DUsers know the power of the spoken word. Many of them wrote poems: Stalin, Mao and Radovan Karadžić (whose work was published in a Slovak magazine). Saddam Hussein presented verses to the American soldiers who guarded him in his later years. Other dictators dabbled, but were mostly inspired. Pol Pot recited Verlaine. Mussolini revered Gabriele d’Annunzio. Others banned poetry in their republics. After Augusto Pinochet’s death, it was discovered that he had one of the largest libraries in Latin America, with more books than the number of people he had tortured; poetry and fiction, however, were insignificant. Regardless of their poetic affiliation, dictators perceive the danger of poetry, which is why poets in their regimes are routinely imprisoned, tortured, murdered, or forced into exile.
In 1964, 23-year-old Joseph Brodsky was tried in Leningrad for social parasitism. During this time in the Soviet Union, all healthy adults were expected to work until retirement. During two hearings recorded by Frida Vigdorova, a judge harangued Brodsky; He tells you to stay upright, look at the court, stop taking notes. The judge doesn’t seem to believe Brodsky when he says, “Writing poems is work.” You want to know what Brodsky’s usual job is, can he support his family on this income? How is it being useful for the country? Over and over again, the judge refers to his “alleged poems.” “Why do you say that my poems are supposed poems?” Brodsky asks. “Because we have no other impression of them,” replies the judge.
Reading the transcript, it appears that Brodsky is more infuriated by the rejection of his poems as “assumptions” than by the label “parasite.” Poets are sensitive and critics can be tough. A UK publisher wrote Gertrude Stein a rejection letter parodying her style: “Being only one, having only one set of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your MS. three or four times. Not even once. “
Gujarati poet Parul Khakhar recently received a similar reprimand for her now-viral poem “Shav-vahini Ganga” (Ganges, the Carrier of Corpses), in an editorial published in a government-funded magazine. He describes his work as “senseless anguish expressed in a state of turmoil,” and goes on to say, “These people want to quickly wreak havoc in India … they have thrown themselves into literature with bad intentions.” Khakhar’s poem is a 14-line lament for the deaths during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in India. Write how there are no more places in crematoriums, how India has run out of pallbearers, mourners, tears. Narendra Modi, the prime minister, does not address himself directly, but the accusation is implicit: “Oh king, this entire city has finally seen your true face /… Oh king, in your Ram-Rajya, do you see bodies flowing in the Ganges? ?
Khakhar reportedly wrote the poem because she was distraught to see corpses floating in India’s holiest river. In April, the government decided to bring forward the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival that takes place every 12 years because the astrological setup for 2021 was deemed more auspicious. More than nine million pilgrims flocked to the Ganges, mostly unmasked, creating the largest super-spread event in the history of the pandemic. Since early May, heavy rains have caused hundreds of corpses wrapped in saffron cloth to be seen on the banks of the river, some carved from shallow graves by dogs.
Khakhar’s poem and subsequent editorial, entitled “No, this is not a poem, this is a misuse of a ‘poem’ for anarchy”, have divided the Indian art community. Some have questioned Khakhar’s sudden foray into politics, others have said the poem is not a masterpiece. More than 150 people have signed a statement asking the magazine to withdraw its editorial, highlighting the right to debate contemporary issues through poetry as an important part of a healthy democracy. Khakhar, who has been relentlessly persecuted for being “anti-national” and “demon”, has blocked her Facebook profile and turned down interview requests, choosing instead to respond with a new poem: “You shall not speak.”
The question of what makes a poem a poem is something that the entire history of literary criticism has yet to answer. Because a poet’s entire career can be judged in a single poem floating around on social media, it’s easy to knock it down. The late Adam Zagajewski, in his essay “Against Poetry”, he writes about the futility of poets like Shelley writing defenses of poetry (which his own essay, of course, also comes to be). “Poets live like the defenders of a besieged citadel, checking if the enemy is coming and where it comes from,” he writes. “This is not a healthy way of life.”
Zagajewski believed that lyrical poetry had two goals. The first is the need to shape our inner life; the second is to watch over history, to stand guard “in the square of the presidential palace, reflecting on the progressive or rapid metamorphoses of our civilization.” He acknowledges that poets are not above suspicion: “Why did Brecht serve Stalin? Why did Neruda adore him? Why did Gottfried Benn put his faith in Hitler for several months?
