Archives for March 2012

Poetry and Dictatorship

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:48 UK time, Thursday, 29 March 2012

Earlier this year I was in Paris with one of my friends - a French poet, who was a Communist in his youth. He asked me: "Do you know why poetry and Communism go very often together?"

I thought that he is referring to himself, or to the wider French poetic community: I know that famous French poets such as Paul Eluard, Luis Aragon and Henry Delui have all been communists.

But he meant in in an even wider sense, meaning the poetic 'experiments' of Joseph Stalin and Georgi Dimitrov, Yuri Andropov and Agostinho Neto.

I said something along the lines of "Since Communism is an ideological construct based on words rather than on reality, the role of poetry in it is paramount".

Then added: "It's also a collective formation; it's not individualistic like capitalism, so in all collective societies the role of poetry is much more important. Where there's lack of information, it's always filled with emotions, and poetry is a tool for that".

I must admit that my arguments then and there were much more extended than here, but the gist of them was the same.

Having thought about the relationship between poetry and communism some more, I have noticed that the connection could be easily extended to any form of totalitarianism.

In the 20th century Hitler and Mussolini were writing poetry, it wasn't just Stalin or Mao.

It's quite ominous that those tyrants, who ruthlessly killed millions, were quite sentimental in their poetic endeavours.

Here's a poem by Joseph Stalin about an old man.

As he walks from house to house
Knocking on strangers' doors
With his oak mandolin
Playing his simple song.
And in his song, in his song
Pure as the radiance of the sun
Grand Truth can be heard
Of lofty sublime dreams.
The hearts that turned into stone
Are forced to beat once more
For many he ignited Reason
That once slumbered on in Darkness.
But instead of bestowing on him glory
The people of his land
Brought the outcast
Poison in a cup.
They told him "Damn you!
Drink! Drain it to the bottom
Your song is strange to us
Your truth we do not need."

Adolph Hitler's poem, The Mother is even more thin-skinned.

When your mother has grown older,
When her dear, faithful eyes
no longer see life as they once did,
When her feet, grown tired,
No longer want to carry her as she walks -
Then lend her your arm in support,
Escort her with happy pleasure.
The hour will come when, weeping, you
Must accompany her on her final walk.
And if she asks you something,
Then give her an answer.
And if she asks again, then speak!
And if she asks yet again, respond to her,
Not impatiently, but with gentle calm.
And if she cannot understand you properly
Explain all to her happily.
The hour will come, the bitter hour,
When her mouth asks for nothing more.

Reading these poems one starts to wonder: are ruthlessness and sentimentality the flip sides of the same coin? Or is the only cause of the aggression human insecurity?

I can't say that the poetic samples of dictators and tyrants, be it mentioned above or verses by Benito Mussolini or Mao Zedong are masterpieces, but they do give an insight into the murky world of those minds.

Take as an example a miniature written by Mao under the telling title: Three poems - each sixteen words.

Mountains!
I'm in the saddle; whip in hand, horse legs quick.
Look up -
blue heaven in your hand.

Alas, the nature of English can't squeeze it into 16 words.

One can discuss endlessly the obvious affinity between poetry and dictatorship, so many angles are there: both appeal to the most ancient parts of human nature, both exploit emotions at expense of rationality, both have rather mystical and magical background...

One can turn the whole argument upside down and show how poetry - the ultimate manifestation of human liberty stands against the deadening forms of totalitarianism and dictatorship.

But I would like to finish the piece with an anecdote from the life of one of the most sinister people in that row - a former Head of the Russian security services, the KGB, later a Communist leader of the USSR, Yuri Andropov.

Once his speechwriters sent him a card for his birthday, jokingly mentioning that power corrupts people, to which Andropov replied by this poem:

Once a villain blurted out,
that power corrupts people.
Now all pundits repeat it
For so many years
Without noticing (alas!),
That more often people corrupt the power.

Panem et Circenses

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 13:58 UK time, Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Here are two pieces of prose.

The first is a fragment from Leo Tolstoy's story 'Kholstomer' or 'Strider'.

The knacker and Vaska, who followed behind, went to a hollow behind the brick barn and stopped as if there were something peculiar about this very ordinary place. The knacker, handing the halter to Vaska, took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and produced a knife and a whetstone from his boot-leg. The gelding stretched towards the halter meaning to chew it a little from dullness, but he could not reach it. He sighed and closed his eyes. His nether lip hung down, disclosing his worn yellow teeth, and he began to drowse to the sound of the sharpening of the knife. Only his swollen, aching, outstretched leg kept jerking. Suddenly he felt himself being taken by the lower jaw and his head lifted. He opened his eyes. There were two dogs in front of him; one was sniffing at the knacker, the other was sitting and watching the gelding as if expecting something from him. The gelding looked at them and began to rub his jaw against the arm that was holding him.

"Want to doctor me probably - well, let them!" he thought.

