Saturday, September 26, 2009
The more personal a poem is, more likely it is to be political
"The more personal a poem is, more likely it is to be political." So writes the poet Rukmini Bhaya Nair, in her new book, Poetry in a Time of Terror. She writes as a postcolonial woman poet situated in Delhi, the daughter of a Goan mother and Bengali father who fell in love with English, which she calls "the forbidden language."
From her vantage point, North American squabbles would seem close to indecipherable, most notably the wrenching away from "sincerity," "sentimentality," and "the confessional," not that I believe the rubrics are useful in any way myself.
Here are a few paragraphs that remind us of another perspective:
"Now recognized as one of China's major poets, [Bei Dao] recently told a rapt audience in Delhi of how the generation which grew up during the Cultural Revolution faced a cultural crisis perhaps unknown before 'in this history of the contemporary world.' During those years, the realm of the personal was simply not allowed expression in Chinese literature. Love, jealousy, or personal rage were banished from the poetic scene. Language was terrorized into a kind of banal submission.
Chairman Mao, himself a poet, decreed what literature was all about, and his edict was that it was public feelings such as pride in China's greatness and hope for the future that should occupy China's writers. Poetry was not to be about ordinary human desire. But, by then, Bei Dao and his friends had learnt about Western literature - of the poetry of Celan and Baudelaire, and the plays of Lorca - in translation. They had fallen in love with the intensely private nature of these modernist masterpieces and their own poetry had changed as a result.
Ironically, the ruckus around being arrested for editing the rebellious Today magazine only made things easier for Bei Dao and his friends. Their works were seized but the secret police had no idea what this poetry was all about. It was superbly unfamiliar, preternaturally strange - a coded manifesto of defiance. But for the people of China this poetry of personal angst was thrilling. It expressed a wondrous resistance to terrors of the state - it gave back to them their ordinary lives."
The most interesting thing she advocates is rejecting the idea that female sexuality is to be identified with an exploration of the female body and the female psyche; rather, she says that - the personal being the political - female sexuality "is about crossing dangerously into sexual areas marked by social taboos," including those associated with writing poems.
This is a fascinating book about how poetry can fight "those two great historical foes of free speech: colonial meanness and postcolonial meaninglessness;" about how it's not only possible, but vitally important in an age of terror, to adopt a more "distributive or connectionist view of aesthetics."
Labels: poetry and the personal