by Stuart Rees
21st September 2020

Faced with the prospect of carnage at the beginning of the Second World War, W.H. Auden advised: ‘We must love one another or die’.

To express hope at the height of the Stalin purges, the Russian Osip Madelshtam wrote ‘The people need poetry that will be their own secret, to keep them awake forever, and bathe them in the bright-haired wave of its breathing’.

When confronting questions for my book Cruelty or Humanity: Challenges, Opportunities and Responsibilities, poets gave me valuable ideas. For example, research usually begins with crafting significant questions, and the eccentric American poet Marianne Moore had responded to that task: ‘Blessed is the man who takes the risk of a decision, asks himself the question, “would it solve the problem” – is it right as I see it? Is it in the best interest of all?’

Percy Bysshe Shelley insisted that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He implied that such artists could imagine a common good and the route to achieve it, a journey which would require intellectual promiscuity by crossing discipline boundaries, ensuring that love and action, poetry and politics were not separated. Such promiscuity can be fun. It seeks inspiration from any source and suggests that courage is needed to take risks. To follow Robert Frost’s advice, ‘I took [the road] less travelled by and that has made all the difference’.

The claim that poets could change the world assumes an understanding of past wrongs and of issues usually ignored, such as the voices of refugees and migrants, though some are being heard in poetry. Sydney University postgraduate Amy Tong writes that poems by Vietnamese women, new migrants to the US and Australia, have been a powerful tool to highlight feelings and yearnings that are often buried in the dark reserves of these women’s bodies and minds. Amy summarises their themes: ‘We are fragmented shards, blown here by a war no-one wants to remember’.

Cries from Rohingya refugees marooned on the Cox’s Bazaar hillside in Bangladesh are also being expressed in poems. As Mayya Ali writes, ‘We need activism in our poems so we can tell the world about our suffering’. A Rohingya woman, Yasmin Ullah, finishes her poem Birth with the line ‘I am a Rohingya, I was born one of the forgotten, one of those the world doesn’t quite remember… There is more to being Rohingya than exodus.’

In research into public policy, the exercise of power remains a key issue and poets have often exposed the consequences of abusive power. At the beginning of the 20th century, A. E. Housman wrote about the persecution of marginalised groups:

The laws of God, the laws of man,
he may keep that will and can,
not I, let God and man decree
laws for themselves but not for me.

The American pacifist William Stafford identified a managerialist, militaristic use of power.

Sometimes commanders take us over
And they try to impose their whole universe,
How to succeed by daily calculation.
I can’t eat that bread.

In forecasts of economies for post-COVID-19 societies, commentators have speculated about ways to end free-market neoliberalism. In that respect, poets have already shown concern for the planet and respect for the vulnerable, in particular indigenous peoples. In Two Dreamtimes, Judith Wright, a white Australian and a champion environmentalist, spoke to her Aboriginal friend Oodgeroo Nunucaal:

I am born of the conquerors,
you of the persecuted.
raped by rum and an alien law,
progress and economics,

are you and I and a once-loved land
peopled by tribes and trees;
doomed by traders and stock-exchanges,
bought by faceless strangers.

Decades before that conversation, somehow foreshadowing the Black Lives Matter protests, Nunucaal wrote in Aboriginal Charter of Rights: ‘We need love not overlordship, grip of hand not whip hand wardship, opportunity that places, white and black on equal basis.’

Research into the trials and triumphs of human existence usually takes two steps. Carefully recorded observations are followed by identifying the connection between them, thereby producing patterns which might be tested. In my exploration of cruelty as the hub of states’ domestic and foreign policies, the insights of poets prompted investigation of patterns which showed state cruelty almost always aided by denial and deception.

Before Donald Trump and his minions spoke of alternative facts and described unpalatable truths as fake news, literary giants had identified deception by the high and mighty. From a long romantic poem Marmion, Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott wrote: ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive.’

In his Memoir, veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh concluded:

The powerful lie constantly about their predations
The natural instinct of the media is to let the powerful get away with it.

Of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 which successive Chinese governments claim did not occur, James Fenton wrote:

You must not speak, you must not think,
you must not dip your pen in ink
you must not say what happened then
what happened there in Tiananmen.

My poem Tell Me the Truth About War captures deceit about the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

A Coalition of the Willing declared war but did not explain why,
Or the reasons they gave were not the real reason
And something called a dodgy dossier
Became as smelly as the exam papers
Of a schoolboy who cheated.

Poets’ rainbow pictures of interdependence, of internationalism rather than go-it-alone selfishness, are another obvious fillip to spirits. Professor Bob White from the University of Western Australia recalls poet Maya Angelou’s A Brave and Startling Truth where she says that the same people ‘who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and dagger’ nevertheless have mouths from which may come songs of exquisite sweetness. This is the recognition, says White, to value and respect human existence as sacred.

In poets’ prescriptions to respect a common humanity, the language and practice of non-violence are common themes. Given that violence is so central to free market capitalism, let alone to warmongers’ fascination with the prospect of conflict with China, poets’ prescriptions should be heeded. Their wisdom contributes to research, and via visions of justice, could change the world.

Stuart Rees is author (2020) of Cruelty or Humanity, Challenges, Opportunities, Responsibilities


Cruelty or Humanity by Stuart Rees is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £15.99.

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