Last week, I added six new poems to the bilingual collection called “Poems for…one world.” All the new poems were Burmese, our fifty-first language.
Remember that Burmese is a language whose speakers are themselves presently learning to be free again, to speak freely.
Is this an event of only literary or artistic interest ? I think not. To a degree, poetry is mostly itself when it is experienced outside the bookshop poetry section, or magazine, or summer arts festival. Clear of those enclaves, it truly sings and circulates and the word “political” can start to apply. In some circumstances, poetry can become a significant political event which changes perceptions and orientation, changes how the wheels turn.
These poems from Myanmar are political in the most obvious sense. For instance, the first is by Zargana, a prominent politician there. His short poem was written from prison. His sentence as a political prisoner was set to be a long one, but he was recently freed in an anmesty. His poem has been translated by the ex-ambassador of the UK embassy in Rangoon, Vicky Bowman.
(In fact, quite a few of the “Poems for…one world” collection were written in gaol, or about gaol. By definition, poetry is free speech, whether or not it is heard, whether or not the poet is incarcerated. Our mental health, our power to endure, relies on our speaking freely, even when there is only a wall to scratch our words on).
But I think these poems are political in a less obvious sense, as well. People download the “Poems for…” collections from all over the world. The vast majority of them are school teachers, planning to use the poems in their classrooms. Next most numerous, are librarians. After that, healthcare professionals, planning to display the poems in their waiting rooms.
The Burmese language is rarely seen or heard outside its own borders. And for years it has not been freely spoken within those borders, either. Now it will be read all over the world, not just by scholars and specialists, but by all of us. Just knowing that, will have more meaning than the merely “literary” to the people of Myanmar.
Finally and more generally, I would suggest another way in which poetry becomes “political.” More and more, and with more and more practiced expertise, we are bombarded with language which seeks to seduce, lull, obscure, sell, sugar and deceive. Such communication is an all-pervasive pollutant, fear-filled, contemptuous and undemocratic. Those who use words, and our sophisticated communication systems, just to manipulate, are corrupting our language, making nonsense of it and threatening the trust upon which our community relies. We in the West say smugly that we enjoy “free speech,” but all too often what we are describing is not free speech at all. Rather, it is poisonous propaganda deployed by mercenaries of one sort or another, attempting to persuade us to follow their dogma, to surrender to their paymaster.
Good poetry speaks without armour to the right hand side of the brain as well as to the left hand. It seeks you out where you reside, where only the whole truth is told and where true connection can be made. Purely as a contrast and antidote to the prevailing poisonous mercenary chatter, it offers an anchorage on the one hand, a platform of political integrity on the other.