And in fact he felt that something had been done to his throat. It hurt, and he shuddered and gave a kick with one foot, but restrained himself and waited for what would follow... Then he felt something liquid streaming down his neck and chest. He heaved a profound sigh and felt much better.

The whole burden of his life was eased.

He closed his eyes and began to drop his head. No one was holding it. Then his legs quivered and his whole body swayed. He was not so much frightened as surprised.
Everything was so new to him. He was surprised and started forward and upward, but instead of this, in moving from the spot his legs got entangled, he began to fall sideways, and trying to take a step fell forward and down on his left side.

The knacker waited till the convulsions had ceased, drove away the dogs that had crept nearer, took the gelding by the legs, turned him on his back, told Vaska to hold a leg, and began to skin the horse.

"It was a horse, too," remarked Vaska.

The second piece is from a famous Kyrgyz-Soviet writer Chingiz Aitmatov's novel 'Farewell, Gyulsary'.

The pacer Gyulsary lay motionlessly by the campfire, his head on the ground. Life was slowly leaving his body. Something was gurgling and wheezing in his throat, his eyes widened and dimmed as he stared unblinkingly at the flames, his legs, straight as poles, were becoming stiff.

Tanabai was bidding his pacer farewell; it was the last time he would be talking to him. "You were a great stallion, Gyulsary. You were my friend, Gyulsary. When you go you will carry away the best years of my life, Gyulsary. I will never forget you, Gyulsary. You're still alive now, but I'm thinking of you as of one dead already, because you are dying, my wonderful horse Gyulsary. Some day we'll meet in the hereafter. But I won't hear the sound of your hoofbeats. There are no roads there, no earth, no grass, there is no life there. But as long as I live you will never die, because I will always remember you, Gyulsary. To me the sound of your pacing gait will always be the song I love best."

Morning was upon them. The mountains rose above the earth, the steppe was coming into view, stretching away into the distance. The ashes of the dead fire at the edge of the ravine barely smouldered. A grey-haired man stood beside it, his coat thrown over his shoulders. There was no need to cover the pacer with it now. Gyulsary was in the next world, running with Allah's herd.

Tanabai looked at the dead horse and could not believe it was his Gyulsary. He lay there on his side with his head thrown back in a last convulsion. There were deep ridges on his cheeks left by the bridle. His legs were stiff, extended, the shoes were worn thin on his cracked hooves. Never again would they carry him anywhere, never again would they leave their marks on the roads.

Initially I have chosen these two pieces to discuss recent death of five horses at the Cheltenham Festival Race . Yes, like in ancient Rome, being used to 'Bread and Circuses', we don't care too much of some reported or unreported 'sport casualties'.

The reporting of lost horses becomes an exercise in statistics distilled to a short line:

Abergavenny - 2012-03-14 - Cheltenham - Fell - Broke Elbow - Destroyed
Featherherbed Lane - 2012-03-14 - Cheltenham - Broke Leg - Destroyed
Educated Evans - 2012-03-13 - Cheltenham - Fell - Injured - Destroyed

The quotes from literature above highlights the reality of the loss and the compassion felt when an animal dies.

Initially, I intended to discuss just the issue of sport, citing the collapse of Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba during a football match with Tottenham.

'Panem et Circenses' - 'Bread and Circuses' - we shout with seemingly tight lips pushing it further and further until our push collapses in front of us shocking an entire stadium full of people and the whole country.

But the horrible events in the south of France overshadowed my initial thoughts.

The perpetrator of the cold-blood killing of three innocent children Arieh, Gabriel and Myriam along with a rabbi and on a previous occasion three soldiers, seemingly had a camera with him to film the murders - it's far more terrible than just 'Panem et Circenses', because in the roots of it lies an IDEA.

A wrong, sick, inhumane, insane, heartless and godless idea.

In Chyngyz Aitmatov's novel 'Farewell, Gyulsary' Tanabai - the main character is expelled from the Communist party because he takes the side of the life - be it dying lambs or the old strider Gyulsary at expense of the Communist ideas.

Here's another piece of literature, this time from Fyodor Dostoevsky's 'Karamazov Brothers':

I completely refuse to accept the supreme harmony. It does not worth the one tear of the one tortured child only that... preyed in his stinking kennel with his unredeemed tears to his dear God. It is too high price for the harmony...

But could the literature save the world? Or could have saved?

Prose and Poetry: a horse and a doe

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 16:09 UK time, Wednesday, 14 March 2012

For a person who writes both poetry and prose, it might be interesting to analyse what makes him/her 'change gears' between each realm.

There are many theories, which distinguish and separate prose from poetry - the funniest being Leo Tolstoy's sarcastic notion that a person writing poetry seems to him like a man who is leaping instead of walking.

There are more serious distinctions like the one which belongs to a famous Russian philologist Roman Jakobson.

He stated that the art of poetry is based on a metaphor, which is replacing something with another thing, whereas the art of prose explores the world of a metonymy or replacing the whole by its part.

