The 11th hour, the 11th day.
I can’t be the only one to have noticed the tragedy of the Far East typhoon to have fallen on the weekend of Remembrance. At time of writing a figure of 10,000 casualties has been estimated. A similar number marched past the Cenotaph yesterday. Tragedy on a massive scale needs numbers for comprehension, the imagination struggles to multiply individual sorrow.
I’ve been thinking about the role of poetry in response to humanitarian disaster. It’s said the most stalwart among us will reach for poetry in times of loss. No wonder then most poetry isn’t taken seriously by that tardy fellow ‘the man in the street’ unless it’s profound. In a twist of co-incidence and synchronicity I received my contributor’s copy of In Protest, 150 Poems for Human Rights (School of Advanced Study, University of London) last week. 600 poems submitted from all over the world. Poems of terror, exile, torture; child soldiers, bravery, resilience. Ruth Padel in her foreword neatly sums them up as ‘… the human voice responding to the human condition’, whilst the editors wish that each poem ‘become living campaigners for each of their issues.’ As a human being I am constantly at a loss for words when faced with tragedy, but as a poet words are my tool. Usually I need to let time pass before I can comment, and rightly or wrongly I never, ever feel that any comment I attempt is useful or necessary. There are usually many others who do that more succinctly that I could.
But after a week in which I doubted myself as a poet, in one of those hiccups of time where the world is filled with noise, this technological age of shouting, in which quiet poets no longer seem to have a place, it was vital I received that book. I needed to go back to why I write, to what intent. Too often poetry is a circus of poets, too infrequently is the poem and why we write it, the star, the breath that remains, whether in the mind or on the page.
My poem, ‘To an Afghan Woman Poet’ was inspired (if one can call being kept awake, tormented by sadness and anger at injustice, ‘inspiration’…) by Christina Patterson’s article in the Sunday Times of the fate of women poets and the Kabul Sewing Circle where women came under the guise of needlework to read and write. When I wrote it I had no idea it would be published, or join a circle of voices concerned with the cruelties of our age. That it would appear in the midst of remembrance of wars and a typhoon wasn’t imagined either. And why does it matter?All week the lapels of BBC co-respondents have been decorated with poppies. From chat shows to news. Snippets of Wildred Owens’ poetry, handsome young soldiers, the trenches of the Somme and elderly gentlemen decorated with medals have tugged at our ears and eyes. The thousands of phone calls now circling the globe as families reach out for news of those who have lost their lives in the Philippines is an image as precise as the poppy, love and birds and satellites forever circling. And that’s what I see, a circle. And each of us a tiny i in i-sland
Next year begins the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the first world war. What will we have learnt? What transformations could we apply to our own lives? And poetry?