Poetry, a Battle Between Orders and Songs

In tyrannical times, poetry needs to speak less, tell more.

General, there’s a battle
between your orders and my songs.
~ Heberto Padilla, ‘Song of the Juggler’

Those who believe in poetry do not live by the banal, unpoetic promises made by governments. What governments promise are an agenda, spread through their mouthpieces and propaganda machines. Poetry is the antithesis of everything that constitutes governments, for poetry belongs to the realm of the spirit that is irreconcilable with rules and diktats.

The fundamental task of governments is to issue orders, to control the language of desire with the language of laws. Poetry names another law, the law of desire struggling to find its place in the world. If the spirit of poetry is fundamentally antithetical to the law of governance, is it unconstitutional as well? Plato was suspicious of poetry and harshly proclaimed it had no place in his ideal state. Plato had understood poetry’s dangerous power to challenge political ideals, for the spirit of poetry will refuse to pay obeisance to any ideal it may uphold today, if the same ideal throttles the voice of freedom tomorrow.

Poetry cannot be trusted by any system that holds power over life, for poetry loathes power. A Latin American guerrilla had once moaned, “All revolutions degenerate into governments.” No wonder, the most promising poets in communist regimes were dissidents, be it Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Bei Dao or Heberto Padilla. The poet of the Russian revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky, was forced to commit suicide. Padilla, who was imprisoned by the Cuban authorities and was released only after a petition signed by Sartre, Simon de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag among others, had written his predicament in one of his poems:

The poet! Kick him out!
He has no business here.
He doesn’t play the game.
He never gets excited
He never speaks out clearly.

The poets Roque Dalton (L) and Heberto Padilla (R). Credit: Wikimedia

The poets Roque Dalton (L) and Heberto Padilla (R). Credit: Wikimedia

Even though Padilla supported the Cuban revolution, he was not prepared to be a stooge of the government and compromise his voice. Even if political belief can give voice to poetic sensibility, the relationship between poetry and politics has always been an uneasy one. As Mandelstam wrote of Stalin in the ill-fated poem that contributed to his eventual death:

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

A poet won’t be the half-man paying false tributes to a dictator. But since poetry, as Mandelstam remarked, was taken so seriously in Russia that it could have the poet killed, it had a real bad time under the communist regime. China was no better, where the dissident poet Bei Dao aired his defiance against official lies by declaring:

I don’t believe the sky is blue;
I don’t believe in thunder’s echoes;
I don’t believe that dreams are false;
I don’t believe that death has no revenge.

Not believing in the government’s version of truth is poetry’s political task, and the poet is ready to risk her or his life. Just as Octavio Paz described poetry as the “the other voice”, which between “revolution and religion” says something else, we can also call poetry the other truth, which refutes the propaganda of power. The power of poetry is the power to refute, to say “No” to power. In this sense, poetry is closer to the spirit of the oppressed, and the feminine.

The voice of the oppressed, of feminine wisdom, often lies in muffled tones, in intuitive hopes, in visceral agonies. We come across such voices in poets who faced fascist regimes in the 20th century. Consider Nelly Sachs, the Swedish poet with a Jewish-German ancestry, who suffered the Nazis during World War II, writing:

where children die
stone and star
and so many dreams become homeless.

Where children die, as they die today in war and riots, in Aleppo, Turkey, Peshawar or Muzaffarnagar, the world plunges into a deeper abyss, where prayer is reduced to wailing and wailing is sucked into a silence where the stars become indecipherable. Or take another poem, where Sachs desperately tries to reconcile hopelessness with a messianic promise, plagued by doubts over people’s ability to hear the event:

If the prophets broke in
through doors of night
seeking an ear like a homestead –
you ear of humanity
overgrown with cotton,
would you hear?

Yiannis Ritsos in 1984. Credit: Wikimedia

Yiannis Ritsos in 1984. Credit: Wikimedia

The poet is unable to announce the arrival of (messianic) hope, for s/he is no longer confident if the world is ready to receive hope. Such dark wavering of the spirit, between despair and promise, also confronts the Greek poet, Yiannis Ritsos, who spent many years in jail for his poems against Papadopoulos’s fascist dictatorship. In the dark confines of prison, Ritsos writes,

Metal on metal
hammer on anvil
wheel on rail.

In between each clang
is a bird
not yet killed
coming from the other side.

The bird is a metaphor of a hope that exists beyond the walls, in between the sound of passing trains, in the hearing of the rumble of wings that alone excite the spirit to fly. Yet Ritsos dreamt of the future, where the rubble of war will be transformed by the coming of a new world:

Plentiful stone,
plentiful hearts,
we will use them to build tomorrow’s factories,
the new working class,
red stadiums,
and grand monuments for the Heroes of the Revolution.

And yet, once the moment of revolution will arrive, a Ritsos, like any other poet, will turn into an enemy of the state, for no genuine poet can speak for governments. It is as much about the poet’s freedom to breathe, as about what Paul Celan called, “an Atemwende, a turning of our breath.” Celan saw this turning of the breath, perhaps a turning away from the invitation to violence, of demolishing the other, as a way of realising, even hearing, “the strange from the strange”, of recovering freedom from estrangement.

Every era faces tyrants in power, and so does the poetry of that era. We know Bertolt Brecht’s dark pacification about “singing in the dark times”, but perhaps we also need to pay attention to the nature of power – of what is especially dangerous about tyrants. The Finnish poet, Paavo Haavikko, left us with some pithy, poetic reflections on the subject. In an ironically titled poem of aphorisms, ‘Fifteen Epigrams in Praise of the Tyrant’, Haavikko writes,

The tyrant inspires small poems.
doesn’t understand what’s so special about him.

A good warning from Haavikko: To keep our satirical condemnation of tyrants precise, so that it can be circulated and understood without difficulty. In tyrannical times, poetry needs to speak less, tell more. 

(March 21 is World Poetry Day)

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.

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