In Praise of Poets
Poets have given their lives for different reasons. Cinna the poet was killed by a Roman mob because they mistook him for Cinna the Conspirator, one of those behind the murder of Julius Caesar. The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca was executed by a firing squad of six pro-Franco thugs who murdered hundreds of suspected leftwingers in the summer of 1936 during the early stages of the Spanish Civil War. Four prominent Jewish poets were part of the thirteen prominent Jewish writers and cultural leaders who were executed on false charges of espionage and treason in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow on August 12, 1952. The Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal of Iran found the popular poet Hashem Shaabani and 13 other people guilty of “waging war on God” and promoting “corruption on earth”. All these people were hanged on 27 January, 2014.
Shaabani sums up the madness in his poem, “Seven Reasons Why I Should Die”-
For seven days they shouted at me:
You are waging war on Allah!
Saturday, because you are an Arab!
Sunday, well, you are from Ahvaz
Monday, remember you are Iranian
Tuesday: You mock the sacred Revolution
Wednesday, didn’t you raise your voice for others?
Thursday, you are a poet and a bard
Friday: You’re a man, isn’t that enough to die?”
Not all poets who espouse social causes and speak against injustice are necessarily murdered. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote love poems as well as angry poems, but was loved, revered as an artist as well as a politician. Here’s an example of his verse, “The Dictators” –
An odor has remained among the sugarcane:
a mixture of blood and body, a penetrating á
petal that brings nausea.
Between the coconut palms the graves are full
of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles.
The delicate dictator is talking
with top hats, gold braid, and collars.
The tiny palace gleams like a watch
and the rapid laughs with gloves on
cross the corridors at times
and join the dead voices
and the blue mouths freshly buried.
The weeping cannot be seen, like a plant
whose seeds fall endlessly on the earth,
whose large blind leaves grow even without light.
Hatred has grown scale on scale,
blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp,
with a snout full of ooze and silence
Neruda’s protégé, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz also won love and adulation through his poetry even though, in abandoning unthinking Communist dogma, Octavio drove a wedge between himself and many members of the Mexican intelligentsia. They viewed Octavio Paz as betraying the goals of the Left. Václav Havel, the Czech poet, wrote great poetry and was also a great political leader. In “It is I Who Must Begin” he writes –
It is I who must begin.
Once I begin, once I try —
here and now,
right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and
but all the more persistently
— to live in harmony
with the “voice of Being,” as I
understand it within myself
— as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.
Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.
Make what you will of Havel’s words. But, for all injustices inflicted on poets and artists over the ages, there are moments of redemption for humanity. This morning, a beautiful Alberta morning in Canada, I woke up to choral music coming from the Vatican, celebrating the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II. It was to me one such moment of redemption. John XXIII and John Paul II were great human beings, now saints of the Catholic Church. But John Paul II was also a gifted poet. For me, and I hope for poets everywhere, he is also a poet who achieved sainthood. A poet saint for all ages! I end today with an excerpt from the poetry collection of Pope John Paul II, “Roman Triptych: Meditations” published in Rome in 2003:
I stand at the entrance to the Sistine –
Perhaps all this could be said more simply
in the language of the “Book of Genesis”.
But the Book awaits the image –
And rightly so. It was waiting for its Michelangelo.
The One who created “saw” – saw that “it was good”.
“He saw,” and so the Book awaited the fruit of “vision”.
O all you who see, come –
I am calling you, all “beholders” in every age.
I am calling you, Michelangelo!
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They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,