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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.

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