Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Against the dark times

I have succumbed to temptation again.

The Flying Goose café hosted one of its regular poetry readings and I returned with books by the three poets who read - Ann Atkinson, Alan Baker and Wayne Burrows - as well as books by the Australian Andrew Sant and the Dutch poet and children's writer Toon Tellegen.

As I carried my shiny treasures home I reflected that these are not the kind of books you see in Waterstone's. They come from small presses - Shoestring, Skysill and Smith/Doorstop - and are, like so many books from small presses, lovingly made. While mass market paperbacks can seem impersonal - made to fit in with a marketing officer's idea of what "brand" each book fits - small press books often show the personal care of the tiny teams that put them together. The smallest presses are run by people who make no money from them but work for pay elsewhere. The books small presses produce have a personality which seems to come from their close link with both publisher and author.

These carefully-crafted books and the skilfully-managed poems within them cannot compensate for the horrors on the news. The optimistic and peaceful protests in the Middle East seem to be ending in bloody repression and torture by regimes to whom the British government has been - and in most cases still is - selling military equipment. The threats and massacres that silence dissent have been knocked off the front page by the pain of Japan for which I have no words.

I can't look at the television for long - it's not just the sense of helplessness I experience that prevents me but the fear that if I look too long I'll be a mere voyeur - or worse, be hardened to ignore the devastation and anguish of others.

But literature (and art and music and many other sources of beauty and pleasure) still have their place in the world. I was reminded of this by a short blog message to her Japanese readers from the science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, who posted at the request of her translator and friend. Reading this - and the first comment that followed - made me feel reassured that there is nothing wrong in the refuge I seek in words, art and music. These have many roles. They deepen understanding and cause us to question. They also nourish and console, in part because of the care with which they are wrought.

So I feel less bad about the joy I take in music on Radio 3, in sunshine, in books, in poetry. These good things exist in the same world in which humans and nature cause great damage. I'll campaign and write letters and even march against great wrongs. I'll try to work out how the world might be better and say what I think. I'll never have most of the answers but can try to contribute to debate and trains of thought - the more people share ideas and work together, the better hope for humanity. And I'll pay attention to things that are quite small and made with love.

This Saturday Leicester hosts States of Independence II, an independent press fair where small and independent publishers will display their wares and writers will read, talk and answer questions. It's a free, all-day event to which members of the public are welcome. It's a chance to celebrate words and the makers of books. However dark the world, these remain worthy of celebration.


Alan Baker said...

It's the old question - how can poetry be justified in a world with all the horrors that ours has? I suppose the answer might be another question: 'what would the world be like without poetry'? That it makes the world a (slightly?) better place is justification enough for its existence. I hope. Alan

Kathz said...

Poetry may not be, as Brecht suggested, about the dark times but I think without it the darkness would be more complete. It's curious how often, when individuals and states turn tyrannical, they do their best to silence the poets. And yet poetry is not a method for changing the world.

Alan Baker said...

Yes, that's true, and interesting. Maybe it's because there's always something nonconformist about poetry.