Roughly 7 years ago, I found myself in an awful place. I just managed to escape out of a toxic relationship and despite cherishing the newfound freedom with immense support from my wonderful network of friends — what would I do without them — I found myself terribly afraid of the future, especially since I was moving to London in a couple of months after that. In that moment of time, I found Sarah Kay’s TEDTalk video. That was how I started to dabble in poetry, however novice and average.
Sarah Kay’s video led me to find more amazing works of other contemporary poets such as Anis Mojgani (whom I flew in 2013 to meet in an event in Melbourne!), Buddy Wakefield, Andrea Gibson, and many more. I started writing some of my own poems, and participated in spoken word events in my university. I was told that despite the first impression of a taciturn, timid girl I emitted upon entering the stage, my energy when I was performing glued people to their seats. What’s impressive during that time I was at my lowest point — coping with the reality of my father’s passing, miles away from my home country — but also at the same time, I was the happiest in my completely new surroundings where I can start anew.
In a chapter of Teju Cole’s collection of essays, Known and Strange Things, he wrote about the poetry of Nobel Prize winner and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, of whom he referred to his ‘ports of refuge’. “I turn to him when I wish to come as close as possible to what cannot be said. The new century has been full of dark years, and I have returned again and again to poets”, Cole wrote. His favourite book of Tranströmer’s poems is The Half-Finished Heaven. This was the volume that he “turned to the most during the horrors of the Bush and Cheney years.” Despite his fading belief in God, he “needed to somehow retain belief in a cloud of witnesses”, and his “hunger for miracle speech had not abated”. For this, Cole found himself refuge in poetry, specifically Tomas Tranströmer’s.
Cole isn’t alone in recognising and seeking solace in words. Poetry is political, according to Adrienne Rich. In her book What Is Found There: Notebooks in Poetry and Politics, she examined “the long, erotic, unended wrestling of poetry and politics”, touching on topics such as dealing with power corruption, art & capitalism, resisting defeatism in an ever-increasing challenging world, and the role of poetry in the immigrant experience.
It hardly matters if the poet has fled into expatriation, emigrated inwardly, looked toward Europe or Asia for models, written stubbornly of the terrible labour conditions underpinning wealth, written from the microcosm of the private existence, written as convict or aristocrat, as lover or misanthrope: all our work has suffered from the destabilising national fantasy, the rupture of imagination implicit in our history.
But turn it around and say it on the other side: in a history of spiritual rupture, a social compact built on fantasy and collective secrets, poetry becomes more necessary than ever: it keeps the underground aquifers flowing; it is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.
Poets newly arriving here — by boat or plane or bus, on foot or hidden in the trunks of cars, from Cambodia, from Haiti, from Central America, from Russia, from Africa, from Pakistan, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, from wherever people, uprooted, flee to the land of the free, the goldene medina, the tragic promised land — they too will have to learn all this.
At the 65th annual National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin took to the podium while accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, on writing, poetry and freedom:
I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words. I’ve had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.
I don’t write poems anymore, to be honest I don’t think I am good at it — but if there is ever a need for one day for me, for all my writer friends to return to poetry as a way to keep the underground aquifers flowing, for freedom — then I am all for it.