reThe ictators know the power of the word. Many of them wrote poems – Stalin, Mao and Radovan Karadžić (whose work was published in a Slovak magazine). Saddam Hussein donated worms to the American soldiers who guarded him in his later years. Other dictators have tried it, but have mostly been inspired. Pol Pot recited Verlaine. Mussolini worshiped Gabriele d’Annunzio. Still others have banned poetry from their republics. After the death of Augusto Pinochet, it was discovered that he had one of the largest libraries in Latin America, with more books than the number of people he had tortured; poetry and fiction, however, were negligible. Regardless of their poetic affiliations, dictators sense the danger of poetry, which is why poets in their regimes are regularly imprisoned, tortured, killed or forced into exile.
In 1964, 23-year-old Joseph Brodsky was tried in Leningrad for social parasitism. During this period in the Soviet Union, all able-bodied adults were required to work until retirement. During two hearings recorded by Frida Vigdorova, a judge harangues Brodsky; tells him to stand up straight, watch the court, stop taking notes. The judge doesn’t seem to believe Brodsky when he says, “It’s work to write poems. He wants to know what Brodsky’s regular job is, can he support his family with this income, how is it useful to the homeland? Time and time again, the judge refers to his “so-called poems”. “Why do you say my poems are so-called poems? Brodsky asks. “Because we have no other impression of them,” replied the judge.
Reading the transcript, it seems that Brodsky bristles more with the rejection of his poems as “so-called” than with the label “parasitic.” Poets are sensitive and criticism can be severe. A British publisher wrote Gertrude Stein a rejection letter parodying her style: “Being one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one epoch, having only only one life, I can not read your MS. three or four times. Not even once.
Gujarati poet Parul Khakhar recently received a similar denigration of his now viral poem “Shav-vahini Ganga” (Ganges, the Carrier of Corpses), in an editorial published in a government-funded newspaper. He describes his work as “unnecessary anguish expressed in a state of agitation,” then: “Such people want to quickly wreak havoc in India… they have thrown themselves into literature with bad intentions. Khakhar’s poem is a 14-line lament for the deaths during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in India. She writes how there is no more room in the crematoria, how India is running out of carriers, mourners, tears. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, is not addressed directly, but the accusation is implicit: “O king, this whole city has finally seen your true face /… king, in your Ram-Rajya, do you see bodies sinking? in the Ganges?
Khakhar is said to have written the poem because she was bowled over by the sight of corpses floating in India’s most sacred river. In April, the government decided to bring forward the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela which takes place every 12 years because the astrological setup for 2021 was deemed more auspicious. More than nine million pilgrims flocked to the Ganges, most of them unmasked, creating the biggest super-propagator event in the history of the pandemic. Since early May, heavy rains have washed hundreds of corpses wrapped in saffron cloth on the banks of the river, some dug in shallow graves by dogs.
Khakhar’s poem and the ensuing editorial titled “No, this is not a poem, this is the abuse of a ‘poem’ for anarchy,” divided the Indian artistic community. Some questioned Khakhar’s sudden foray into politics, others said the poem was not a masterpiece. More than 150 people signed a statement asking the magazine to withdraw its editorial, stressing the right to debate contemporary issues through poetry as an important part of a healthy democracy. Khakhar, who has been relentlessly trolled for being “anti-national” and a “demon,” locked her Facebook profile and refused interview requests, choosing instead to respond with a new poem: “You Shall Not Speak.”
The question of knowing what makes a poem a poem is something to which the whole history of literary criticism has not yet been able to answer. Because a poet’s entire career can be judged on a single poem floating around on social media, it’s easy to overturn it. The late Adam Zagajewski, in his essay “Against poetry”, writes about the uselessness of poets like Shelley writing defenses of poetry (which his own essay, of course, also becomes). “Poets live like defenders of a besieged citadel, checking to see if the enemy is approaching and where he comes from,” he wrote. “It is not a healthy lifestyle.”
Zagajewski believed that there were two purposes of lyric poetry. The first is the need to shape our interior life; the second is to be on the lookout for history, to stand guard “in the square in front of the presidential palace, reflecting on the progressive or rapid metamorphoses of our civilization”. He admits that poets are not above suspicion: “Why did Brecht serve Stalin?” Why did Neruda adore him? Why did Gottfried Benn trust Hitler for several months?
