Is poetry a form of resistance? Can it always, by definition, be described as such? Or rather, only in certain contexts, i.e. social, political, or cultural contexts? How can poetry embody resistance and to what?
The poets have spoken.
Inquiry by Pedro Serra.
In terms of poetry being a form of resistance to oppression, totalitarian regimes, and intolerance, I must say that I do not believe, unfortunately, that it is able to play a prominent role in the perfidious Capitalist-Industrial Military-Consumerist situation that we are subjugated to. In this context, more than resistance, poetry is able to provide a vanishing point from the ugly picture that is society. Poetry offers perspective and allows the reader to believe in the possibility of resistance -which is a lot already-, but it’s not able to stop the headless capitalist machine or cause the greedy to lose sleep at night.
On an explicit and superficial level, in evidence of what is visible, it can be used as a way of expressing a reaction; yes, sometimes when it occurs voluntarily or even inadvertently, whether in a small, hoarse, or loud manner, against the smashing of the many faces of power, abuse, or even confusion, and, in this case, it may be good or bad, and it may be in and of itself, or there may be many other ways of showing resistance as a result of it, which are certainly more forceful and appreciated in this day and age. It may therefore be a form of expressed, perhaps marginal, resistance, whilst, at the same time, it may also not be, it may even represent explicit withdrawal, without ever abandoning its certain marginality or safeguarding, without stopping to filter oneself, today more than ever, in other forms of Art, the Environment, or Support. It may even, in evidence, withdraw from that which pushes the materialism of human existence, with its insistence to establish itself as something different, further proving that it is, therefore, also a form of evident resistance. It can certainly be so even in the pure visible wrapping of the tongue – as I am proving in this passage, since, although I have been summoned to the battlegrounds set out on my identity card, I peacefully resist against having to wear the appropriate uniform. And it might not actually be so…
But what never ceases to be Poetry, I believe, in a deeper, ingrained, metaphysical sense, is inherently resistant, since in and of itself, like in the sport of fencing, with the zigzagging of verses or in the filtration producing other forms of Art, Media, or Support, there is also an ability to light up the hearts of the people – or in what is conventionally called the nerve centre of the senses, strictly in the brain. A terrible and also Olympian ability as with this strange sport. Such which can take the name of the gods even if they do not exist.
And I take a proposal and phrases from a broader formulation that I once wrote and read to an audience at the 2007 edition of Correntes d ’Escritas. As usual, a more or less enigmatic theme had been introduced at the guest speakers’ table which was to provoke debate: ours was “Poetry is a secret of the gods”. What I wrote and read solely on that occasion, I have kept with me until today. I believe that sharing it now responds (however long-windedly) to this question with regards to means of resistance and what it is that Poetry resists.
this sort of fencing
Rivers of spittle and ink have flowed for centuries, trying to explain precisely what Poetry is, and the statement, “Poetry is a secret of the gods,” is merely an all so pretty utterance in the midst of the stream, currently caught up in the mainstream. Positive phrase. It provides plenty of glossing possibilities, especially for those partial to the point of view, if they exist. Those who, at first, were proponents of that viewpoint, as are perhaps all the people who have come here so early to listen to us, may agree with the statement, but there will, of course, also be those who harbour a secret opposition to it and have come here to gather scientific arguments or experience against it. And we also want to give. Therefore, white, black, somewhere in the middle. Let’s go through the nuances and not appease anyone.
Rivers of spittle and ink have flowed over what it is that Poetry is, and there can be no denying that there are conflicts, serious conflicts, between what can be “drunk” from these rivers, what can be said or learned in a classroom, and what is applied in the poetic process. Let us put ourselves at the obvious, perhaps educational, starting point, to reach the other dilemmatic point; the point from which one first learns about poetry, be it at university, or maybe even before, to launch the debate. One learns in those rivers of tradition that, within the root of poetry, in Greek a sense of creation is already present, but not only that; but that Poetry is also this thing in books that does not permeate well to the margins, but not only that; but that Poetry may also be an effeminate rigmarole that rhymes, but not only that; but also that great poets always go through the later flow of writing, but not only that; but also that, in particular, verse is one thing and Poetry is another. But not only that, and let’s just stop there.
Perhaps the distinction between these two last concepts is the necessary starting point, and without conflicts between theory and practice, to put ourselves on the level plane where the propositional sentence moves. Verse is one thing and Poetry is something else. There may be poetry without verse and verse without poetry. Poetry appears when one delves into feelings, in the transmission of thought, in the transfiguring ideality of things, in the supernatural. That falls within the territory of the gods. From the phrase.
