Poetry was born before poets
By Lello Voce
From Alfabeta No 15 December 2011
Translation by Susanna Maggioni
Poetry was born before poets. Poetry was born in the world, not before the world, even if it then is the first to strive to find a code to make the world understandable.
There has been poetry long before there has been any news of any poet, if it is true, as it is, that it is the oldest medium known to man for non-genetic transmission of information. And perhaps it was something like what Vico was referring to in his Scienza Nuova, when he talked of the most poetical language of the origins.
Neither can poetry do without the world; unless it wants to disappear ... Poetry was born together with the community.
The lyric tradition itself, the most strictly Petrarchan one, can not help but agree that even the great confession (and the exercise of repentance and self-contrition) of the Canzoniere makes sense only starting from its “public” dimension, because no confession has an effect without an ear that is listening, every confession is the staging of sin, and demands its own audience.
If poetry is in the world, in short, it can not be there other than based on its voice. And on the ability its voice has to capture the community's listening and to establish a dialogue.
The community is made up of bodies, presences, there is no community in the reader's solitude however careful, critical and intelligent, and this, alas, digs an unbridgeable gap between epic and fictional narrative: a political moat, which concerns the praxes (of transmission and reception), before the poetics, in which the chosen form is already in itself an ideological choice of field, before being formal; a practice in which the I can not have any space, if not based on being reduced to being relation. Dialogue comes before language, as pointed out by Lotman (and Amir Or in his ponencia reminds us that “poetry is dialogue in its highest form”), or, to put it with Zumthor: “In poetry there is no word without voice.”
Thus, its choice to become silent, even boasting it for a few centuries, more or less from the nineteenth century onward, was a sort of suicide, the choice of a radical hermitage that is effectively sanctioned by Hegelian Aesthetics, in naming the novel new bourgeois epic.
Today, digital technologies of reproduction, recording, speech synthesis, the sharing possibilities offered by the Internet, all bring poetry back to inhabiting voice, seeking its audience, which is no longer that of the griot, contained within the confines of a village, nor the elitist, and hyper-literary one of silent and bourgeois consumption, but that of the global village – in principle – a mass audience. Poetry rediscovers its roots together with the unpredictability of a new orality, hitherto literally unheard of.
That is the reason why in the world (and even in Italy) live poetry events have multiplied: festivals, poetry slams, readings, and the phenomenon is now so important that even 'dumb' poets, those who are proud to write exclusively for paper, indeed do not miss any opportunity to go on stage, inventing a voice that often, alas, they do not have at all, or fitting bleak musical shows that attempt to turn abruptly, with superficial carelessness, what was born to be read in silence into the troubadour-like performance of spoken music.
What happened in Medellin, where in July of this year, during what can be considered the biggest and most popular among international poetry festivals, with an audience of thousands and thousands of spectators every year, more than thirty event organisers and poetry school leaders from all continents gathered and where the World Poetry Movement was founded, risks being misunderstood if one does not look at it keeping in mind the history of this art, which has little to do with literature.
The general terms of the debate, on a quick read, in fact, may seem like the usual disputes between autonomy and heteronomy, swinging between some European cynicism, well-informed of the terms of a problem all too discussed, abused, and the very different positions that come from Africa and Latin America, which the European outlook usually interprets as naive, whereas, a result as they are of societies in which the sandwich between tribal traditions and digital horizons is very intense, they probably can only be understood in a Blochian key.
However, if you choose to look at these contributions not in their singularity, but for what they really are, that is, pieces of a dialogue, then things change; then even those seemingly minimal side movements from the individual 'clichés' clearly become the beginnings of a new discourse. That, in responding to what poetry could do for peace, a great writer of haiku like Ban'ya Natshuishi has the audacity to question the meaning that nature has in that canon, or even that Bas Kwakman, despite telling us of being raised in a tradition of "poetry that speaks to itself," says today that he does not want, nor is he able to stay out of the world, are signs of great importance in their alluding to a new advancing dynamic, which tell us that a new exploration, a new mapping of the territory, is now in place.
And for finding your bearings here, in uncharted territory 'ubi sunt leones,' poets start yet again from the voice, the voice of their dialogue and their performing during the festival, at every festival, namely from their bringing poetry back where it has, after all, always been: in time, in the body, in sound, in the 'chorus', in their 'durations' and their 'matters'.
What happened, in short, is that poetry is again talking about poetry, rather than about poets, and its relationship with the world; it happened that, in order to be back within the community, poets have decided to establish a a new community.
Poetry which wants to return to the world, meanwhile, has made itself poetry-world.
In the age of new migration, which we hear about from Rorvik, in the age of mature capitalism, by now on the verge of collapse – which uses language as a most refined weapon of exploitation and violence, as recounted by the Revista Prometeo report – poetry, migrant art par excellence, has gone back to migrating. Towards the other from oneself, that is, finally, to its own roots.
From this point of view, what was discussed in Medellin was not whether poetry ought to go back to being 'committed' or not, but rather what ought to be, today, the 'politics' which poetry must implement to be again present in society, to return, in short, to being itself; what ought to be its new 'forms,' the forms of its communicating, but also the forms of its' thinking' the world and its 'thinking in the world': one did not discuss political poetry, but rather the 'politics of poetry'.
Poetry, involving the community in itself, is, somehow, always political, "the political nature of poetry always resides in its specific context" (Wolfart).
And this is the actual, great, significant news that comes from Medellin, and it is not by coincidence that it should be coming from a meeting of festival directors – those places where, at the expiration of the century, poetry has finally come back to be uttered – but rather it is somehow an allegory of all that was discussed.
It is in festivals that poetry has taken the floor again and it is starting from festivals, from the encounter of different languages, that it now wants to try and reflect on how to be, here and now, how to speak again, here and now, because here and now, poetry has finally regained its memory and it can therefore start imagining a future.
Lello Voce is cofounder WPM poet and representative of International Poetry Festival RomaPoesía (Italy) and Absolute Poetry (Italy)
January 4th, 2012