“The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain one person,” Czesław Miłosz tells us in “Ars Poetica? “. Khakhar went from being an enthusiast of Modi to calling him an emperor without clothes. Brecht’s support for Stalin’s show trials is unforgivable, but that hasn’t stopped us from quoting him over and over again during this pandemic about how in dark times there will be songs about dark times. Poems don’t kill people. Dictators do it. But poetry brings us closer to death, asks us to bear witness, to take stock.
Some poets even tell us about the beyond of death. Miklós Radnóti wrote his last poems before walking in a Hungarian forest in 1944. He was shot in the head and his body was later exhumed from a mass grave, identified by the papers he carried – card of civil identity, baptismal certificate, letters and a small notebook with his poems. “I’m writing, what else can I do? A poem is dangerous, / and if only you knew how a whimsical and delicate verse, / even that takes courage … “
Khakhar’s poem has been called “unnecessary inducement”, but poetry has always been about digging up. Whether it is the “squat pen” of Seamus Heaney digging his ancestral bogs, or Faiz Ahmed Faiz digging diamonds at all the summits “for spilled blood, for gardens laid bare”, or Mahmoud Darwish dreaming of peace, “coming back to dig up the garden / plant all the crops that we will plant”, or Paul Celan digging with black earth under his fingernails, digging in time, in history, “O you dig and I dig, and I dig towards you.
All this digging is dangerous. Nâzım Hikmet has spent almost two-thirds of his adult life in prison and exile. Federico García Lorca was assassinated by fascists for daring to write about the carnage in Franco’s Spain. Wole Soyinka was accused of conspiring with Biafran rebels and imprisoned in solitary confinement for two years without reading or writing documents. The recent appeal of incarcerated poets is long and varied – Dareen Tatour, Tran Duc Thach, Stella Nyanzi, Ahnaf Jazeem, Varavara Rao, İlhan Çomak, Ashraf Fayadh. Myanmar’s latest military coup jailed over 30 poets and killed four. Uyghur poets continue to be held in Chinese internment camps. The Russian secret service has been suspected of attempting to poison a poet, and in Iran poets have been flogged for “spreading propaganda” and “insulting the sacred”. All this state terror culminates in one image for me: Belarusian activist Stepan Latypov stabbing himself in the neck with a pen during his trial in Minsk.
Modi is also a poet. In 2014, he published A travel, which one critic described as poignant, the speaker of the poems “a genuinely sympathetic figure”, although lonely – “Is there a companion to share / These emotions that build behind the padlocked door.” Modi certainly seems adrift. Since the second wave of Covid in India, he has only emerged twice to address the nation. Official figures at the time of writing put the death toll at 393,338, although the New York Times reports a worst-case scenario closer to 4.2 million. Under Modi’s leadership, sedition indictments jumped 165% and cases of the blatant illegal activities (prevention) law, which is deployed to target anyone critical of the government, increased by 33%. India is already ranked the most dangerous country in the world for women, and has just climbed the ranking of the most dangerous places for journalists. Poets and artists follow closely.
Two weeks ago, the Caravan magazine published a series of letters written by PhD students and activists Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, held for over a year in Delhi’s Tihar Prison for riots and attempted murder. Their letters, to the collective of women to which they belong, travel from hope to rage to resistance to love. They write about their inmates, the hours they are allowed out of their quarters, the ongoing farmers’ protests, the coming of the seasons – “Those fiery red flowers must burst through the city skyscrapers?” I would call them postcard poems, but does it matter? The right to dissent is worth any number of so-called poems.
Charles Simic’s poem “Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators” offers us a series of grainy snapshots. Horse-drawn trams, women with umbrellas, infants in sailor costumes posing for the camera in gardens of modest white-fenced houses – “Adorable little cups smiling faintly into the new century.” Innocent. Why not? “The poem turns quickly and devastatingly with a quivering wind of premonition. After squinting at the stars, they are” carried to bed by their mothers and big sisters, / While the dogs stayed: / Des bloodhound pregnant bitches ”.
I come back to Brodsky’s mistrust during his trial, and I think maybe, yes, the poet is a parasite after all. A flea that attaches itself to the bloodhound, irritates it by spreading the news of its atrocities, clings tenaciously to its skin, causes discomfort, even its fall. I think of the poet Anna Akhmatova, standing for 17 months in a line outside a Leningrad prison during Yezhov’s terror to see her son. How one day a woman hearing his name asked in a whisper, “Can you describe this?” Akhmatova saying: “I can.”