Friday, June 29, 2007

Nail Bomb in the Haymarket, Poetry at the SBC

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to slouching behind your newspapers on the tube ... a car bomb packed with nails and explosives, which miraculously failed to detonate, is parked up outside a crowded night-club in the Haymarket.

We are no longer quite so afraid of the power-crazed politician with his finger on the nuclear button. This is the age of the suicide bomber, of the ultimate weapon against mankind: the human mind, utterly convinced of its own rightness and prepared to destroy itself in order to annoint that belief in human blood.

Today is the first day of the London Literature Festival at the South Bank Centre. Over the next few weeks, thousands of people in London will be attending literary events, readings and performances, or engaging in creative and literary activities not merely at the SBC but everywhere around the capital, as our daily fascination with the arts continues.

A few questions come to mind here. What does art or literature achieve in the face of the suicide bomber? What is its role except as a form of therapy for the survivors or the loved ones of the dead? Should poetry address that merciless desire for violence and its shocking aftermath? And is there still a place in the creative arts for political comment, or is it now just a cosy retreat for the politically apathetic or for those who feel art is tainted by any exposure, however fleeting or apparently necessary, with 'the real world'?

We've been discussing something similar to this fraught topic on the Poets on Fire forums recently, finally agreeing to disagree on whether it's possible to depict violence and cruelty in the lyric poem without losing the poetic integrity of the form ... without appearing to be celebrating violence and cruelty, in other words.

But when threats like this become a part of our daily lives, what is the poem for if it cannot address the issues surrounding the use of violence, or deal with the reality of cruelty and human carnage?

This dilemma reminds me of the London debate I heard last year on Poetry and Climate Change - a very one-sided debate, where two of the panel were unable to attend at the last minute and were not replaced. At that debate, the only speaker left, John Burnside, dismissed the concept of the political poem as an aesthetic non-starter and insisted that any action against climate change would have to take place another way. Members of the audience were barely able to challenge that attitude before the debate was brought to a swift and premature close.

So no activism to be allowed in poetry. No climate change. No violence. No cruelty. No ... you supply the rest.

But if there is no longer any place for the political poem in today's literary climate, poetry has become a dog with no teeth and should be put down at once. Humanely, of course. And without elegies.

No comments: