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Poetry against dictatorship

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:49 UK time, Wednesday, 4 April 2012

In the last entry I discussed this issue from the point of view of dictators.
This time let's discuss another angle: how poetry, as the ultimate manifestation of human liberty, stands against dictatorship and totalitarianism.

The easiest and most obvious answer is with its content.
The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin's ode To Liberty or the poem of Uzbek poet Chulpon, The Heart, are good examples.

Pushkin writes:

Now, flighty Fortune's favoured knaves, Tremble, O Tyrants of the Earth! But you: take heed now, know your worth And rise as men, O fallen slaves!

And Chulpon:

What is this, my heart, why such - With the fetters made you friends? Neither wail you have nor much Of the cry, and slowly sense. Abuse will never hurt a soul, Will baseness forever leave? When will broken be a hobble, Swords are cut, but who'll believe? You're alive, not passed away, You're a man, act humanly, Refuse the fetters, don't obey, In fact, you also were born free!

At best, these kinds of poems become anthems of liberty and freedom, mobilising people to fight against dictatorship and tyranny.

However, apart from the direct call to freedom, poetry could play a more subtle role, liberating the consciousness of people who are facing different forms of totalitarianism.
The poetry of Joseph Brodsky comes to mind.

I don't mean the content of his poetry, but the very form of it. Scholars who analysed his poetry nearly overlooked this part of his poetic technique.

On the surface Brodsky applies all the Soviet figures of speech and discourse; his poems are usually 'classic' or traditional by form, they are predominantly long rather than short and quite wordy rather than succinct, as if he takes for given the inflated nature of the Soviet Communist speech.

But what happens within this seemingly 'all-Soviet' form is quite unique.
Just imagine the following form:


So Brodsky fills it in with his sentences or thoughts which go like this:

eeeee. Fffffffff, Gggggg
ggg. Hhhhhhhhhhhh, Iiii

His syntax breaks the form from inside. His free thoughts start anywhere he wants and end anywhere he wants, disregarding the outer form. The external form becomes just a pro-forma, whereas the poets consciousness, his thoughts live their own, free life within this given form.

So relate this paradigm to the social life in the totalitarian Communist society and you understand how explosive, how rebellious and how subversive this purely poetic experience is.

Joseph Brodsky is not the only poet, who liberated the mind with the means of pure poetry. Chulpon, whom I mentioned above, was also using the 'Soviet speak' during the Stalinist years of the '30s, but the way he used it deconstructed that speak to its opposite.

Here's a fragment of his poem A Poet of Nowadays:

A poet of nowadays is the poet of squares and crowds: every worker recites his poems at his workshop, every pioneer/boy scout hums his poems by heart...

Every single element of poetry could be used to liberate minds and stand against dictatorships.

If, in one instance, Brodsky was fighting totalitarianism with the help of its own rhetoric tools and discursive means, his contemporary Gennadi Aygi, was expressing himself through the minimalism and the art of pauses.

So it was - from an unseeing visage And dazzling Resilient (in its close wandering) As if estrange: desperation (with unseeing: Before him: Abiding - this face)

Poetry could mock, make a parody, use irony, sarcasm, parables, directly mobilise, etc..

But also poets and their lives can become role-models and in that sense even the least dissident creature, who lives his private life indulging himself with poetry, is usually seen by the authoritarian regimes as the ultimate threat to its very existence.
Therefore so many poets are arrested, imprisoned or exiled in and from Uzbekistan (and similar countries).

One can write volumes and volumes about the relationship between poetry and dictatorship, but I would like to end this piece with a short poem, which shows why dictatorships see poetry as their deadliest threat:

creating a new chaos out of an old one - that is maybe what we call 'living'...

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