The Arts

No Diktat on Poetry in Dark Times

More than political opinions, poetry is the best antidote against the deliberate mischief to misrepresent tragedies.

At least poetry, philosophy, action were not,

For us, separated…

– Czeslaw Milosz, ‘A Treatise on Poetry’

The political sensitivity behind the views aired by Apoorvanand, in the opinion piece, ‘Poetry After Kathua’ (The Indian Express, April 24, 2018), favours a theoretical judgement on the supposed limit-situation of poetry. It echoes old ideological discomforts vis-à-vis the craft and act of poetry, especially in politically disturbing times.

Before I get into a counter-argument regarding the necessity and affirmation of poetry in dark times, let me draw a rhetorical premise. Poetry is the genre of writing which is closest to silence. All writing is born of solitude, but poetry is the most intense manifestation of solitude. In that sense, silence and poetry are no strangers to each other. One feeds the other. To ask for poetry of silence is to silence poetry. It echoes the Adorno-esque commandment to snatch poetry’s “other voice”, to use Octavio Paz’s phrase. Poetry is the disturbing voice (and noise) of the soul that transcends the crisis posed by barbarism. The excesses of barbarism and the ethical limits of poetry are different things.

Plato thought it was necessary to banish poets from his Ideal State as he held that poetry was a misleading – not a truthful – art. There has been enough critique and refutation of this view. Let me offer another one: Poetry is not meant to serve an abstract notion of truth but what disturbs truth, which is politics. Poetry is the enemy – and sometimes the handmaiden – of politics. Stalinism understood poetry better than Plato: For Stalin, as Osip Mandelstam and others realised, poets are dangerous for they can strip the emperor’s version of truth.

Today, as we witness unspeakable crimes committed on Dalits and Muslims in the name of Hindu raj, we are simultaneously confronted by an equally dangerous disease: a political machine working overtime to falsify the violence committed on little girls and boys, alter the meaning of tragedy, morally numb a populace so that a diabolical space of justificatory violence can be spread in the name of territorialising power.

More than political opinions, poetry, I would argue, is the best antidote against the deliberate mischief to misrepresent tragedies. For, to reverse Plato’s harsh (and prejudiced) injunction, poetry’s political task is something more ethically acute than the metaphysical concern for truth: Poetry is the most feared language against the state of lies. Communist poet Yannis Ritsos, who faced long confinements in fascist Greece, and Mandelstam, who died in the Gulags, would have testified to this.

The temptation to remember Adorno’s pronouncement on poetry after Kathua, raises two problems.

To explain the first, there is an unrepeatable singularity about Auschwitz. It is not possible to compare barbarisms. Suffering, be it individual or collective, presents an incommensurability of experience that is cut off by time. What lingers in time is not the horror, but its memory. The burden of memory is its painful fidelity to an event, where the violation remembers itself in order to exist. This is the only way the world learns (with the risk of forgetting)) the lessons of horror. But precisely here we confront the hollowness of Adorno’s pronouncement. What we remember of Auschwitz doesn’t have much to do with what Adorno said of poetry, but from poetry itself. It is from Paul Celan that we hear the language of what is left behind after Auschwitz, what is incapable of dying. Celan’s poetry survives as the most difficult testament of the Holocaust. There is no language that can expose barbarism better than the vulnerable language of a (Celan) poem.

Celan described his silence as “prayer-sharp knives”, where wounds are itching to speak. You realise, the distinction between silence and poetry doesn’t exist, more disturbingly during times of horror. For language, is something way more than a reservoir of culture, it is the last proof of life, of our breathing. Poetry is not just cultural, it is vital. No wonder, Celan described poetry as “an Atemwende, a turning of our breath”.

In his famous speech on poetry, Meridian, Celan made another memorable articulation of the figure of the poet. The poet, Celan argued, is simply two things: Date and location. Celan’s date is 20 January, the day when Lenz, the chief protagonist of German dramatist Büchner’s 1835 short story, journeyed through the mountains and lost his mind. It is also the same day in 1942 when the Wannsee Conference took place where the Final Solution to the Jewish question was made, whereby most of the Jews of German-occupied Europe were to be deported to Poland and exterminated, Celan’s parents being among them.

“Every poem”, Celan wrote, “has its ‘20th of January’ inscribed.”  Remember Anna Akhmatova’s poem Requiem (carried fearfully, defiantly, on her tongue, between 1935 and 1961)? Writing ‘Instead of a preface’, Akhmatova described a woman in the long queue outside the Leningrad prison during ‘the Yezhov terror’, asking her, “Can you describe this?” To which Akhmatova replied, “Yes, I can.” And then, “something of a smile”, described Akhmatova, “passed by what had once been her face.” The smile is the blue delight in the face of despair, hearing the affirmation that the possibility of meaning is not completely effaced by the meaninglessness of cruelty. Akhmatova’s preface marks an important addition: ‘April 1, 1957, Leningrad’. In the poem, ‘Dedication’, by Czeslaw Milosz, who witnessed the devastation of Poland by Nazism, he wrote, ‘What is poetry which does not save/Nations or people?’ It reads below: Warsaw, 1945.  It is a testimony of time and place, two coordinates that made Celan call poetry, “language actualised”. The poet alone, he wrote, has “a sense of the clock’s hands”. Poetry, like persecution, is haunted by dates. It is necessary to have both, side-by-side, against each other. 

The other problem in the temptation to remember Adorno after Kathua lies in the assumption that a theory of poetry can dictate its theoretically superior judgement on poetry. Adorno’s bleak view presupposes that the aesthetic realm of culture (that produces art and literature) can only survive as a morally degenerate surplus, after the barbarism of Auschwitz. The rising noise of popular culture disturbs him. But his negative indictment fails to perceive how the task of poetry (especially in dark times) need not be confined to the service of culture but to the question of the survival of language, which is the survival of culture itself.

Not all poems written after Akhlaq, after Junaid, after Insha Mustaq, after the flogging of Dalits in Una, and now, after Kathua, may be able to inscribe the wound deeply enough in the heart of language. But some may well achieve, in some measure, that daunting task. To prefer meditative silence as an option, than risking the madness of poetry, is denying us our vitality.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet who teaches at Ambedkar University, Delhi.

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