“The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain one person”, Czesław Miłosz tells us in “Ars Poetica?” Khakhar went from being a fan of Modi to calling him emperor without clothes. Brecht’s support for Stalin’s spectacle judgments is inexcusable, but it hasn’t stopped us from quoting him endlessly during this pandemic about how dark times will sing about dark times. Poems don’t kill people. Dictators do. But poetry brings us closer to death, it demands that we witness, take stock.
Some poets even speak to us from the place beyond death. Miklós Radnóti wrote his final poems before being taken through a Hungarian forest in 1944. He was shot in the head and his body was later exhumed from a mass grave, identified by the documents he carried: civil identity card, certificate of baptism, letters and a small notebook with his poems. “I write, what else can I do? A poem is dangerous, / and if you knew how a capricious, delicate line, / even that requires courage … “
Khakhar’s poem was called an “unnecessary incitement”, but the poetry has always been tried to unearth. Whether it’s Seamus Heaney’s “crouching barnyard” digging his ancestral swamps, or Faiz Ahmed Faiz digging diamonds from every peak “for the blood that spilled, for the bare gardens,” or Mahmoud Darwish dreaming of peace, “digging again the garden / to plant all the crops that we will sow “, or Paul Celan digging with black earth under his nails, digging in time, in history,” Oh you dig and I dig and I dig towards you. “
All that digging is dangerous. Nâzım Hikmet spent almost two-thirds of his adult life in prison and exile. Federico García Lorca was assassinated by fascists for daring to write about the carnage in Franco’s Spain. Wole Soyinka was accused of conspiring with the Biafra rebels and imprisoned in solitary confinement for two years without reading or writing. The recent list of jailed poets is long and varied: Dareen Tatour, Tran Duc Thach, Stella Nyanzi, Ahnaf Jazeem, Varavara Rao, İlhan Çomak, Ashraf Fayadh. Myanmar’s latest military coup has imprisoned more than 30 poets and killed four. Uighur poets continue to be held in Chinese internment camps. Russian intelligence is suspected of trying to poison a poet, and in Iran, poets have been flogged for “spreading propaganda” and “insulting the sacred.” All this state terror culminates in a single image for me: Belarusian activist Stepan Latypov stabbed himself in the neck with a pen during his trial in Minsk.
Modi is also a poet. In 2014 he published A trip, What one critic described as poignant, the speaker of the poems “a genuinely sympathetic figure”, albeit lonely, “Is there a partner to share / These emotions that accumulate behind the locked door?” Modi certainly seems to be adrift. Since India’s second wave of Covid, it has emerged to target the nation only twice. Official figures at the time of this writing put the death toll at 393,338, although the New York Times reports that the worst case is approaching 4.2 million. Under Modi’s leadership, allegations of sedition have risen 165% and cases of the egregious Illicit Activities (Prevention) Act, which is implemented to target anyone who criticizes the government, has risen 33%. India is already ranked the most dangerous country in the world for women and has just moved up the lists of the most dangerous places for journalists. Poets and artists closely follow them.
Two weeks ago, the Caravan magazine published a series of letters written by Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, PhD students and activists, who were imprisoned for more than a year in Delhi’s Tihar Prison on charges of rioting and attempted murder. Her letters, to the group of women to which they belong, travel from hope to anger to resistance to love. They write about their prisoners, the hours they are allowed to leave their neighborhoods, the continuous protests of farmers, the arrival of the seasons: “Those fiery red flowers must be bursting in the skyscrapers of the city?” I’d call them postcard poems, but does it matter? The right to disagree is valid for any number of the so-called poems.
Charles Simic’s poem, “Baby Photos of Famous Dictators” offers us a series of grainy snapshots. Horse-drawn trams, women with umbrellas, children in sailor suits posing for the camera in gardens of modest houses with white fences: “Adorable mugs that smile faintly into the new century. Innocent. Why not? “The poem spins rapidly and devastatingly with a shivering wind of premonition. After squinting at the stars, they are” carried to bed by their mothers and older sisters, / While the dogs stay back: / Pedigree bitches pregnant with bloodhounds “.
I go back to Brodsky’s challenge during his trial, and I think maybe, yes, the poet is a parasite after all. A flea that attaches itself to the hound, irritates it by spreading news of its atrocities, clings tenaciously to its skin, causing discomfort, and perhaps even its fall. I think of the poet Anna Akhmatova, standing for 17 months in a line in front of a prison in Leningrad during Yezhov’s terror to see her son. How one day a woman upon hearing his name asked in a whisper: “Can you describe this?” Akhmatova saying, “I can.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism