Madeleine Davies

In praise of poetry

In Uncategorized on December 17, 2015 at 2:44 pm

WHEN World Poetry Day was established, in 1999, UNESCO declared that poetry could meet the world’s “unfulfilled aesthetic needs”. It was the means by which young people could “return to their roots” and “look into themselves at a time when the outside world is irresistibly luring them away from themselves”. UNESCO saw signs of a “shift in society towards the recognition of ancestral values” and “a return to the oral tradition”. Finally, it hoped that the day would “offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities”.

Fifteen years on, the 21st March passed with little fanfare. One newspaper published a collection of the funniest tweets about the day. Others ignored it altogether. In Britain, sales of poetry appear to be in terminal decline. Last year, Jeremy Paxman, a judge for the Forward prize for poetry, accused poetry of having “connived at its own irrelevance” and suggested that poets, guilty of only “talking to other poets”, should be hauled before an “inquisition” to explain themselves.

Yet overseas, and particularly in the Middle East, poetry retains its power to move, agitate and disturb. This year, Amnesty International held an event promoted as “Poetry under attack”, as a protest against the 15-year prison term handed down to Mohammed al-Ajami in Qatar after he wrote a poem criticising the country’s ruler. In the New Year, the Sudanese Writers Union was once again shut down, after it extended an invite to the Moroccan poet, Mohammed Bennis (one of those who called for the creation of World Poetry Day). “They don’t want gatherings, that is all,” the Union’s executive director Mamoun Eltlib told Al Jazeera. “They don’t want the people to meet”. Whether on the streets of Khartoum or in the bars hosting “slams” in Chicago, poetry is a spoken medium designed for an audience. It is a magnet, drawing crowds in search of voices that will articulate their passions and challenge authority.

Even when it is curated in the mainstream, poetry has a way of pushing at boundaries. In the Gulf, the TV show Million’s Poet attracts 70 million viewers, who tune in to find out which amateur poet will won the $1.3 million prize. The programme, regarded by some as the equivalent of Britain’s X Factor, has revitalised Bedouin Nabati poetry, the means by which the memory and traditions of a nomadic culture have been passed down through the generations. The latest series saw Ali Sultan, a young poet from Oman discuss the concept of Jihad. He had been inspired after losing a friend in the Syrian war. Although direct confrontation is unlikely to be permitted, the show allows gentle dissent, perhaps as a means of boosting ratings. In 2010, Hessa Hilall became the first woman to reach the finals, braving death threats in order to appear. Her poem The Chaos of Fatwas offered a bold critique of the edicts issued by clerics.

In her message to mark this year’s World Poetry Day, the director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, described the power of poetry as “the power of imagination to brighten reality, to inspire our thoughts with something more inventive than dismay”. But perhaps what the world needs is not a gloss on its ills, but a wake-up call. Leaders at the recent UN Climate Summit in New York were moved to tears by the performance of the Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. Dear Matafele Peinem, addressed to her seven-month-year old daughter, imagines what might happen if the lagoon continues to “gnaw at the shoreline” and “crunch your island’s shattered bones”. It received a standing ovation. The aid agency Oxfam has used poems by a young Syrian refugee, Reema, to draw attention to the plight faced by a huge displaced population whose troubles no longer seem to move donors.

What of UNESCO’s final goal – the preservation of endangered languages? At a first glance, little progress has been made. The latest UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, published in 2010, lists 2500 in danger of extinction. It is estimated that a language “dies” every 14 days, and that about half of the world’s 7000 tongues may disappear by the end of the century.

Yet here, too, poets are at work. The American poet Bob Holman, a long-time champion of the spoken word, including hip-hop, has just released a documentary sounding the alarm on the consequences of losing languages. Language Matters, produced with the film-maker David Grubin, documents his visits to Australia, Hawaii and Wales, where the tide is being turned. Welsh has been removed from the endangered language list. At a recent address to students at Central Washington University, Holman made a compelling case for preservation, arguing that “Poetry is the essence of language. And language is the essence of what it is to be human.”

In part, the loss of languages is attributable to the rise of the internet, which is dominated by a relatively small number of languages. A study by a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, published last year, found that, of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.

But technology is also being harnessed to protect and sustain languages, particularly those – of which they are many – with no written form. Enduring Voices, an alliance between the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the National Geographic Society, has produced “talking online dictionaries” for languages including Tuvan, a Turkic language of Siberia. It also supports indigenous language activists to produce resources for their communities, including iPhone applications. The Enduring Voices Youtube channel shows visits to “language hotspots” and recordings of some of the last speakers of rare tongues.

“There may be nothing more delicate than a poem,” said Ms Bokova in her message for World Poetry Day. “Yet, it expresses all of the power of the human mind, and so there is nothing more resilient.” Armed with technology, poets and scientists are joining forces to ensure that we gain access to many minds, not just those that share our mother tongue.

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