On Lines

Poetry and Policemen

Patrice is poised for a headlong dash to the barricades, as it were. Living in Hong Kong, he takes the view that lines of resistance may have immediate impact.

I am not convinced.

Patrice was present at Tiananmen Square in 1989 when liberation was dispensed by the people’s army of the same name. I understand the depth of his feeling about current events, yet I am mystified by his continuing belief in the power of the written word, especially the scanned and highly mannered written word, when it comes to confrontation with authority.

Of course, the well-turned phrase, the catchy aphorism, can rally support. A hundred years ago, the nationalist Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, noted that victory belongs not to those who can inflict the most (he meant the British), but to those who can endure the most (he meant the Irish).  This pithy cri de coeur was later taken up by figures such as Nehru and Ho Chi Minh, but it was accompanied in Mayor McSweeney‘s case by imprisonment, hunger strike and death, so the concept of “victory” must surely be viewed with a certain amount of circumspection.

The issue of political engagement has been the subject of heated online exchange among the members of our editorial board. One faction believes that poetry – affording a measured appreciation of underlying truths – is properly a refuge from politics not an adjunct to it. Another argues that poets must be in the thick of the fray – if an art form can’t be deployed against injustice then what’s it good for?

I have some sympathy for both camps – which no doubt makes me an unreliable ally.

Wordsworth spoke of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, celebrating the contemplation of dramatic events from a safe distance. On the other hand, safety and distance may be luxuries – the poets of the First World War jotted down verses to the accompaniment of small-arms fire and incoming shells; a generation later, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and others testified to the still sad music of humanity while listening for the sound of policemen’s footsteps on the stair. Even those fashionable troubadours who set protest to music in the 1960s made a decent stab at pointing up the merits of tolerance and peace in a fractious and occasionally violent atmosphere.

So, where does this leave us?

Patrice, understandably, wanted to mark the Tiananmen anniversary in a fitting way.  One of our editors, joining the debate from Peoria, suggested that developments in China pale in comparison to the unrest in the United States – reflecting, I feel, a dispiritingly familiar American tendency to view the US experience as uniquely significant. This does not, of course, diminish the power and pertinence of poetry on racism in America.

‘Why don’t we publish something about the changing season,’ Antoinette suggested. Antoinette is French, but lives in Jerusalem, where she teaches dance. ‘The beauty of the early summer is so often overlooked.’

Clearly, one of the Wordsworth camp.

‘Better to have lines about the plague!’ Dimitri’s characteristic bluntness is never entirely disagreeable. He is a professor of comparative literature in the Balkans, and he is blessed with a remarkable capacity to disagree with whatever opinions may have been articulated immediately before his own – hence, such short shrift for Antoinette’s fetchingly whimsical idea about summer blossoms. Dimitri is a character – and his poem on the fall of Constantinople, published in our last issue, was unexpectedly prescient:

The emperor’s fame

Is built on what was squandered

While he sat upon the throne

What was lost

To the Ottomans

To the allies in the west,

What was lost

By those who told themselves

The emperor guarded more

Than his own person

And the comforts of his gilded court.

But even if poetry can identify the problem and articulate a sound response – what good is it if policemen punching pensioners in Buffalo are not persuaded to read literary magazines?

The answer, undoubtedly, is blowing in the wind, which is not entirely helpful in these trying times.