On the connection between poetry and freedom
By Thomas Wohlfahrt *
Speech to the World Meeting of Directors of International Poetry Festivals
- A poem is primarily responsible to itself as a work of art made of language. Anything else is polemical tub-thumping or opinion but at any rate not a poem as a work of art.
- This is also true in societies in which there is censorship. Karl Krauss, a famous early 20th Century Austrian satirist, once said that criticism that the censors understand should be forbidden, meaning that all the critical potential should be smuggled in as it were between the lines, that it is therefore ambiguous in that its subversive content is completely clear but can at the same time be presented to the censors as ‘politically harmless’. It is thoroughly possible for a poem about Spring, love or the rain to be highly political without any ‘political’ message being explicitly addressed at the surface of the poem. The political nature of poetry is always in its specific context.
- The material of poetry is language. Thus, a poem also has a communicative effect and is a strategy of communication. It usually aims at a way of understanding (with deliberate misunderstanding, fooling around and language games explicitly included). By normally using a different language register or language in different formatting, a poem is able to a high degree to elucidate, because a specific situation or set of facts will suddenly, when put into different language, take on a different appearance and reveal dimensions which open up possibilities for quite new and other ways of being. This can be highly political.
- As the art of language, poetry can preserve language and create language, and its political effect can be especially perceived when the language used by politicians and the media lies, when the officially-used language is therefore dead and bereft of its most important functions, which are to provide information and to illuminate reality and make it vivid, tangible and mutable through the language in which it is depicted.
- Shakespeare was well aware that the best society is the one that needs no heroes. Poems which on the surface call for something or demand change, which therefore have an appellative character, may be well and good and even important as agitprop, but are not necessarily good poems, even if they get their makers thrown into prison or even killed.
- But there are always exceptions, and every kind of poetry happens within its own linguistic and social historical context, which is different for a German poet than for an Arab, Russian, Ghanaian, Chinese, Columbian or indigenous poet. It makes a big difference whether poetry originates more from an oral culture or a written one.
- Poetry is based on language. Every language has its own historical grammar that preserves the cultural experiences of its speakers and which pre-organises every new poem. What does it mean if in German the moon is masculine and the sun feminine but exactly the opposite is the case in Italian, or if Estonian has no grammatical gender? What does it mean if something is expressed in an active voice in one language that happens in the passive in another? There can only be such a thing as globalised poetry if its extremely wide range of diversity is acknowledged and recognised and valued as part of the richness of being human. This is why www.lyrikline.org, the large archive of contemporary poetry kept by my institution, works with partner organisations in nearly fifty countries which independently curate the poetry of their own home countries and thus organise an international poetic exchange, which is at the same time always a comparative one.
- Good poetry, in the aesthetic sense, can always be written by people with whom one wishes as a human being to have nothing to do. The equation good person equals aesthetically good cannot be guaranteed any more than its reverse. Poetry is, to be certain, language taken to its furthest extent, but not everything that is formed from language is poetry.
- A poem cannot make peace happen. Only at very rare historical moments is it possible for poetry to provide the soundtrack of language, tone and rhythm for revolutionary masses, as has recently happened with the poet El General and his rap poem ‘Rais Lebled’ – ‘Head of State’ – that became one of the battle hymns of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia.
- I think that poetry and peace have most to do with each other when a poem which is excellent in an aesthetic sense, a work of art, comes across as ideology-free as possible and makes humanity possible by creating a space for opportunities for humanity to emerge or identifies in an artistic way when and by whom it is being hindered or prevented. The material for this is always language, language that is moulded and shaped artistically, language that leaves the soul of the things it deals with intact or gives it to them. This means that good poetry can always be an expression of a high humanism, even when it is dealing with the smallest matters of everyday life; but it does not have to be. Peace can also mean freedom from such a utilitarian or teleological purpose.
* Head of the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin and the poesiefestival Berlin
Julio 1º de 2011