Bad times for poetry

Bertolt Brecht (1939)

Yes, I know: only the successful man
Is well-regarded. We are glad
To hear him speak. His face is handsome.
The crippled tree in the yard
Shows that the soil is poor, yet
The passers-by abuse it for being crippled –
And rightly so.
The green boats and the dancing sails on the Sound –
I don’t notice them. Of everything out there
I see only the torn nets of the fishermen.
Why do I only mention
That a forty-year old village woman walks with a stoop?
The young girls’ breasts
Are as warm as ever.
In my poetry a rhyme
Would seem to me almost insolent.
Inside me contend
Delight at the apple tree in blossom
And horror at the house-painter’s speeches.
But only the second
Drives me to my writing desk.

Works of art can have huge consequences. We have been reminded of the explosive nature of art in a horrible way in the beginning of this year. The artist’s right to create freely, to question, heckle and provoke is threatened more than ever. The freedom of speech gets restricted and artists are urged by many to censor themselves and to be sensitive and sympathetic regarding repressive ideologies and cultural manifestations.

But don’t we need brave artists who dare to oppose power, conformism, fear, fundamentalistic and racist forces in society now more than ever?

It is in other words a good time for art because is a bad time, not least for inconvenient artists. During his time in exile escaping the Nazi regime, Brecht wrote the famous poem »Bad Time for Poetry«. He addresses the difficulty to write about subjects that captures the joy of living during difficult circumstances. As a rethorician of paradoxes, he succeeds to portray beauty even as he states that he can’t. The name of the poem is often cited by contemporary poets, as for example by the Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan, who in contrast to it stresses that poetry is indispensible in times of crises and war. During a talk at 10TAL’s Spring Literary Festival in May last year, he says with Brechtian ambivalence: »I’d rather tell everybody about the unknown resources of eastern Ukraine, about all wonderful people, about the beautiful nature, but instead I have to talk about conflicts and war«.

Should writers dedicate themselves to politics in their work? Can socially engaged poetry be good poetry other than in exceptional cases? What kind of social responsibility can we demand of art? And which kind of response can art expect from critics and the public spheres? Can we take advantage of the potential of art in a public sphere that more or less lacks critical platforms?

This issue of 10TAL addresses art and active citizenship in our time from a Brechtian perspective. Brecht encouraged people to not resign themselves when facing threatening powers, but instead »try to get the addresses and telephone numbers to some of them«.

For the first time in Swedish, we are publishing Bertolt Brecht’s less known poem »To Those Born Later«, translated by Lars Kleberg. It was published 1935 when Brecht read it for German radio listeners in a transmission from the Soviet Union. The poem is highly topical today, in a time that in many ways reminds of the 1930s, a cynical and egotistical social climate with intolerable injustices. Millions of people are living without any rights at all. In such times, poets can surely not just observe?

The poem is an example of Brecht’s socially engaged poetry, which appears to address intellectuals in his own time. In order not to lose their bread and butter many kept silent about the regime’s »criminal enforcement of exploitation« and end up in a vicious circle of silent lies ­– which nonetheless leads to the loss of bread and butter when their »past decency« makes itself felt. The silence punishes itself retroactively.

We have asked just over a dozen writers to reflect on poetry and which types of oppression and threatening forces that art can seek out and challenge today. Where is the Brechtian social engagement among today’s writers and artists? What can such an engagement look like? Which truths are convenient to keep silent about today in order not to »lose ones bread and butter«? The Swedish poet Helena Boberg and the Danish poet Maja Lee Langvad answer the last question with their joint poem »From those who have come into line«.

For the first time in Swedish, we are also publishing Hannah Arendt’s seminal essay on the poet Bertolt Brecht, translated by Annika Ruth Persson. It was first published in The New Yorker 1966 and is a simultaneously critical and impassioned case study of Brecht’s evolution as a poet as well as a complex analysis of the relation between poetry and politics. Arendt’s thesis is that Brecht’s defense of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe punished itself as it led to his poetic faculty drying up.

A poet should be judged by his poetry, Arendt says apropos writers such as Pound, Villon and Brecht: »The chronic misbehavior of poets and artists has been a political, and sometimes a moral, problem since antiquity«. There is, she continues, »no surer way to make a fool of oneself than to draw up a code of behavior for poets, though quite a number of serious and respectable men have done it«. But she nonetheless means that the poet is »someone who must say the unsayable, who must not remain silent on occasions when all are silent, and who must therefore be careful not to talk too much about things that all talk about«.

 

In the Swedish television program Agenda, the writers Ann Heberlein and Ola Larsmo talk about the pointlessness of hurting and mocking people for their religion, culture and gender. Certain satirical art do reinforce prejudices and that could well be termed misguided art and more than anything else failed art. But provocative, innovative, art are in most cases not aiming to hurt or ridicule, although there is a risk that it is one of the consequences. With its unexpected, often extreme, manifestations, it wants to switch perspectives by bringing matters to a head, expand the view, create dialogue, open up for understanding and create new conditions beyond established firm lines.

The Swedish artists Dror Feiler and Gunilla Sköld Feiler hoped, of course, to attract interest with the art installation Snow White and The Madness of Truth in the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm 2004, but they could hardly have known in advance that it would provoke the Israeli ambassador to such a degree of hurt and anger that he would attack the artwork. If they had known, should they have refrained from creating it?

How can the artist open up eyes if not by emancipating himself, free from fear of how others will react, feel, and free from what we are accustomed to? How do we break free from prejudices and preconceptions if not by creating something that put our notions at risk?

Poetry as well as art can once again set great things in motion.

Madeleine Grive