Hölderlin's question, ‘Why poets in times of misery?’, is one that comes up often in conversation between or about poets, poising between the tone of accusation and complacency. But were we to wait for a time of abundance and peace on the whole planet, would there be any poetry, singing or writing?
Bombarded by terrible news from the country where I was born, Brazil, or the country where I live, Germany, at times I too feel like hiding under the blanket and choosing total silence, from my head and the heads of others, since wouldn't it be better, like a Cistercian monk, not to add to the babbling? ‘I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths’, Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote in ‘Under one small star’. At the same time, wasn't song and poetry that which so often helped the imprisoned and enslaved to survive those empty hours of terrible, brutish work, as Paul Zumthor argues in his Oral poetry: An introduction, also speaking of the songs women of all times have sung by rivers, under clotheslines, also imprisoned, enslaved? We humans seem to be able to endure any disaster as long as we can sing about it, Zumthor also claimed.
Poems against the news, the news against poems. The news in poems. In ‘Asphodel, that greeny flower’, William Carlos Williams wrote: ‘It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there’. Then Carlos Drummond de Andrade comes to mind, writing in one of his most famous poems in Brazil: ‘Wars, famines, squabbles inside buildings / prove only that life goes on / and many people have yet to free themselves. / Some (the squeamish) find the spectacle barbaric / and would prefer to die. / A time has come when dying serves no purpose. / A time has come when life is an order. / Life, just life, without mystification’, in Richard Zenith's translation. Life – and in so many places, that's life amongst the bombs. And life goes on, resilient, persistent, as we see in Syrian writer Aboud Saeed's poems about his mother, about cigarettes, while his hometown Aleppo exists on the brink of an abyss. Amidst all the articles I read on the political situation surrounding Syria, his poems stand as reminders of life, of what is at stake there.
‘The end / will come / in its time. / Meanwhile / we are sick to death / of the bomb / and its childlike / insistence’, Williams writes in that same poem. In the movie We who here lie, for you await (1999), by Brazilian filmmaker Marcelo Masagão, the beauty in the midst of horror is the reminder that wars are not the makers of numbers and statistics, but, as one reviewer put it, the killer, among thousands, of ‘Mariko, who cooked amazing rice balls, and Takio Takano, who was a great postman’. Both lived in Hiroshima. Poets will remind us more of the fate of an individual than of a species. The ornithologist will observe a sparrow carefully in order to describe the Passer domesticus, but a poet will only give you news of that particular, individual bird. And yet both are said to seek the truth. History: so old and present. These are lines by CAConrad that I just read on Facebook: ‘Many are / haunted by / human cruelty through / the centuries / I am haunted by / our actions / since breakfast / you said too much poetry / I said too much war’.
For a few years now, when terrible news of a country reach me, I try to find out what the historical and political situation is there, but I also seek the country's living poets. Who will sing among the ruins? Who will bear witness? And when the demagogues rise up, who will try to keep delusions in check? This website has often helped me in that search for news beyond the news.
In the poverty imposed on Greece by those who should consider themselves their landspeople, the mythical Europeans, I looked here and found Kiki Dimoula's ‘The feast of Lazarus’, with her clarity of vision:
It grabs you by the ear and
dragging hurls you into the light.
You rejoice of course in the glare, I don’t disagree
but a worm the worry eats away inside you
perhaps the miracles are mortal.
As the news from Syria went from alarming to despairing, it wasn't consolation, but once again clarity I found in Nazih Abou Afach's ‘Burial address’:
the dead must wait their turn for burial.
The dead must be well behaved.
And if someone speaks of the authoritarian regime in China, its reeducations camps, the exile of so many, I think of Yang Lian, and his ‘1989’, and it gives shape, form, flesh to history for me:
embraced in the vagrancy of their final days
are the masters of forever
Violence, authority, exile – such geographical constants, historical recurrences. On the other side of the planet, in Mexico, a country I love so much, poet Dolores Dorantes also had to leave after denouncing the femicidal horrors of Ciudad Juárez. Those who read Roberto Bolaño's 2666 might partly know the extent of the horror. In one of the poems from Estilo, Dorantes writes:
Jen Hofer, her translator, begins the article dedicated to the poet on the website with the question, ‘What use is poetry in a war zone?’, bringing us back to the beginning of this text, and Hölderlin's question. And I am aware I quoted several living poets speaking of death. But as Benjamin warned us, if the enemy wins, not even the dead will be safe. An anecdote about W.H. Auden recounts how, when criticized by a lover for his lack of romanticism, he answered: ‘My dear, you want romance? Date a journalist’.
However, after reaching out to a few of my colleagues telling of the dead (We who here lie, for you await, the title of Marcelo Masagão's movie, comes from the inscription at the gate of a Brazilian cemetery), I would like to finish this small selection with a poet I discovered here, sadly already gone, but whose song still calls us to life, the South African poet Isabella Motadinyane and her ‘Hush babe’:
tick talk Mofokeng clan
we saw your works
are on the way
sister make them dizzy
make them giddy doll
they have arrived now
those who play sax for you
Ricardo Domeneck is a poet, short fiction writer and essayist, born in Bebedouro, Brazil, in 1977. He currently lives and works in Berlin, Germany. He has published six collections of poetry and has been translated into a number of languages, including Dutch and English. On Twitter: @RicardoDomeneck