In a post-truth world, poets can be superheroes. We have special powers to illuminate the truth, and prick the bubbles of lazy fiction. We can bend words to say the right thing.
This week, ‘post-truth’ was declared international word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. I like new words, so I doff my cap to folks like Oxford-educated Michael Gove, former Education minister, who managed to spin the word ‘expert’ into an insult. And to Donald Trump, whose airy assertions have swept away any sense of proportion or of being achievable: “I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively…”
But its only poetry right? It’s totally ineffectual and harmless
There’s an Eyoreish English view on all this that galls me. Here’s the nutshell: “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making” . Auden wrote this in his poem “In Memory of W.B.Yeats”. Confusingly, he wrote it about a man who sparked a nation’s literary renaissance, transformed the way people thought about Ireland, became an Irish senator and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Makes nothing happen. Really?
Oppressive regimes must firmly believe poetry can make things happen. Poets have been locked up in droves over the years. People like Osip Mandelstam, Wole Soyinka or now Ashraf Fayadh – accused of inciting atheism in his book Instructions Within.
Poetry changes hearts and minds, it allows people the ability to experiment with new ways of thinking
For example, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aimé Césaire, thought something might happen. They set up the literary review L’Étudiant Noir in Paris in the 1930s, birthing a surrealism-inflected poetic movement Négritude which took ownership of blackness in literature, and gave black poets a strong new voice. Senghor went on to become the First President of Senegal, and Césaire became the highly influential mayor of Martinique’s Fort de France. I’d call that something.
So if poetry can make things happen, what should we do?
I see an opportunity for poetry in a world where pernicious myths are taking hold, where toxic, half-witted fictions about people’s differences are taking root.
We live in a time when words are being weaponised to forge terrible myths. Luckily, poets understand myth and fiction, poets understand rhetoric and how to manipulate words. This is not the time for poetry to become despondent. We need to fight back with what we have, our words. We need to stretch our minds to imagine new pathways around the challenges to come. We have to remind everyone that despite the efforts of politicians to incite a hateful focus on people’s differences, humanity is universal.
This post-truth time should never be accepted, or normalised. It is not normal. Employing dog whistle racism is never okay. Humiliating the disabled is never okay. Litigimising mysogeny and violence towards women is never okay. Hatred towards LGBT or transgender people is never okay. And anyone who voted for a candidate or cause, who decided that, although distasteful, they could live with any of the above needs to take a good hard look at themselves.
Time to climb off my virtual soapbox. One last thought…
Where politicians build walls, poetry builds bridges.