A reflection on the poetic word in times of social unrest and oppression.

By Gabriel Sanchez-Ortega, Staff Writer

The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Like all dissidents in this country, I go to bed expecting the ring of the doorbell at dawn. I knew one day they would come for me. Now they had.

I Will Never See The World Again, Ahmet Altan

In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn begins his depiction of the Soviet forced labour camps system with the moment of his arrest. It may happen in broad daylight, or in the dead of night, at home after a knock on the door, or out on a stroll.

But at the moment when it comes, and you hear the soul-rending words: “You are under arrest!” You may find yourself, much like Solzhenitsyn and so many others before and after him, unable to answer with anything other than: “Me? What for?” 

In times of social unrest and oppression, the voices which decry injustice are inevitably suppressed. This comes as no surprise. What may be surprising, as one of the last acts of repression by Joseph Stalin before his death in 1953, is the arrest and subsequent execution of 13 Jewish Soviet poets on August 12, 1952—A day which became known as The Night of Murdered Poets.

The poets were arrested between 1948 and 1949. They were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. They remained isolated for three years before being formally charged. They were sentenced to death, and executed in the basement of the Lubyanka Prison. 

Certainly, it is needless to point out that the innocents bear the burden of oppression. But why poets? Is there anything more inoffensive than the image of a poet? This perhaps would not be worth asking if it were all an isolated incident, yet many poets throughout history were assassinated, imprisoned or exiled in times of political upheaval. 

During the Cultural Revolution in China, poets and other artists were publicly shamed. Ai Quin, the father of the contemporary Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, was himself imprisoned and tortured. The Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, was assassinated during the Spanish Civil War. It has recently been acknowledged by the Chilean government that Pablo Neruda was likely assassinated in the aftermath of the coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1973. 

This is still happening today: In 2019, the Somali poet Abdirahman Abees was jailed for “insulting the government.” A year earlier, Nacima Qorane, another Somali poet, was arrested and sentenced to three years in jail for what was called “reunification poetry,” which advocated Somaliland’s reunification with Somalia. 

The Iranian poet, Baktash Abtin, was imprisoned for “anti-government propaganda” in 2021 and died in prison the following year. In Myanmar, four poets have been killed since the staged coup on February 1st, 2021, and more than 30 have been arrested. How many more will suffer the same fate? There is still no answer as to why.

A possible answer might be found in the words of Ahmad Shamlou, the influential 20th-century Iranian poet who once said: 

“…As an artist, I must testify to history. You mentioned government-commissioned poetry. To me, this is not poetry. An artist should always be against power. But if an artist wants to be for power, let him go and hang himself with the belt of some president’s pants.”

To this, he added: 

“If saving humanity is not a person’s only goal, nor does he know or recognize the pain of the masses, this person is not an intellectual, but a thief who has come with a lantern. …”

Many of Shamlou’s works were banned by the government and he was himself arrested in 1954 and jailed for 14 months. For Shamlou, just as is the motivation for many poets who choose to speak out against the injustices of their time, poetry becomes not only a vehicle for truth, but also comes to embody the voice of the suffering masses—the stronger the repression, the louder the voice is heard. In these conditions, the act of writing serves as an act of hope for the future—a rallying cry—which many identify with as their own voice.

The Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the most renowned poets of the South Asian subcontinent, echoed this sentiment in his poetry:

“A poem for today,

A poem for today and today’s grief

The grief which is angry 

With the beauty of life

The forest of yellow leaves

Which is my country

This congregation of pain

Which is my country…”

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, throughout his career was an advocate for the voiceless and the oppressed. He himself was imprisoned in 1951 after the failed coup attempt that became known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. He spent four years in prison. His works were banned for many years in his home country of Pakistan. 

One could come to the conclusion, from this historical pattern, that there is something inherent in poetry which stands against oppression. According to Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and Nobel Prize laureate, the poet “never assaults the ambiguity of the word,” freeing language and returning it to its natural state. 

“The poem,” Paz says in The Bow and the Lyre, “is not a literary form but the meeting place between poetry and man.” “Poetry is knowledge, salvation, power, abandonment. An operation capable of changing the world, poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation. Poetry reveals this world; it creates another.”

For John Berger, in his Film Essay, About Time (1985), “a poet, representing millions of people, [could] whisper an order to the future. An order to say: take note of what is happening today.” For him, this was the case of the Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova, one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century, who expressed her people’s suffering under the Stalinist Terror in a poem, written between 1935 and 1961, called Requiem.

Akhmatova’s husband was killed in the early days of the Russian revolution. During the Second World War, she remained in the besieged city of Leningrad where millions died of starvation. Her son was sent to the Soviet prison camps. During the years of the Yezhov terror, with hundreds of other women, she spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad, waiting for news of the men that were taken away. In Requiem, she gave voice to this suffering, and whispered to the future:

“If one day in my country
they want to erect a monument to me

I agree, but on one condition:
That it not be put up on the black sea

Where I was born and where now
I have no connections whatsoever

And let it not be put up in the Tsar’s park
Where the trees of my childhood search for me still

Let the monument be here where I have waited
For three hundred hours and the door always shut

I am frightened that even in merciful death I may forget
How the engine of the black lorry of terror ticks over

How the hated door is slammed
How the old woman screams like a wounded animal

Let the monument be here and from its eyelids of bronze
My tears will fall like melted snow

Far, far away, the pigeons of the prison will murmur
And the boats on the Neva will pass in silence”

What does it mean to be a poet? The poet has often been represented as the nightingale, because it is a bird that sings at night. The night itself is an unfathomable symbol of spiritual deprivation, of sorrow and longing, and of hardship and oppression. The poet, never assaulting the ambiguity of the word, captures the essence of language, of what needs to be said, in all its endless intricacies and possible interpretations—in the dark night, the poet sings.

What is expressed by the poem is the poetic that is deeper than language but which remains as language, by echoing in the hearts of those who want to speak and cry out but have no voice to do so. It is what pierces the illusion of order and of morality, of the lie that is imposed on the oppressed, and what the oppressor cannot allow. It remains and will remain to cry out what needs to be cried out—the unanswerable question, which each night afflicts the tormented heart: How deep is human suffering?

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