In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day somebody ‘identified’ me. Beside me, in the queue there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said:
‘Yes, I can’. And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face.
Anna Akhmatova’s preface to Requiem tells how she took on the burden of poetic witness while trying to visit her son in prison. It encapsulates the notion of poetry as ‘witness’, which is the theme of Ian Duhig’s essay in this issue. How much is it the business of poets to respond to, or represent, key concerns of their time? The years since the international financial crash have seen increasing political polarization across the West, while the aftermath of wars and revolution in the Middle East has led to extremes of horror and widespread displacement of peoples. It is hard as a citizen not to feel engaged by such events.
In recent decades, however, there has been a resistance to poetry that takes on the challenge of public engagement. In his study Between Two Fires (Oxford, 2015), Justin Quinn considers ‘a fear for the aesthetic in the face of political pressure’ in the last half of the twentieth century to have been ‘a Cold War construct’. He argues particularly that this shaped the practice of Walcott, Brodsky and Heaney, among others, in favour of traditional form and political quietism. It is a view that may take a while to digest and with which some may differ. Quinn himself also argues that ‘their example at least helped poetry survive as a craft’. In the same period, though, there were voices calling for greater involvement with international politics. Adrienne Rich, for example, in a 1997 essay writes of looking out for ‘a certain kind of poetry whose balance of dread and beauty is equal to the chaotic negotiations that pursue us’.
What are the circumstances then, in which poets now can answer the world’s demands for attention with Akhmatova’s tentative ‘Yes, I can’? Poets, like princes, resist the words must or should, so for some it may be a gradual realization that what Marina Tsvetaeva described as ‘obeying an unknown necessity’ is a possibility for their art. Others will continue to be moved more directly by what is in front of them and demands expression. This may increasingly involve transnational as much as local concerns. The French Syrian poet Maram al-Masari, whose Barefoot Souls has just been published by Arc in Theo Dorgan’s translation, has chosen to give voice to victims of domestic violence and their children in poems written bilingually in Arabic and French; she sees her writing as for ‘the dominated, the humiliated of every kind, in every country’.
This issue of Poetry London contains an interview with the US poet, Philip Levine, completed not long before his death in 2015. Levine took ‘the situation that I was born into’, working class Detroit, as his subject and saw that world as containing riches enough for an art he approached with high ambition. In one poem, Philip Levine wrote of his mother’s arrival eighty-three years earlier at Ellis Island as an unaccompanied migrant child on a ship called ‘The Mercy’ (also the title of his poem). A Scottish sailor offers the girl a fruit she has never seen before – an orange:
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.
It is poetry which speaks both to his time and ours, local and universal.
The poems in this issue were edited by Ahren Warner; the reviews and features by Tim Dooley.