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When Poets Die: An Excess of Politicization and an No Politics

When Poets Die: An Excess of Politicization and an No Politics

Monday, 28 June, 2021 - 10:30

With the Lebanese Saeed Akl and the Iraqi Saadi Youssef, as with the many other poets who passed away between the two’s passing, the same scenario is repeated: As soon as a poet, a novelist, or an artist leaves our world, we see the emergence of satire and eulogies that are, in most cases, primarily driven by politics. The “profession” itself is rarely brought up, and when it is referred to, it is usually preceded by a “despite”: despite being a poet, he is a traitor or deviant. Or, conversely, despite what his rivals have said about him, here is further proof of his magnificence or ingenuity. This is in the best of cases when there is a concern for the person as a poet. In the worst of cases, them being a poet is totally denied.

Thus, eulogies become glorifications and reminders of situations that eulogists adore, just as satire becomes defamation and a reminder of situations that satirists despise. In other words, the deceased turns into a pretext and the death into a new occasion to express old positions.

Theoretically, we must distinguish between the two, especially since the life of the poet as a poet and the artist as an artist differ from their lives as individuals. They may intersect, but they never coincide. In the first case, the focus is on the experience, style, form, and the work’s place in the history of poetry in general or in the poetic history of the deceased’s country. In the second case, the focus is on actions, positions and mannerisms.

Also theoretically: If we no longer separate between the two dimensions, politicizing everything becomes an imminent threat and the politicization of everything a shortcut on the path to barbarism. Even if the poet is a fascist, like the American Ezra Pound, or a communist, like the Chilean Pablo Neruda, their political and ideological rivals ought to address them along those two parallel lines: as a poet on the one hand and as a human being on the other.

Even if they have said or done terrible things in their rivals’ view, this should be put aside in their assessments of the poetry, though looking into how their lives impacted their poetry, or poetry’s impact on their lives- if either of the two causal links can be established- is always valid.

But what makes this theoretical assertion resemble preachy and patronizing lecturing that falls on deaf ears?

In all likelihood, this is because reality itself politicizes everything to the point of barbarism, civil wars and extreme violence, while, on the other hand, it confiscates politics and bans it. It is the formula of combining maximal politicization with less than minimal politics.

So, it is reality, and not “our culture,” that leaves no room for a criterion besides this savage criterion, especially when the poet in question is an obvious political foe, or ally, because of his political, sectarian and racist views or direct incitement to repression, murder and destruction. As for the grievances concerning “our culture,” they are only tenable when the focus is on its complicity in shaping this grim reality. Poets, as we know, are known for the sharpness with which they express themselves, which spurs demand for their works to the same extent that it makes them easily understood. In barbaric situations, that which is popular and that which is easy become synonymous. The Iraqi poet Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati was aware of this fact and acted upon it when he wrote the following about his enemies: ‘‘We’ll make ashtrays out of their skulls.’’

Peter Sluglet, who studied Iraq, its parties and conflicts, has noted that poetry had more influence on the Iraqi Communist Party’s environment than the writings of the communist leaders like Fahd and Salam Adel, which were more like vulgar translations of Stalin’s works and Soviet propaganda.

The easy’s identification with the desired is what leaves only a few who want the poet as a poet and not as an “advocate for his tribe,” as the famous Jahiliya era phrase goes. Pure poetry is rarely in demand.

The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, the “poet of the cause,” which is described as the consensus cause, was himself insulted when he shifted from his poem “Write down, I am an Arab” and wrote poetry. Even the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, who was protected by his disassociation from controversial issues, had insults hurled at him on the few occasions in which he approached those issues. Who remembers his poem “Bread, Hashish and the Moon” and the complications it created in the fifties, or those of his “Margins on the Notebook of Al-Naksa” in the late sixties?

But isn’t it difficult to ask the prisoners, the displaced, and the sons of and fathers of the murdered to distinguish between the poet and the human being? To abide by this theoretical assumption?

The misery of our reality is what makes viewing poets, before anything else, as either allies or enemies. Only pedanticism and cruelty can lead us to expect pure poetry in an environment shaped by the munificence of politicization and the stinginess of politics, an environment surrounded by the brutality that repels civility and is strong enough to lure many poets.

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