This description is a profound notion that looks at the very heart of prose and poetry.

Indeed, poetry at its best is mostly about metaphors, be it Shakespeare's 'woundless' or 'sick' air, or TS Eliot's 'the yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes'. In one case human characteristics describe the air and in the other the fog has feline characteristics.

As for prose, it represents the reality by a part of it, like we say 'that beard' instead of 'that person'.

But one can argue, that the distinction between prose and poetry is not clear cut.

One can easily find novels based on a single metaphor, or poetry written in a 'prosaic' way.

There are also intermittent forms of prose, such as rhythmic prose or 'vers libre' (free verse) from another.

People write also novels in verses, as well as 'poetic' prose.

People who write up their dreams could also witness how fluid are borders of those two arts.

But my question was what makes people write in one or another way.

Here I can appeal just to my own experience.


I started my 'creative writing' when I was about 15 or 16.

At that point I wrote poetry.

Until the age of around 30, I wrote predominantly in a poetic form.

Now looking back I see that from time to time I used to write short stories, once I even attempted to write a novella, but I never took those stories seriously, they were by the by.

So what I'm suggesting is that the age must play some role in our writing preferences.

A great Alexandr Pushkin seems to confirm this opinion when he says: 'My age makes me lean towards the stern prose'.

Through the age it should be also to do with the levels of inner energy.

Poetry is an explosion, a creative Big Bang with ultra-concentrated levels of a suggestive energy.

In prose the same energy is spread over the whole piece, be it 100 or 500 pages long.

It's like running either sprint or marathon.

Intensiveness is a key for one and stamina is the same for another.

But sometimes I feel that the laziness is the mother of poetry... That I write it to get a sense of satisfaction at easy cost, rather than spending months and years chained to the desk writing my prose.

The aim and the process are maybe two other words, that describe the difference well.

I better stop here, before I get into prose-writing gear - instead I will end with another poetic quote from Alexandr Pushkin - who was equally brilliant in both of those arts: 'One can not harness to the same cart a horse and a trembling doe'.

Do you also think so?

Putin, Villas-Boas and others

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 10:55 UK time, Wednesday, 7 March 2012

What have the two big news stories of this week got in common - Putin being elected as the President of Russia and Villas-Boas being sacked as the Chelsea Football Club coach?

The easy answer is Abramovich - who is a subordinate in his relationship with Putin and a master in relation to Villas-Boas.

But my point is not about him, but rather about changes in our social psychology.

In one of my blog entries I said that the life span of news is becoming shorter and shorter.

If we traditionally used to talk about 'journalism', now it's appropriate to talk about 'houralism', 'minutealism' or even 'secondalism' - so fast and snappy is the news nowadays.

In fact the shortening of a life span happens nearly in all walks of our social, public life.

Rock groups are not dominating decades as they used to do during the rise of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, but replacing each other within a year.

Who listens now to The Spice Girls - a global phenomenon just several years ago?

The same is with literature - who now reads Dan Brown in the tube - when the epoch belongs to Stieg Larsson?

But be sure, it's not for long.

There will be another gigantic tide which will take over the world and wipe out him too.

So, all our life is about ever changing trends, brands, names and the speed of it ever accelerating.

Thanks to the ubiquitous internet and mobile telephony it's not just a Western phenomenon, the whole globe's lives' are expecting every year to replace a software or to buy a new gadget.

That must change and changes our overall attitudes.

We don't stand politicians and policies for too long any more.

Look at the Arab Spring, look at the anti-Putin protests - there is a noticeable fatigue of the population for long lasting masters of their fate.

Even in the West, politicians who have noticed this change of attitude have adopted their policies and systems.

For example, the French presidential term, which was seven years, was shortened to five years.

There are two moments here to ponder about.

Firstly, social media websites like Facebook, Twitter and their language equivalents - which are based not on a master-servant pyramidal - but rather a peer to peer networking relationship have essentially changed the dynamics of inter-social communication.

People are not up for being told what to do and how to do it anymore.

They would rather exchange their own experiences.

Journalism without journalists, self-governing bodies - are all about it.

This dynamic affects families, communities and society.

A parent-child relationship if not crumbling, is being replaced by a kind of equal relationship.

Secondly, having been combined with the shortening life span of our attention it creates a feeling of tiredness of long-lasting loyalties, requiring back-to-back changes.

Even people like President Obama could feel the effects of it.

Whatever you do - you fall victim to that fast coming fatigue.

Though in the case of Villas-Boas being sacked, there is another additional moment - pressurised by the shortening life span of the events around us - we tend to become addicts of a 'here and now' attitude.

It manifests itself in across the passion, to wake up a celebrity or a lottery-winning multi-millionaire overnight or like in Abramovich's case - in a determination to win this year at any cost.

We haven't discussed here the role of consumerism in all of that, but it's a matter for another entry.

I hope you could have borne me until here at least:)

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