Friday, 8 August 2014

Should Poetry Exist After Gaza?

I am still doubtful whether thinking OUT LOUD helps at all in an issue that is already much discussed all over the news media. I sense a lot of distancing from the part of people who claim to be philosophers/thinkers/writers whenever the word Gaza is mentioned. I respect their personal decisions and would never point a finger at anyone who chooses to stay away from certain debates. In fact, I would respect people who speak only when they feel convinced that speaking is inevitable. Gaza brings forth some uncomfortable issues related to the extent to which it is talked about. When we see and hear too much, we tend to turn suspicious of the politics behind it. While journalistic debates revolve around the politics of it for obvious reasons, those who don't have many reasons to be involved in the political, regional and religious aspects of it are worried whether their statements would sound harsh or insensitive to some ears. Many assume that silence is the best solution here. Where do we place arts and literature in this context?

My previous posts dealt with the way the issue is represented in a novel and a few films, and one post made clear some of my own views regarding the whole affair. Here, my attempt is to draw your attention to the role poetry plays in the Gaza affair. Hamid Dabashi's well researched write up on the topic here, which came out yesterday in the Al Jazeera web page will be of interest to many of you who are willing to spend some quality time reading. His arguments derive from a well known view of the culture critic Theodor Adorno, better known for breaking quite a handful of sacred idols in commonly/superstitiously perceived notions of arts and literature in relation to culture. Dabashi opens his arguments by referring to the Adorno quote: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today." The parallels and paradoxes that come out of this, when placed next to the Gaza situation, is explored in an erudite manner by Dabashi. He draws attention to the fact that the word 'Auschwitz' sounds and feels so much like 'Gaza' now.

Moving on to the real state of affairs, one could see that the exact opposite to what Adorno said and hoped for is the case now. You see a barrage of thoughts on the issue , wherever you turn to - TV, radio, social media, YouTube, blogs - and many of them are in 'poetic' forms. I agree that social media has liberated us from traditional views on poetry, though my reaction to it is mixed. While I wouldn't dictate terms to anyone who wants to be a poet in her/his own terms, I am a bit worried about the reluctance of many new writers to take time to read, and understand a bit, about the medium in which they aspire to express themselves. Many literary groups request their members to refrain from posting their doggerel five times a day on the pages' wall. I understand the temptation to share whatever you think and write with the world, now that the task is made too easy. It thrills every one of us when someone shows interest in what we think, what we express artistically. Gaza seems to have let out numerous rivulets of poetic thought. But if you work further on that cliched line of thought, would you see them enriching the rivers and oceans of poetry, or contaminating them? I'll just leave that an open question to you readers. 

Dabashi thinks out loud what the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish would have done in these times, if he were still alive: "He would have either committed suicide like the magnificent Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi who did so in protest against the brutish Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, or he would respond with his poetry" (Dabashi). The way the act of writing poetry is juxtaposed to an extreme act of sacrifice for a cause looked very interesting to me, just like the way the statements by Plato and W. H. Auden that are quite often mindlessly used by the detractors of poetry. The irony in Auden's misquoted line "poetry makes nothing happen" is lost on those who fail to place it in its context. And what poetry makes happen is the concern of those who follow Plato's advice and want it to be banned in modern democracies and other forms of governance. But Dabashi's worry focuses around the power of Gaza to contaminate our thoughts, quite similar to the fear I expressed in my post on Children Who Live, With No Choices. Are we ready to acknowledge the fact that by the simple act of living through a carnage helplessly, we also allow us to be transformed by it? Do we see the ways in which our thoughts are contaminated by our ability to look at a situation and dissect it mindlessly, in ways that are ultimately beneficial to us? It should be a case for serious introspection to all those who try to express their views through their chosen medium of (artistic) expression.

Darwish himself has tried earlier to contain some of his thoughts on the issue in poetry. In Silence For Gaza, which appears like a poem in prose in the translations I have seen, he raises these pertinent points: 

Gaza is far from its relatives and close to its enemies, because whenever Gaza explodes, it becomes an island and it never stops exploding. It scratched the enemy’s face, broke his dreams and stopped his satisfaction with time.