Therefore, “is Poetry a secret of the gods”…? Not yet – we continue in the darkness but we are proceeding anyhow, with the phrase. We entered white territory, very well, withdrawing the verse to its condition to which the explosion of Rimbaud’s language confined it, and rising into the air in which the expectation of gods fits into. But beyond the “secret of the gods” possessing something tautological, as much as saying that “salt is salty” (the secret, that what is hidden, what is not to be revealed, the mystery, the enigma, that which belongs only to the gods), it is necessary to clarify who these gods are, these supreme beings, superior, supernatural, eternal, infinite entities. On which side of the transmission is it supposed to be placed.
Let’s see: the statement is a challenge proposing divinity to anyone who can penetrate the poetic sense of an artistic, musical, and especially verbal language…? Are gods able to penetrate that which is arcane and receive the transmission of poetic thought, entering the poetic enigma…? So, ladies and gentlemen, as readers you should take advantage and leave now to seek the silence of reading rooms, look for the books in which the transfiguring secret is enclosed, the one that only the gods can feel. Run along now and give it a go! Behold, divinity within your reach, buy tickets to the sky of the gods at the book fair…!
But do not be too late, because there’s another possibility, one which has been much abused, which states that which is of the gods already belongs to the poets: is it by chance that it is them that the phrase is really referring to…? Are poets the keepers of the secret…? Surely there are individuals superior to others in terms of knowledge, power, beauty, but they deceive the people who have long risen so early – not all of them can be poets. Rather, there is a sad conflicting opinion, and not only on a popular level: Agustina Bessa-Luís, who has already been at this table, wrote that a poet is a man who complains, or that if a thirty year old man cries, he is either an imbecile or a poet. Equivalence leaves no room for doubt, be he an imbecile or a poet. And even one of the symbolic fathers of this meeting, the poet Eça de Queirós, wrote the tale “A Lyric Poet” in which we are given a classic example of this with his protagonist, Korriscosso, a Greek man, along with his sad frail body, who is stuck in his humiliating job at a restaurant due to his love for a maid, Fanny, who does not understand him, because he “is only a great man in his native Greek”, because he can only write his elegies in his mother tongue.
On a popular level, in the same register that last year spoke of druids at the lupanar, referring to the literary critics today, I would have to let the poets stay at the brothel door today, permanently trapped in love with a certain beautiful prostitute, much in the same way that Eça de Queirós’ Korriscosso is with his darling Fanny, in any case without enough money (you must already have an idea that Poetry and money are incompatible) to get into the brothel.
This, on a popular level and in general, is clear, because there will be cases where the poet is able to pay, is invited inside free of charge, or even gets to set up his own brothel. In any case, these aren’t behaviours that are conducive to nourishing a polytheism such as that suggested in the statement in favour of the poet, for he is still generally seen as a stranger, on the margins of society, a dreamer, bohemian, that image of 19th-century European romanticism. More than a god, he is seen as an individual living at the mercy of God. A type of person that is united with others of the same condition only provokes a “God help us” plea. Here is the whole god that has been granted to him… But from black, and the middle range, we will now open a passage to white.
They would have already proven, in view of this table, how this is all wrong, especially the image of the poets. There are still more images, which at least part of the table would undoubtedly accept, but with all of them distorting the reality of what it is to be human beings, and hiding the fact that there can be a rational, playful, yet serious work of poetry, with words, which can question what is established and propose or interpret other ways of living, feeling, writing, and thinking. That a human being may be able to perform a transmission in rhythmic or musical language, all the better if so, and they may even be able to do it without using verse, with talent but also work. And this might even be possible with non-verbal languages. The verse is poetic because it comprises of a rhythm, but Poetry is not made with just a rhythm. This doesn’t even produce music, although it is a principle, and musical language is related to the verbal one employed in poetry… And it is at this moment, when it seems more and more the case that we are moving away from the statement that has been tabled, that we are approaching it and that of the white side of the debate, that of the highest places, in other words: when we invoke words like ‘mystery’, we approach words like ‘mystical’.
