Abani, Akhamatova, Neruda, Whitman, Breytenbach, Wisconsin, Egypt   Leave a comment

Poets of Conscience

The first poet laureate of San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, gives this definition of poetry. “Poetry is perpetual revolt against silence, exile, and cunning,” and this description of a poet “The poet is a subversive barbarian at the city gates constantly challenging our status quo.”

Poets, our canaries in the coalmines, warn us of injustice, danger, some die speaking up for the people. Our own American favorite Walt Whitman walked from  New York state to the south during the Civil War. He was in search of his brother whom Whitman feared was wounded based on a list of published names of  injured soldiers. One was listed as Whitmore and Walt Whitman feared it might have been a misspelling of Whitman. His wallet was stolen on the way so he could not pay to ride and walked the long distance until he found his brother who had a superficial wound. The impact of the wounded soldiers, so many with missing limbs, caused Whitman to volunteer as a nurse for the injured. He later wrote two books about the experience giving all readers the non-glorified version of war. Whitman wrote,” I have at night watch’d by the side of a sick man in the hospital, one who could not live many hours. I have seen his eyes flash and burn as he recurr’d to the cruelties on his surrender’d brother, and mutilations of the corpse afterward.”

Russian poet Anna Akhamatova was born in an upper class family in 1889, but her father thought poetry was decadent and so she wrote under her maternal grandmother’s last name. The Russian people loved Akhamotova’s work. The Bolsheviks executed Akhamatova’s first husband, and her second husband died in a Siberian labor camp in 1953. Her association with her first husband, even though they were divorced before his arrest, caused an unofficial ban on her poetry from 1925 until 1940. After World War II, the ban on her work was official but it did not deter the adoration of her people towards her poetry. Her son was arrested in 1949 and not released from jail until 1956. Throughout all of this she continued to write enduring the artistic repression, and today we have her reactions to the horrors of the Stalinist Terror in a book called Poem Without a Hero” and “Requiem” which was not published in its entirety in Russia until 1987.  From Requiem: “I remember them always and everywhere/And if they shut my tormented mouth/ Through which a hundred million of my people cry/Let them remember me also…

One of the best-known poets of conscience, Pablo Neruda, led a fascinating life that intertwined with artists, activists, and leaders worldwide. He  worked as Chilean consul in Burma, Ceylon and Java, in Spain during the civil war and in Mexico, and as a senator for the Chilean people. Neruda, a Communist, was exiled from his senate seat and from his country. He  escaped by horseback in 1949 over the Andes then to Europe. His exile from his homeland lasted until 1952. The movie Il Postino portrays his time living in Capri with his love, Matilde, and was the time he wrote his exquisite love poems about her. Neruda’s passion to give voice for his people’s rights grew stronger in 1936 after his friend and poet Ferderico Garcia Lorca was murdered while Neruda waited at a sporting event for his friend. Lorca’s death was three days before the Spanish Civil War broke out. He was killed by the Nationalist militia. Neruda won the Nobel Prize in 1971 for literature. In his memoirs, he wrote, “Perhaps the poet has always had the same obligations throughout history. It has been poetry’s distinction to go out into the street, to take part in this or that combat. The poet didn’t scare off when they said he was a rebel. Poetry is rebellion. The poet was not offended when he was called subversive. Life transcends all structures, and there are new rules of conduct for the soul. The seed sprouts anywhere, all ideas are exotic, we wait for enormous changes every day, we live through the mutation of human order avidly; spring is rebellious.”

The poet Breyten Breytenbach born near Cape Town, Africa studied in Paris in the early 1960s and married a French woman of Vietnamese descent. Marrying someone of a different race was illegal in Africa and he was denied entrance back to his homeland. Breytenbach also a painter and activist founded a group that fought apartheid. He returned to South Africa illegally and was arrested and spent seven years in prison for high treason. Released in 1982 after an intensive international intervention he returned to Paris. His book “The True Confessions of an Albion Terrorist” describes the years of his imprisonment.

In 1985, Nigerian poet/writer Chris Abani then 16 years old wrote his first novel and two years later was in prison for writing the book, which told the fictional story of a political coup.  The Nigerian government said his novel was a threat to national security and imprisoned him. After his release from prison six months later, he acted in a theatre group that performed plays with themes of social injustice. For this he was placed in prison again and tortured. When he led a riot after his 14-year-old cellmate was tortured and died, Abani was placed on death row. Due to the influence and work of human rights groups he was released from prison.  Abani now makes his home in Los Angeles where he is currently a Middleton Fellow at USC and teaches in the graduate writing program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. His poem about his 14-year-old cellmate is painted on a wall in the city of Leiden, The Netherlands. The title is “Ode to Joy.”

Harold Pinter, English playwright and 2005 Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, said of Abani  “Chris Abani’s poems seem to me to be totally naked. In no way are they pitying, never for a moment self-indulgent. They’re economic, spare, concrete and precise, and truly alarming. They also express a profound and very tough compassion for all the people he saw die, all the people he saw mutilated around him. The other point here is that although the poems are precise and specific, they definitely refer to a universal state of affairs which is, of course, man’s inhumanity to man. These are not simply documentary facts, they are coherent and harmonious pieces of work, I admire this very much.”

Poets throughout history have used their words to fight for the end of minor injustices to brutality inflicted on their people.  Expression takes many forms. It cries out in images and sounds that unveil the pain and solidarity of the poor, the disenfranchised and the idiocy of policies that do not aid the people written by those voted in to represent those same people. Amazing poetry pours from the poets of Egypt and no doubt the people of Wisconsin are writing songs and poems tonight.


Posted March 1, 2011 by strongjacksonpoet54 in Uncategorized

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