Poetry International Poetry International

Guest Curator: Marjolijn van Heemstra

The role of politics in poetry
April 23, 2015
I’ve always been envious of the poets who are not afraid to reflect on concrete political problems in their work. In my last poetry collection, Meer hoef dan voet (More hoof than foot), I tried to address certain social and political issues, but I found it very difficult – in the first place, because writing about concrete problems and events requires an explicitness that seems hard to match with the ambiguity a poem requires. Also, I am not quite sure myself about the necessary relationship between poetry and politics. Does a poet have some sort of inherent political responsibility? Or is poetry such a completely different realm that the poet should not even attempt to interfere with current events? Perhaps, but then wouldn’t poetry lose its teeth and become too harmless, innocuous? A house-and-garden, kitchen verse for a small group of insiders?
‘Poetry is for those who would not read it’, writes Indian poet Nilmani Phookan. He appeals to the political responsibility of the poet, and one could append to his statement: ‘for the wounds in their hearts’. Although I still think bringing together current events and poetry is no easy task, I am more and more inclined to agree with Phookan.

I don’t mean to say that poets can only restrict their verses to the issues of the day, but it wouldn’t hurt them to recognize the potential political impact of poetry. And in the Netherlands, that happens little. Far too little, I think.

But beyond the Netherlands, it appears to me to happen much more, especially from reading the poems found in Poetry International’s archive. A beautiful example is ‘The child that was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga’ by Ingrid Jonker. It is penetrating and clear. I read that Nelson Mandela quoted this poem in his first speech to the new South African parliament in 1994, which is an enormous compliment to the poet, the work and to poetry in general.

Another powerful example does come from closer to home: ‘Protective state’, from Alfred Schaffer. In this poem, he demonstrates in a simple manner the total absurdity of a system based largely on fear of an unknown other, of the potential terrorist. I love his tone, the understated humor and the original form.

‘A note from the war in Kosovo’ by Henrik Nordbrandt is a poem I would have liked to have written. I read in it powerlessness, our inability to come to grips with the disasters we humans have caused. It is layered and ambiguous while simultaneously, through the title, explicit.

We might compare this poem to ‘In my spare time’, by Fadhil al-Azzawi, which is a bit more accessible and less ambiguous, but also poignant through the longing that speaks out from it – the longing of the writer/poet to better the world.

The Chinese poet Yi Shao employs a very different tone. With a cool, businesslike voice, he describes how things work at the embassy where he hopes to get a visa to America. In ‘Refused a visa at the US embassy’, he deals with large issues such as fear, inequality between East and West, power and its arbitrariness, but he does so in an almost detached way. It’s a factual report, no more, no less. And that is precisely what makes the poem gripping.

Marjolijn van Heemstra is a poet, theater-maker affiliated with the Ro Theater in Rotterdam and columnist for the Dutch newspaper Trouw. Her debut poetry collection, Als Mozes had doorgevraagd (As Moses was asked), was published in 2010; it was nominated for the C. Buddingh’ Prize and won the Jo Peters Prize. In 2010, she published her first novel, De laatste Aedema (The last Aedema). In 2014, De Bezige Bij published her second poetry collection, Meer hoef dan voet (More hoof than foot). 
© Marjolijn van Heemstra
Translator: Mia You
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