Because in Gaza time is something different.

Because in Gaza time is not a neutral element.

It does not compel people to cool contemplation, but rather to explosion and a collision with reality.

Time there does not take children from childhood to old age, but rather makes them men in their first confrontation with the enemy.

Time in Gaza is not relaxation, but storming the burning noon. Because in Gaza values are different, different, different.

The only value for the occupied is the extent of his resistance to occupation. That is the only competition there. Gaza has been addicted to knowing this cruel, noble value. It did not learn it from books, hasty school seminars, loud propaganda megaphones, or songs. It learned it through experience alone and through work that is not done for advertisement and image.


The 'full' version of this is available here, and as it turns out, an even fuller version is available here, though I thought some of the poetry is lost in translation.

I would like to share two other poems that appealed to me for their genuine concerns in the issue and the willingness to address the extent to which our existence is transformed in many ways including the contamination of thoughts/perspectives. 

Here is a poem titled 'Gaza' by the Indian poet Sudeep Sen, published here in The Hindu (August 3, 2014). Sen is a poet whom I admire for the extreme care he takes in the choice and juxtaposition of words and thought patterns. I have read many other poems by him that weave a complex web of thought, but this one in tercets is simpler and direct when compared to them,for obvious reasons. I felt that there was a pull in the subconscious level to make it accessible to readers around the world, regardless of their ability to appreciate the specific form in which it is written, or the poetic devices employed in it. I felt it could also work the way Darwish's 'Identity Card' works in many school/college/university classrooms. I will leave the poem here for your appreciation and responses:


~ By Sudeep Sen

Soaked in blood, children,
their heads blown out
even before they are formed.

Gauze, gauze, more gauze —
interminable lengths
not long enough to soak

 all the blood in Gaza.
A river of blood flowing,
flooding the desert sands

with incarnadine hate.
An endless lava stream,
a wellspring red river

on an otherwise
parched-orphaned land,
bombed every five minutes

to strip Gaza of whatever 
is left of the Gaza strip.
With sullied hands

of innocent children, 
we strip ourselves 
of all dignity and grace.

Look at the bodies 
of the little ones killed — 
their scarred faces smile,

their vacant eyes stare 
with no malice
at the futility of all

the blood that is spilt.
And even as we refuse
to learn from the wasted

deaths of these children, 
their parents, country,
world — weep blood. Stop

the blood-bath — heed, heal.

And here is another poem that drew me in with its chilling account of details -  'Running Orders' by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. For a poem that has come out immediately after the carnage in July, this exposed me to a genuine insider's voice that I believe could make a difference in the coming years in the poetic world. It was published in Vox Populi here

Running Orders

~ by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

In July 2014, before the Israeli military would fire at a structure in Gaza, they would send a warning “bomb” to let the Palestinian residents know they had less than a moment before the next bigger bomb. They called this “roof knocking”.

They call us now.
before they drop the bombs.
The phone rings
and someone who knows my first name
calls and says in perfect Arabic
“This is David.”
And in my stupor of sonic booms and glass
shattering symphonies
still smashing around in my head
I think “Do I know any Davids in Gaza?”
They call us not to say
You have 58 seconds from the end of this
Your house is next.
They think of it as some kind of
war time courtesy.
It doesn’t matter that
There is nowhere to run to.
It means nothing that the borders are closed
and your papers are worthless
and mark you only for a life sentence
in this prison by the sea
and the alleyways are narrow
and there are more human lives
packed one against the other
more than any other place on earth.
Just run.
We aren’t trying to kill you.
It doesn’t matter that
you can’t call us back to tell us
the people we claim to want aren’t in your
that there’s no one here
except you and your children
who were cheering for Argentina
sharing the last loaf of bread for this week
counting candles left in case the power goes
It doesn’t matter that you have children.
You live in the wrong place.
and now is your chance to run
to nowhere.
It doesn’t matter
that 58 seconds isn’t long enough
to find your wedding album
or your son’s favorite blanket
or your daughter’s almost completed college application.
or your shoes
or to gather everyone in the house.
It doesn’t matter what you had planned.
It doesn’t matter who you are.
Prove you’re human.
Prove you stand on two legs.

