POETRY & POLITICS
What’s So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding?
I’ve just finished listening to an item on BBC Radio 4 about young people’s poetry. Potentially very interesting: therein might be found a freshness of theme, vision, vocabulary, style & general content that would put weary adults who have laboured with pen & keyboard for too long in the shade. Sadly, not the case here & the sadder still because these young poets were Israelis & Palestinians & their theme was Peace. In a hushed, reverential voice the presenter read poem after dreary poem, all of them asking plangently, ‘Why can’t we have Peace between peoples?’ ‘Why did s/he have to die?’ ‘What does it matter that I’m Jewish & s/he’s Moslem?’ ‘Why can’t we all be Brother & Sisters together, walking hand in hand, smiling towards a New Dawn?’ etc. etc.
God knows, I don’t blame the kids for writing this awful tosh. Their sincerity is unimpeachable & their passion beyond doubt & creditable. And God knows, wouldn’t it be wonderful if it really were that easy? But what is it about classroom practice across the globe that a.) kids are producing such vapid & formulaic stuff in the service of the noblest of causes, & b.) some sanctimonious zealot is given airtime to pass it off as deeply meaningful & evidence of times that are a-changing?
Maybe the choice of theme was where the trouble started. Ever since the 1960s the two words Love & Peace have been part of successive generation’s lingua franca &, if the words did have any serious & specific focus in the first place, they have certainly lost it now. They are upper-case-initial-letter daubs, the stuff of graffiti & street chants, so familiar to eye & ear that they really are nothing more than shapes on a wall, sounds in the air.
If, for the sake of some sort of symbolic clarity, one seeks to identify a moment in cultural history after which the currency of those words was forever devalued, for me it would be the release in 1970 of John Lennon’s second solo album, Imagine. Whilst there’s some excellent material on that album, the title song is no example of it. However beguiling the tune & however effective the stripped down arrangement, the lyrics suck with a vengeance. We are asked by one of the arch materialists of the late 20th century to imagine some fruitjuice-and-sandals Disneyland utopia in which Love’n’Peace have somehow triumphed over venal greed, political corruption & religious bigotry. Job done: we will have got ourselves back to the garden.
The perceptive amongst you will have noticed that this hasn’t come to pass. The particular consignment of shit that was flying towards the fan in 1970 is still in passage today & heading in the same direction. Now, this might be because we just didn’t try hard enough. Maybe my generation should feel the burden of shared guilt: we had the chance to love each other into mutual submission & thus to usher in World Peace & we blew it. If we’d only put in that little extra bit of effort & held hands with our brothers & sisters a little tighter for a little longer then maybe Protestant & Catholic in Northern Ireland, for example, would have lain down together like lion & lamb & all those horrid deaths wouldn’t have happened.
Alternatively it might just be because the world isn’t a kindergarten playground or a dope smoke-filled apartment & people kill each other because it might make them richer or it might make them powerful, or because their sergeant told them to, or because God told them to, or because they just fucking well enjoy doing it.
The best poetry faces up to a world of feral savagery & it rings the bells & blows the whistles loud & clear. Our understanding of the First World War as a conflict of unprecedented cruelty & stupidity was not provided by historians but by poets. Our most potent images of the calculated, systematic horrors of the Holocaust & of Stalin’s domestic genocide come not from the newsreels but from the quiet dignity of those who suffered & survived to write it all down.
It both saddened & angered me that these Jewish & Palestinian school students, caught in the midst of a bloody cycle of attrition & vengeance, should have been lumbered by their teachers with the empty blatherings of 40 years-worth of Western pop sociology & not the steely & uncompromising voices of the world’s great poets. There are great poets writing in Hebrew & Arabic, some of them prominent & celebrated within their own cultures & some of them still incubating their craft as students in schools threatened daily by tank shells & suicide bombers. But maybe their words are a little too steely & uncompromising in a world alternatively cowed by, servile to or cynical about the concentration of executive power in so few hands.
Maybe Bertold Brecht was right when he saw in the emotionally focussed, cathartic ‘theatre of illusion’ of his time a deliberate, establishment-orientated programme of bread & circuses. Drench them in sentiment; seduce them with romance; tell them the old, old stories & they’ll never look beyond the makeup & the costumes or behind the masks. Nowadays the hypermarket & the multi-billion dollar popular culture industry looks after all that to stupefying effect. And so for as long as the resultant cultural impoverishment leads us merely wistfully to imagine all the people sharing all the world then Love & Peace – whatever those words really mean in the world – will remain the province of dreams.