The concept of god, the word itself, is only a symbol used to envelop the unknown quantity of being. And all us beings here below, like poets and readers of poetry, are full of enigma, we are no more than puzzles, because we ignore one of the terms of the relationship that enables us to exist. In the efforts to decipher the enigma of ourselves and our relationship with the world, the mystery of poetry intervenes. Just as those people, who are impressed by a feeling of powerless dependence, project their desires and fears into a superior being who has been able to fulfil and defend them, giving it the name of absolute god, it is acceptable that from a poetic polytheism we hypostasise each of the multiple manifestations of this absolute entity that perceived by us through artistic, musical, and verbal linguistic means.
Even for the inventor of twentieth century philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche, who persuaded us of the death of God, “Poets Make Life Lighter,” even if only provisionally. And that poets and novelists are, “with regard to the knowledge of the soul, masters of all of us”, as was written by Sigmund Freud, since “they usually know many things between heaven and earth that our academic wisdom does not even dream of”. However, “the poet is not a little god,” as Pablo Neruda said as he received the Nobel Prize, “the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread: the nearest baker who does not imagine himself to be a god”… We have reached the white of heaven conscious of the phrase being a proud poetic license in which we are able to believe in because it makes life lighter.
In fact, poetry today is “considered to be an object of luxury or an idle and anachronistic activity, much like breeding hawks, studying heraldry, fencing or any other activity considered to be distant from reality” (Cláudio Daniel, in an interview with Et Cetera, 7, 91). And, in fact, training birds of prey, studying the art of describing coats of arms, or practising a sport from which the invention of gunpowder has taken away certain possibilities, however much fencers might describe it as a way of life, it all seems somewhat outdated. However, even he who might be considered somewhat outdated continues to learn, especially if it is considered an Olympic discipline, as fencing is.
The sword and the foil come equipped with a sensor at the tip of the weapon (in case of the sabre, it is inside the body), and when a fencer touches the other, the sensor lights up. As in fencing, I believe that in Poetry there is also an ability to light things up, but rather this happens in people’s hearts (or in what is conventionally called the nerve centre of the senses, which is strictly in the brain). This is an extraordinary, also Olympian ability. To such an extent that they can take the name of the gods even if they do not exist.
Is it an activity that is far from reality? Or a useless activity…? Indeed. Digging a hole to make it into a photograph does not seem to have any practical effect. Digging a hole to make a well and to have water seems very useful. And yet, who will assure us that there are no more people able to better quench their thirst for photography than for water drawn from wells? Who guarantees us that certain good photographs are no more useful for what is conventionally called the soul than certain wells? Even in the third world, where food and drink are more urgently needed than the desires of the soul, is it actually unnecessary to dream of a well, the need for the idea for when hunger, and effectively thirst, arrives…? They say that if a human being stops dreaming he dies, that if you wake him insistently whilst he is dreaming, he dies. Photography, literature, the art of writing, and the other arts, poetry, are as essential to life and, above all, to happiness in this life as food and drink, because finding meaning is essential.
Clothing is essential when it is essential to seek shelter, and a bag is enough when it is cold, and a curtain is enough if you are desperate; but wearing clothes that serve their purpose, wearing clothes that you like, is essential when you have managed to find shelter, when, whilst sheltered, you are still able to dream of how to continue sheltering yourself. And washing your body is just as essential if we want to improve ourselves in an olfactory sense, but when one dreams, perfume appears…
Writing and poetry, is one of the perfumes of life, it is this sort of fencing that touches the sensors of the soul, which illuminates constellations of lights in an inexplicable, enigmatic way, and, for that reason, it deserves the name of the gods. Even if they do not exist.
[This is the implicit meaning of the perpetuity of its resistance, as well as what it resists to and how, in my view]
A poem resists and resists by definition. It resists against the language of consensus, against the word myth, against the word that has been mummified, against the representation of what is outside of the word and it is always a language of power. It resists against political theology, against the throne and the altar, and is without a sovereign, without a group that treats it as the subject, out of a group, out of the state, outside the flag.
It resists because it shows the impossible harmony between the sonic sphere (singing) and the senses (concept). It resist because it shows the impossible harmony between trope and meaning. It resists because it is not meaning.
It resists because it is not possible to archive a poem. Because in poems that which never happened, that which will never happen, and that which will always happen, happens in the poem. It resists because, in poems, the impossible is possible.
Obviously, not all poetry assumes these positions. And there is poetry that, rather than resist, validates the daily destruction of the world. Many times without even realising it. This is the case with “moralising” poems, or those that in some way represent and reproduce the world. From my point of view, poetry is only resistant when it destroys the world, when it supposes that the poetic phenomenon occurs exclusively within language and that if there is something that poetry can renew, albeit via very humble breaks, it is its own domain.
