Poetry and Power

It’s something like a universal truth that in times of governmental repression and institutionalized violence poetry becomes an enemy of the state. Consider Anna Akhmatova’s situation in Stalinist Russia: after being identified as a “bourgeois element,” her poetry was banned from publication for fifteen years (1925-1940). Wole Soyinka, the great African poet and activist, was driven from his native Nigeria during the Abacha dictatorship for his honest criticism of “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it.” Even in the United States, a country that prides itself on protecting the freedom of speech, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was banned for “obscenity” during the militant and sexually prudish Eisenhower era (apparently Ike’s crew-cut crew at customs didn’t care for Allen’s admission that he and his friends had “let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy”). The list could go on indefinitely, but the pattern is always the same: oppressive governments move to silence the voice of poetry.

But why should this be the case? Why are those who desire absolute power so terrified of an art that, in Auden’s famous phrase, makes nothing happen?

A more contemporary example may shed light on the question. Consider the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic poet Jalallddin Rumi, whose work (though growing in popularity in the West) has fallen out of favor in contemporary Afghanistan. According to Professor Abdulah Rohen, “the advent of communism in Afghanistan brought poetry into disfavour because it was seen as backward-looking.” Later, when the Taliban rose to power, “they attempted to crush Sufism and outlawed all music.” Despite their ideological differences, what these two oppressive governments shared in common was a strong distaste for Rumi. Clearly, this Rumi is a nefarious character; he dares to make dangerous assertions like:

Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,

absentminded. Someone sober

will worry about things going badly.

Let the lover be.

Rumi’s poetry, centrally concerned with the intimate relationship between the soul (as lover) and God (the beloved), is dangerous to all forms of institutionalized cruelty because its message is one of unity, love, understanding, and wonder. He speaks from the heart and strives, through poetry, to give voice to his desire for oneness (the loss of the grasping ego in divine love). But ideologues find it difficult to manipulate the “disgraceful, crazy, absentminded” lover, so Rumi – like Akhmatova, Soyinka, and Ginsberg – is declared an enemy of the state.

This is why fascists of all stripes fear poetry. Poetry is a direct expression of human desire; as such, it is diametrically opposed to the objectives of the repressive state. Therefore poetry, even at its most personal, is always already political. While totalitarian governments survive through misinformation, fear-mongering, and force, true poetry is an act of love: an expression of human desire which inspires love and compassion in others. The best poetry makes us “disgraceful, crazy, absentminded” – that is to say, drunk with the wonder of existence. And this means that even the simplest lyric of love is a political act. So long as power perpetuates itself through division and repression, poetry will oppose it by appealing to what we all have in common: mortality, longing, pain, compassion. To modify a statement by the Buddhist philosopher D.T. Suzuki, “Where power is, poetry is not. Where poetry is, power is not.”

In the context of an American poetry scene that is often troubled by the question, “Can poetry matter?” these meditations suggest an obvious answer: It already does.