Poets versus Dictators (Issue 91)

The daily norms which two years ago most people took for granted have mutated yet again. Most starkly for Ukrainians under fire, but for us all as we wake – still in our beds, still with heating, water, a roof over our heads – but with foreboding. As relief agencies call for bandages, painkillers, first aid kits, torches, tents, gloves, toothbrushes, sanitary towels, bedding, Cup-a-soups, nappies, incontinence pads, toys and talismen, the scenarios in which life might hinge on any one of these don’t bear thinking about, but writers will, as a way of doing something: of not watching yet another news bulletin but stepping out of their own comfortable worlds into the hell of others.

That hell has never been so visible, unfolding in real time, if we choose, in the palm of our hands. To watch and do nothing makes us spectators, and since words are not affected by inflation, we reach for them, as we seek out the items above. To respond in words is an activity, and may constitute activism, but in full democracies (6.4% of the world’s population in 2021, according to The Economist) it isn’t risking one’s life. If it were, which of us would do it?

Stalin’s persecution of dissident writers to their deaths is well documented. Clive James characterised Nadezhda Mandelstam’s account Hope Against Hope (1970) as ‘more about horror as a way of life than as an interruption to normal expectancy’. Irina Ratushinskaya, Susanna Chavez Castillo, Jack Mapanje and Wole Soyinka are among hundreds since, known and unknown, punished for warning against repressive states. Last summer Narendra Modi’s goverment vilified Parul Khakar for her poem lamenting its Covid response. In the same month, Belarusian poet Stsiapan Latypau picked up a pen in court and stabbed himself in the neck with it, in protest against state terror, repression and torture. He was sentenced to eight and a half years.

As Miklós Radnóti wrote, on the way to his murder in 1944, “I write, what else can I do? A poem is dangerous, / and if you only knew how one whimsical, delicate line, / even that takes courage…” Along with imprisoned professionals of all kinds, poets always feature on Amnesty’s ‘Write for Rights’ list, there being no clearer indication of poetry’s power than dictators’ fear of it.

And no, there isn’t much humour in this conclusion. But there is some in the pages that follow. Love must go on.

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