“I don’t believe that poetry can change the world. Those who create real evil do not read poems.”
A few days ago, one of our poets Irit Amiel posted the above photo quote on her Facebook wall.
I reposted the picture, and it garnered a good few likes. And approving comments.
Which got me thinking.
Is Szymborska’s bon mot true? Is poetry useless when it comes to influencing the course of world history? Does it not impact on tangible reality at all?
I am not a poet. I quit publishing it years ago. I only now and again dabble in its translation. And yet something in me, something absolutely unstoppable, rages against such thinking.
Obama. Many people, some I know personally, think he is evil (for Guantanamo, for Syria, for TTIP, and so on). Not many people know, however, that each year he held a special reading from the US’ best poets at the White House. If in doubt, YouTube it. Incredible stuff.
What about the Bible he was sworn in on and its inherent poetics? No world leader, good or evil, ever read that?
And good old David Cameron? Evil as hell in my book, and yet he publicly names Dylan, Radiohead and The Smiths as his fave songsmiths. If their work is not poetry set to music, I don’t know what is.
Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature long before Wisława, and you’re telling me he never did nothing evil nor touched poetry? Google “The Complete Poems of Sir Winston Churchill” for more correction…
William Blake. Charles Baudelaire. Alexandr Pushkin… You’re telling me not a single tyrant or warlord ever read them?
Szymborska’s statement has that glorious ring of original truth to it, even if so much evidence points to it being false. And yet, for all of the above, who will history side with?
I do love much of her work, but I worry when I think of her legacy. She called winning the Nobel Prize for Literature her “Stockholm Disaster”*, and yet her name is now attached to the most lucrative prize in world poetry. Is this right? The sums? The banquets, the applause, the trees cut down to print more pages, if poetry changes NOTHING?
I detest most modern verse, and always say – I have to read 99 forgettable poems in order to find one which is worth living for. And yet that maths is misleading – that single golden nugget is worth a thousand worthless pebbles, publications, prizes.
And so I must ask the metaphorical question – so what, if poetry like some beat up old timer, polishing tarnished medals, barely able to recall any real glory days? Or is there still any fight left in the old pen?
Something is ending in the world. The 21st century will be make or break for our species. Quantum technologies, nano machinery, ecological disasters all loom loud and clear. These are new phenomena. Poetry has to evolve with them, if it is to have any further right to exist. Some will yet write fine verses. Few, as ever, will challenge reality at any sort of profound level.
To those that use fine words to take on the might of corporations, of tyrants, of dead gods, I say – write and prove false prophets wrong. Write and stop us being damned. Write, and write hard.
Marek Kazmierski, founding editor