British poetry can seem overwhelming. So many people writing so many poems; the tottering piles of books and magazines and submissions; all the courses and mentorships and schemes and prizes and Phds; the thousands of voices on Twitter and Facebook all jostling for position. Not that I’m innocent myself. At 33 I’ve already produced four full collections, teach many workshops and have succumbed to blogging and posting on facebook, wanting to stay ‘visible’ and part of the poetry conversation (look, I’m doing it now).
Some days it gets me down though: millions of us, all frantically posting and waving and shouting ‘read me’. Sometimes, I need to remind myself why poetry is important, so I go back to Ahkmatova’s lines at the beginning of ‘Requiem’:
In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day somebody ‘identified’ me. Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): “Can you describe this?” And I said: “Yes, I can.” And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face. (Trans DM Thomas)
There’s the answer: poetry is needed to bear witness. To pay attention to the individual, to the specifics of human life, in a way news-reports rarely can.
Lately, I have been reading more and more poetry in translation. I have a hunger for poems that feel important: for voices that need to be heard; stories that need to be told. If UK poetry has a weakness, it’s that too many poems are written for no reason other than the writer wants to see them published. In other countries, poetry is still a life and death matter. It is urgent and essential.
In the last couple of weeks, the Poetry Parnassus line-up has been announced for the South Bank this summer. I’m genuinely very excited about this, and hope it might mark a shift: a moment when we start to look outward; to see how provincial some of our little rules about adjectives and ‘show not tell’ really are. I most looking forward to the astonishing Kim Hyesoon from South Korea who has defied her country’s traditions of “female poetry” (yŏryusi), which is passive and refined, to write poems that are surreal and grotesque saying: “Women who have been disappeared by violence are howling. The voices of disappeared women are echoing. I sing with these voices.”
(from left: Valzyhna Mort, Meena Kandasamy, Caasha Luul Mohamud Yusuf, Kim Hyesoon)
Also on my must-see list are Valzhyna Mort from Belarus; Lebanon’s glamorous Venus Khoury-Gata and Katarina Kucebelova from Slovakia, who I translated last year on the Visegrad Poets Project. There are, of course, other poets I’m sad not to see on the line-up – amongst them my friends Anna T Szabo from Hungary, Agnieszka Wolny-Hamkalo from Poland, Katerina Rudcenkova the Czech Republic, Leily Mossini from Iran and Caasha Luul Mohamud Yusuf from Somalia. And then the extremely cool Russian poet Polina Barskova and the brave Meena Kandasamy, who writes about about India from the position of her gender, Tamil identity and low caste in a ‘rebellion against the world’.
You’ll have noticed that list is entirely female. That’s not usually the case with me – a lot of my favourite British poets are male – but it’s probably not coincidence. In so many countries female voices are still silenced or marginalized, and I think perhaps it is this that draws me to their poetry – that makes me shiver when I read them. These poems feel necessary. Last week there was a brilliant essay by Eliza Griswold in the New York Times about Afghan women risking their lives by meeting in secret to write poetry. They often write in a two-line Pashtun form called a landai (meaning a ‘short, poisonous snake’). They are poems in the female voice – speaking of love, war and grief- to be repeated, shared, passed between women: ‘Your black eyelashes are Israel/and my heart is Palestine under your attack.’
One 15 year old girl, Lima, has written a rubaiyat for the Taliban: ‘You won’t allow me to go to school. / I won’t become a doctor. /Remember this: / One day you will be sick.’
That’s what poetry can do. That’s what poetry’s for. Reading such words, of course, can make our own work look rather small and unimportant, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Most people in the English-speaking poetry world could probably do with a bit more perspective. At the Poetry Parnassus, perhaps we can leave our laptops for a while and just listen.