Resistant poetry can occur in any context, I do not see why there needs to be any limitations. Each society will destroy the world in its own way; each community will assume its own language cleansing and recovery policies. And among these different forms, there may be few similarities. In short, I think that the resistance of poetry is not only in the form, but in the intention to destroy to renew.
Poetry resists everything, that is, everything that is part of the linguistic sphere of everyday life. But, I insist: it destroys it. It is not possible for there to be positive resistance.
Producing art and crafts using language teaches us -well, it should teach us- to produce art and crafts with life, since we are fundamentally linguistic beings. And this last one is an unavoidable task… Our life, as Zygmunt Bauman says, “whether we know it or not, and whether we like this news or if it saddens us, is a work of art. To live our life as the art of living requires, as with artists of any art, we must pose challenges that are (at least at the time of establishing them) difficult to achieve (…). We have to attempt the impossible.”
Previously, René Char had stated that: “It seems that poetry, along the paths it has followed, through the trials it has resisted in order to deserve its name as poetry, forming the post that allows the exhausted and demoralised to find new strength and fresh reasons to pursue the prey or the shadow once more”.
And Deleuze, in a lecture entitled “Qu’est-ce que l’acte de création?” rightly proposed that artistic creation (in all its forms) was rooted in its resistance. In his own words: “philosophy books and works of art have resistance in common, resistance to death, servitude, that which is intolerable, shame, the present”.
Many more names would cover this helpless vision: Eduardo Milán, Claudio Rodríguez (“we are defeated, never tamed”), Antonio Machado (or Juan de Mairena, for whom the “free emission of a slave thought” is of no use), Blanca Varela, Wisława Szymborska (“Nothing on the walls/and only the moisture that is falling./ It’s cold here and it’s dark.// But a coldness and a darkness / with the fire out./ Nothing, but after the bison/ painted in ochre.// Nothing, but a pending nothingness/ after a long resistance/ head down./ So, a Beautiful Nothingness./ Deserving of capital letters./ A heresy before the vulgar nothingness, / unconverted and proud of the difference.// Nothing, but after us/ we were here,/ and we ate our hearts/ and drank our own blood”). Who pursues prey or shadows in the very heart of an elusive and refractory language, poetry that avoids repeating the underappreciated languages (of power, of discourse, of poetry itself). That, of course, resists itself and resists the poet, at the same time that any attempt at mediation or impoverishment poses resistance since it lodges dissent and individuality, avoiding the gregarious and uniform vision of a large portion of the languages that surround (and, at the same time, conform to) us, it slips away and does not allow itself to be subjected to the principles of dehumanisation, legality, legitimacy, or publicity that try to constrain the human experience in terms of post-industrial logic.
Resisting being specific cultural goods whose value is symbolic and also works as the exchange value, poetry, aware of its limits and its borders, generates friction in the same poetic system that hosts it, embodying the turbulent failure to tell what is identical in identical terms and tends to expel both what is banal and instrumental, drawing a wide arc around that which is sublime enters, that which is ironic or absurd, the top and the bottom, lyrical and anti-lyrical, repulsive and beautiful, currency and the swan, Eros and Thanatos, the first wall of the first cave – that on which Szymborska writes – and of course, the same questioning of the binary logic that this response became entangled in, but which is an arc that tightens and always hits the target; that reaches the where birds fly, meanwhile, whilst said flight path is deprived of its own desired shape. And, also, its ability to form.
Even though it does not always resist, but only in certain contexts (certain authors, certain texts, certain fragments of the language that remain as splinters piercing the very tradition of language and its splintering), and actually responds to our own need (or rather desire) to place what is poetic in the territory of what is refractory; it would continue to say – in a low voice, of course, but so it would continue – that in the face of the dehumanisation of all its faces, poetry names what it is that resists against conventions, against what is accepted without questioning, against what is inhuman, against oblivion and death. And when it’s really worth it, it resists itself. In the way that is it possible for me to resist against myself to bring it to this place.
For that reason alone, poetry is resistance in itself: it resists being “modern” or “commercial”, it resists the abandonment of the editors serving the majority and the general public, it resists, and even then it moves silently, creating and renewing itself from those margins of the literary system (amongst other systems) in which it lives.
