One of the most striking aspects of a poetry festival is that opinions are voiced with unusual freedom. Language we hope belongs to every human. It lives by evolution, by being played with and by being hit at fresh angles. However, poetry’s capacity for the creation of illusion-as-truth, and the precision of its language, makes it doubly dangerous to authorities whose power depends on the formulation of illusions, and the debasement and twisting of language. Sinclair Lewis said,
‘Every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient and sterile’.
The word sterility here is precise; it connives with the dead hand of authority.
One of the gut instincts of government is control: seize the language and you control not only speech but also its contexts; the terms on which discussion is based; and the permissions and prohibitions of speech. Look at the manner in which war is presented by politicians and the media. Observe the terms for atrocity and killing tamed to acronyms and newspeak. War takes place ‘in theatre’; soldiers are ‘taken out’, ‘dropped’, as if killing a person was the action of usherettes removing a playgoer from the playhouse. Force-feeding illegal prisoners-of-war is ‘introducing internal nutrition to detainees’ as if they were wilful children. The poet C.D. Wright wrote that,
‘If you do not use language you are used by it. If you do not recognize the terms peacekeeper missile and preemptive strike as oxymorons, your hole has already been dug’.
Such language places what is described at several removes; it does not change the intolerable actuality. It tampers quite deliberately with our reaction to it, attempts to neutralize it. It infantilizes us in our complicity or passivity, and this is the intention and design: to deter or deflect our humane objections by dampening our emotional responses. Poets are the antennae for language, designers of speech, and we need to be alert to language’s abuse and debasement.
Political regimes, even regimes whose ideologies oppose each other, have found cause to target poets, writers and intellectuals, to bend them to the will of their ideologies, to use writers as apologists or celebrants of dogma. Should writers prove un-cooperative, they are, at best, humiliated publicly, exiled, marginalized, and silenced, say, by banning publication.
At worst, they are murdered. As PEN, the international writers union, reveals, there are many writers in prison, or under threat, throughout the world because of their writing. What George Orwell argued in ‘Politics and the English Language’ seems to replay for every generation, as it is replaying right now over the world:
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy… his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself….And this reduced state of consciousness… is at any rate favorable to political conformity.