Hi all - glad to be the guest blogger for this week and in fact writing this first entry on the last day of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference where I was poetry faculty for the last few days. Beyond the cowboys, the Teton Mountains and the wandering pronghorn elk, there was also a lot of writing and talk about writing taking place. Yesterday I was the leader of one of these sessions with poet Laurie Kutchins and our subject was Uprising: the Role of Poetry in Revolution.
We began the session by sharing the good news that after 80 days in prison, Chinese dissident artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei had been freed. Unfortunately he refused to speak publically and shut down his Twitter account. Mr. Ai is the son of the famous modern Chinese poet Ai Qing, who like his son was an outspoken critic of the regime. As a result, he spent time interned in labor camps and was censored by the authorities. It's with bated breath we wait to hear Mr. Ai speak openly and freely again. As he famously carved on one of his artworks, "Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just the barbaric one."
Keeping him in mind, we read one of the foremost Misty poets, Bei Dao and his poem "Wintering" in a translation by Tao Naikan and Simon Patton. The poem begins:
Waking up: the northern pine forest—
The urgent drum beats of the earth
The alcohol of sunlights stored in the tree trunks
Is stirring the ice of darkness
As the heart and the wolf pack howl to each other
As poet Michael Palmer has said about his work, "Bei Dao has followed a path of resistance that abjures overt political rhetoric while simultaneously keeping faith with his passionate belief in social reform and freedom of the creative imagination." We get that sense in this poem, which is rich in imagery of the natural world, seeded with the poignancy of its decline. One of the members of the workshop wondered if Bei Dao might have been familiar with Sylvia Plath's poem "Wintering" (I think not), which has a similar mood, "This is the room I have never been in/ This is the room I could never breathe in/ The black bunched in there like a bat."
The next poet we looked at was Saadi Youssef, one of the most important poets of the Arab world and someone else who spent time imprisioned in Iraq and laer in exile for his outspoken beliefs. He has also translated many writers into Arabic, such as Walt Whitman, Federico Garcia Lorca, Wole Soyinka, V.S. Napaul and George Orwell. We read his poem "America, America," a remarkably prescient love song and elegy for Iraq and America simultaenously. The poem is an apostrophe to America and in some of the most revealing lines, celebrates the country even as it criticizes US foreign policy:
let us exchange your gifts.
Take your smuggled cigarettes
and give us potatoes.
Take James Bond’s golden pistol
and give us Marilyn Monroe’s giggle.
Take the heroin syringe under the tree
and give us vaccines.
Take your blueprints for model penitentiaries
and give us village homes.
Take the books of your missionaries
and give us paper for poems to defame you.
Take what you do not have
and give us what we have.
Take the stripes of your flag
and give us the stars.
Take the Afghani Mujahideen’s beard
and give us Walt Whitman’s beard filled with butterflies.
Take Saddam Hussain
and give us Abraham Lincoln
or give us no one.
This poem by Youssef seemed to us the perfect example of Uprising in poetry because it agitates against imperialism and in so doing, generates a new aesthetic form. The poem incorporates snippets of the blues, interweaves memory with ideology, uses anaphora and allusions to Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg to create a kind of lyrical pastiche that when read aloud has the power to move us far beyond a television program or a news story.
Other poets came to mind as well, from Anna Akhmatova to Diana DiPrima, and what seems to connect these disparate voices is an attention to the way language can mobilize a people and create a form of protest that distills human emotion in an universal way. Most recently we saw this in the slogans being chanted by thousands of Egyptian protestors Tahrir Square.
As Elliot Colla has written in his piece, "The Poetry of Revolt":
"This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising—it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself….The poetry of this revolt is not reducible to a text that can be read and translated in words, for it is also an act in and of itself. That is, the couplet-slogans being sung and chanted by protesters do more than reiterate complaints and aspirations that have been communicated in other media. This poetry has the power to express messages that could not be articulated in other forms, as well as to sharpen demands with ever keener edges."
Clearly poetry still retains its primal power to connect us to one another and to stand firm in the face of those forces that would conspire to silence us. And that is what poetry, as uprising, can deliver; really any generative act, any creation of something from nothing, any risk that renders us vulnerable, is a kind of uprising and in our own work, we can work against what is most facile to come up with something deeper and more significant. As a vehicle for revolt, whether political or aesthetic, I can't think of anything more dynamic than the expressive power of poetry.