I leave the question 'Should Poetry Exist After Gaza' for your instrospection. I hope the poems I shared here give you an idea of the kind of poetry I believe in, for my own reasons. I wouldn't claim that I represent a majority. I haven't been able to write a poem on the issue yet, and I wouldn't consider it a necessity until I feel up to it, until I feel it is necessary that I speak up in that form.  

It is up to you to speak up or not, and to be aware of the various forces around you that affect your ideas. Some worry whether anyone else can speak for the Palestinians, forcing one to take the big Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak question, 'Can The Subaltern Speak?' and place it in this context. One may need to get rid of foolish notions about the burden of speaking for others, when there is no 'we' and 'they' in the larger context. The whole idea of the difficult act of speaking may have to be reflected upon constantly. 

If anyone decides to speak up these days, it has to be done after a lot of thinking. And rethinking. That applies a lot in the case of poetry.

Note: Please do feel free to post your poems and responses to the issues mentioned here. I am so glad to receive a couple of remarkable poems as responses, by the well known writers from Ireland, William Wall, and from Pakistan, Naseer Ahmed Nasir. They were kind enough to make them available below in the comments section.


    By: Naseer Ahmed Nasir

    Gaza's children
    Are playing
    With real life bullets and bombs.
    Giggling in the narrow lanes,
    Laughing and playing as they run,
    Between wall less houses and ageless eons.
    Confronting tanks,
    Turned into human shields.
    Upon the wild beasts made of iron and fire,
    With their tiny hands,
    Casting stones.
    Molding their flower, butterfly and bird-colored childhood,
    Into history of barbarity and terror for the hereafter.

    Gaza's children,
    Venture out with their school bags and books,
    Above them deadly war hawks cruise,
    Plunging down sporadically.
    And below the vultures salivate,
    Detecting odors of broken, fallen and bomb-blasted bodies.

    Gaza's children,
    Shredded into tiny pieces they still live,
    Looking for their severed limbs,
    Eyes torn out of their sockets,
    Tiny little hands still holding toys,
    Looking at their mothers.
    Broken cars, torn clothes and soccer balls,
    Burnt arms and legs, mutilated dolls,
    Shoes, laces and socks,
    Bloodied fetuses peeking out of wombs
    Which graves will conceive us now?
    Which school rolls will enlist our names?
    What world will have us as its citizens?
    Which paradise will embrace us?
    Holding torn pieces of our souls,
    Are we destined to return to this hell again?

  2. Thank you very much Naseer ji for sharing the thoughtful poem here. I hope readers enjoy it as much as the ones featured in the post.

  3. Here is another response from the well known Irish poet William Wall on my Facebook link. I reproduce it here with his permission:

    William Wall ~ I was thinking about the same question at an earlier time, Jose. These are the answers, if answers they can be called, that I came up with. The poem is from my last collection Ghost Estate.

    Figures of speech
    'To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, & that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.'
    Theodor Adorno, Prisms, 1955

    after abu ghraib he says
    for others it was auschwitz
    what can I say
    art is in the unimaginable

    & nevertheless necessary
    two sweet bodies lying down
    the sweat the smell

    sated or dead
    figures of speech
    we say what we're told
    the unsayable unsaid

    we sup together
    with a long spoon
    we put something by
    against the future

    clearly apprehended
    though the present is closed
    & call it love
    a kind of insurance

    where a no-claims-bonus
    costs you more
    against the grievous
    effigies of what we do

    chains of greed
    chains of fear
    rendered faithfully
    by standard & poor

    our sentimental indices
    our tectonic pain
    half lamentation
    half marching song

    our footfall
    is a rift in tenebræ
    a drowned city
    & all our gates

    are desolate
    still for tomorrow & today
    silence is not enough
    love is not enough