian poets, with 23 collections available in 19 languages. Writing in Malayalam and English, he has also authored several books that include plays, critical works, translations and travelogues. He is a Fellow of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi and has won a variety of literary awards and fellowships. He has represented Indian poetry at a number of forums and festivals across the world.
Zahira Rahman heads the Department of English at Sullamusallam College, University of Calicut, Kerala. Her doctoral thesis was on theatre in education. She has published poems in national journals such as Indian Literature, and has exhibited paintings at the Lalita Kala Akademi. Her latest work on folk performance was presented at the PAMLA Conference, Seattle, in 2012.
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