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Writing ‘Heart-to-Heart’ About Political Discontent

Between the Covid-19 pandemic, the renewed concerns over racism and inequality, and the deepening of the climate crisis, our collective nerves are stretched to the limit and we are struggling to stay above water. There is no doubt that the global community is doing serious and urgent soul-searching.

How can we be of help? As poets, many are feeling a sense of civic duty and face the question of addressing these social issues in a language which is at once true to the harsh realities and maintains high artistic standards. There is a deep need for poetry of witness but there are many understandings of what ‘witnessing’ in poetic language entails; views vary from ‘shocking the reader into consciousness about injustice’ to ‘tell it slant’ to ‘save the language by practicing art for art’s sake’.

At the same time, some simply feel the urge to express a private grief, or lament over the public situation, without producing politically engaged poetry. However we approach writing about the current global discontent, we must walk the line between the private and the political, and ask ourselves if – in voicing private emotions – we are voicing public emotion.

Writing about public duress comes with certain risks, among which the presumption that one person is capable of understanding the energies of the culture and society, and somehow function as the speaker of collective consciousness, especially when so many communities are in conflict. And yet, poetry is valued precisely because the readers recognise themselves and their human condition in the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual fabric of the poem. Poetry succeeds at speaking ‘heart-to-heart’ about the human condition through images, music, and figurative language which renders the harsh reality with precision, while creating a safe, reflective space for the mind.

So, how does the poet become attuned to the language of the world’s upheaval? How does one talk insightfully about suffering, without creating more of it? And what is the appropriate expressive language that is at once dulce et utile, as Horace would have it?

This workshop tackles the problems, as well as the rewards, of writing about politics. We will question in what sense poetry about politics is political, and how we discern between what is profoundly political – wishing certain things were different – and simple verse propaganda. Examples of poems to be discussed are Salvatore Quasimodo’s Upon the Willows , Czeslaw Milosz’s Dedication, Major Jackson’s Picketing, as well as poems by Carolyn Forché and others.

The writing prompts will help open creative spaces where participants will write about public issues that concern them the most, and have the opportunity to reflect on the healing power of writing – a healing which has the potential to be both personal and public. The guiding thoughts for the workshop are these four lines from Jorge Luis Borges’ sonnet ‘The Instant’ (from his book The Sonnets, ed. Stephen Kessler) which reflect on how we change with time and experience:

Between dawn and nightfall is an abyss

of agonies, felicities, and cares.

The face that looks back from the wasted mirrors,

the mirrors of night, is not the same face.



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