This “marginal” existence brings poetry closer to other marginalities that find in poetic language a means of ideal expression. That is why poetry, in certain social, political, and cultural contexts, is the most common and, at times, effective channel to express resistance, demands, struggle, and condemnation… Other characteristics that tend to be attributed to the lyrical genre (such as its proximity to music, rhythm, the exceptional relationship of the lyrical self with the reader, etc.) are the perfect excuse to become the base expression of resistance.
But it would be necessary to find one’s bearings a little in order to develop this idea. When we link poetry and resistance, we are generally thinking about poetry with political intentions; however, I would prefer, on the one hand, a more general, more all-encompassing view; on the other, I think a prior question about that particular political character seems necessary.
When I think of the poetry-resistance link, I first think of an existential resistance. That is to say, in how poetry seeks and constructs placesin which it would be possible to feel the pulse of existence; where a sense could be accepted, beyond the lack of meaning; where you would be able to live. The poem as an inhabitable place.
Perhaps it is only in the device of argumentation that it is possible to separate that solitary space, in which each one airs out its accounts with its own existence along to a collective political beat. But I think it’s important to put resistance there first, in the place where identity is at play, is built or dissolved, where each person debates with himself if it’s possible to – or in what conditions, or with what movements and changes – I say.
If I then ask myself about the poetry of political intention, I am assailed by the conviction that poetry is not a question of themes. I think that the political value that poetry has, undoubtedly does not appear more incisive when it talks about politics, when it analyses political or social problems, than when it talks about other issues. The fact that the political power of poetry is equal to its poetic power, speaks for itself.
It is not easy to explain this in the context set out in a questionnaire; I always prefer to refer to texts, instead of speaking in general terms, and that is not possible here. I would depart, in any case, from the experience that power, the system, class domination-let us call it anything that enables us to understand ourselves-works preferentially in the field of language: it moulds the language to give meaning to its logic, which makes other logic opposing it seem unthinkable, hiding and falsifying reality, and it ends up determining it through words. And that this permanent task of controlling and modelling of the language is its main mechanism of social and political control, more important than those ones concerned with economic or policing mechanisms. Here it would be very useful to be able to calmly analyse how the old concept of “common sense” has evolved up to the present day, or to dwell on how Breton used the metaphor of the cage in the First Manifesto; I’m content to mention it.
In my opinion, the value of poetry as a space for political resistance is rooted there. Said very quickly: I understand writing to be the search for a place of personal world-language that, according to the above, could only be given as a criticism of an established one. To the extent that the control of language is political, poems are always also political, even if the poet’s conscience, or his ideology, does not recognise it to be so. All true poetry is an attack against domination, a gesture of resistance.
If I think of concrete writing, I am only interested in those poems in which political reflection is integrated into an existential flow, indistinct from intimacy or landscape, of readings or dreams, works or days.
For example, a recent poem: sequence VI of Le jardin d’encre [The Ink Garden], still in progress, by Bernard Noël.
Amongst other things. But the concept of ‘resistance’ must also be extended, and above all, extended to the language used in the poem. And the rest of the ingredients that shape it. All located outside the limits of what is accommodated, what is planned. There you have to go always to look for the poem, in a place where gold and rags are mistaken for one another. There we have to resist, much beyond that is something else that we call ‘literature’.
2. Is it always such, by definition?
Ultimately, yes. But, of course, the meaning of the word resist is elastic. It should not be identified with an action of immediate effect nor with poetry that fights nor with the verbal or thematic aggressiveness that poems can comprise of. There are other more effective ways to resist. In an inadvertent manner, for instance. I believe in that.
3. Or is it only such in certain contexts – i.e. social, political, or cultural ones?
Poetry is not a matter of context. Precisely what is present in its circumstances is what disappeared before, that which before left behind general worthless clutter and a brutish noise in your ears. And nothing more.
4. How can you resist poetry, and what does it resist?
Perhaps these two interlinked issues have been answered above, either implicitly or explicitly. Poetry, therefore, resists in that willingness not to give in to the usurping languages, which tarnish everything in its quest to devour it in a kind of mortal osmosis. It resists, then, via its possibility of presenting itself as timeless, even making local appearances on many occasions. Virgil, Rimbaud, Pessoa, Lorca, Eugénio de Andrade … I suddenly think of those proper names that inadvertently surpass the seams of the worlds they offer in their poetry. And it there that the capacity for resistance of poems is often not the will of the author; but, rather, in an autonomy and a scope that have nothing to do with the expectations of those who write it; and that is its ultimate truth.