Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Metaphysical Blanket of Poppies

Either I must blog the sections of things I read online, in order to be able to retrieve things when I want, or I must return to copying out things in my notebook. What I read had to do with this question that everybody erupts with once in a while, which is: does poetry matter? For the life of me, I can't summarise what the writer said in response (which demonstrates that the 'how' is as important as the 'what').

I've been following what's happening in Egypt, hard on the heels of Tunisia, and here are a bunch of links related to poetry in the midst of the uprisings.

1. Amardeep Singh on the role of poetry in Tunisia and Egypt

"To the Tyrants of the World" was recited on the streets during the protests in Tunisia, and it is now being recited in Cairo and Alexandria by the millions who have taken to the streets to demand democratic reforms and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. One line whose meaning comes across with unmistakable force in even this rather basic translation comes near the end: "Who grows thorns will reap wounds." [Would it be even stronger as "He who grows thorns will reap wounds"?]

2. [Via Amardeep] Elliott Colla's The Poetry of Revolt

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.

Consider the most prominent slogan being chanted today by thousands of people in Tahrir Square: “Ish-sha‘b/yu-rîd/is-qât/in-ni-zâm.” Rendered into English, it might read, “The People want the regime to fall”—but that would not begin to translate the power this simple and complex couplet-slogan has in its context. There are real poetic reasons why this has emerged as a central slogan. For instance, unlike the more ironic—humorous or bitter—slogans, this one is sincere and states it all perfectly clearly. Likewise, the register of this couplet straddles colloquial Egyptian and standard media Arabic—and it is thus readily understandable to the massive Arab audiences who are watching and listening. And finally, like all the other couplet-slogans being shouted, this has a regular metrical and stress pattern (in this case: short-LONG, short-LONG, short-LONG, short-SHORT-LONG). While unlike most others, this particular couplet is not rhymed, it can be sung and shouted by thousands of people in a unified, clear cadence—and that seems to be a key factor in why it works so well.

The prosody of the revolt suggests that there is more at stake in these couplet-slogans than the creation and distillation of a purely semantic meaning. For one thing, the act of singing and shouting with large groups of fellow citizens has created a certain and palpable sense of community that had not existed before. And the knowledge that one belongs to a movement bound by a positive collective ethos is powerful in its own right—especially in the face of a regime that has always sought to morally denigrate all political opposition. Likewise, the act of singing invective that satirizes feared public figures has an immediate impact that cannot be cannot be explained in terms of language, for learning to laugh at one’s oppressor is a key part of unlearning fear. Indeed, witnesses to the revolt have consistently commented that in the early hours of the revolt—when invective was most ascendant—protesters began to lose their fear.

3. Martin Espada, The Meaning of the Shovel (which I found while googling this translation* of that portion of Neruda's poem generally known as 'I Explain A Few Things', from the longer 'Spain In Our Hearts)

In the documentary film about the Lincoln Brigade called “The Good Fight,” Abe Osheroff, with characteristic honesty, wonders aloud if the fight can ever be won.  “We fought the Good Fight,” he says. “And we lost.”

I have also heard him say that we do not fight the Good Fight because we know the fight will be won. We fight the Good Fight because it is the right thing to do, because our lives will be immeasurably richer for it.

The same holds true for the poetry of the Good Fight. We write these poems because we must, regardless of consequences. We are driven to create a record of human suffering—and resistance to suffering--without the luxury of measuring our impact on the world, which cannot be weighed, measured or otherwise quantified. We do not write such poems because we necessarily believe that our side will win, and that conditions will change; we write them because there is an ethical compulsion to do so.  Whitman, again, said it: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.”

(Hmm. Echoes of Anouilh there, no?)

4. From 'The Republic of Poetry' Martin Estrada

The Republic of Poetry
                   For Chile
In the republic of poetry,
a train full of poets
rolls south in the rain
as plum trees rock
and horses kick the air,
and village bands
parade down the aisle
with trumpets, with bowler hats,
followed by the president
of the republic,
shaking every hand.
In the republic of poetry,
monks print verses about the night
on boxes of monastery chocolate,
kitchens  in restaurants
use odes for recipes
from eel to artichoke,
and poets eat for free.
In the republic of poetry,
poets read to the baboons
at the zoo, and all the primates,
poets and baboons alike, scream for joy.
In the republic of poetry,
poets rent a helicopter
to bombard the national palace
with poems on bookmarks,
and everyone in the courtyard
rushes to grab a poem
fluttering from the sky,
blinded by weeping.
In the republic of poetry,
the guard at the airport
will not allow you to leave the country
until you declaim a poem for her
and she says Ah! Beautiful.
5.* 'I Explain A Few Things' Pablo Neruda

You will ask: And where are the lilacs?

And the metaphysical blanket of poppies?

And the rain that often struck

your words, filling them

with holes and birds? 

I am going to tell you all that is happening to me.


I lived in a quarter

of Madrid, with bells,

with clocks, with trees.


From there you could see

the lean face of Spain

like an ocean of leather.


                             My house was called

the house of flowers, because it was bursting

everywhere with geraniums: it was

a fine house

with dogs and children.

                             Raúl, do you remember?

Do you remember, Rafael?

                             Federico, do you remember

under the ground,

do you remember my house with balconies where

June light smothered the flowers in your mouth?

                             Brother, brother!



was great shouting, salty goods,

heaps of throbbing bread,

markets of my Argüelles quarter with its statue

like a pale inkwell among the haddock:

the olive oil reached the ladles,

a deep throbbing

of feet and hands filled the streets,

meters, liters, sharp

essence of life,

                   fish piled up,

pattern of roofs with cold sun where

the weathervane grows weary,

frenzied fine ivory of potatoes,

tomatoes, more tomatoes, all the way to the sea.


And one morning it was all burning,

and one morning the fires

came out of the earth

devouring people,

and from then on fire,

gunpowder from then on,

and from then on blood.


Bandits with airplanes and with Moors,

bandits with rings and duchesses,

bandits with black-robed friars blessing

came through the air to kill children,

and through the streets the blood of children

ran simply, like children’s blood.


Jackals that the jackal would spurn,

stones that the dry thistle would bite spitting,

vipers that vipers would abominate!


Facing you I have seen the blood

of Spain rise up

to drown you in a single wave

of pride and knives!




look at my dead house,

look at Spain broken;

but from each dead house comes burning metal

instead of flowers,

but from each hollow of Spain

Spain comes forth,

but from each dead child comes a gun with eyes,

but from each crime are born bullets

that will one day seek out in you

the site of the heart.


You will ask: why does your poetry

not speak to us of sleep, of the leaves,

of the great volcanoes of your native land?


Come and see the blood in the streets,

come and see

the blood in the streets,

come and see the blood

in the streets!




1 comment:

dipali said...

Oh my God. So powerful and so moving.