Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda

Poetry, the opposite of propaganda, should encourage people to think and feel for themselves

Last month I was honoured to be in the audience as the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley received the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize, and to hear his address, ‘Songs for Dead Children: Poetry in Violent Times.’ The entire event, including Longley’s speech, is available to listen to online.

The speech is a generous and lyrical discussion of how poets and artists can respond, with the appropriate outrage and humanity, to violent acts. Longley makes a eloquent point about the importance of literature to the ideas of free speech and democracy:

We learned from each other how complex the situation was, how inadequate the political certainties — Green Ireland, Orange Ulster. We knew there was no point in versifying opinion and giving people what they wanted to hear. We believed that poetry, the opposite of propaganda, should encourage people to think and feel for themselves: it should appeal to their “generous instinct”, as MacNeice said in the violent 1930s.

The idea that poetry is the opposite of propaganda is marvellous and generous, and one I suspect I will repeat to others many times in the future. I’m glad I was able to tell Michael Longley that when I spoke to him after the speech.

In the same part of the speech, Longley touched on one of the paradoxes of art, which is that some of the very best of it is borne out of suffering and crisis. We condemning the acts and wish they had never happened; and yet we applaud the poetry about it and declare it essential.

We disliked the notion that civic unrest might be good for poetry, and poetry a solace for the broken-hearted. We were none of us in the front line. So far as I can recall, we never discussed these dilemmas. We had no plans to face up to the crisis as a group, or to speak to the outside world about it. We continued to write the poems that presented themselves, no doubt hoping that one day we might produce something “adequate” about the Troubles.’ I find that I wrote in 1971:: ‘Too many critics seem to expect a harvest of paintings, poems, plays and novels to drop from the twisted branches of civil discord. They fail to realise that the artist needs time in which the raw material of experience may settle to an imaginative depth, where it can be transformed into art.’ We took our time. Paul Muldoon observed that if you didn’t write about the Troubles you might be dismissed as an ostrich; if you did, you might be judged exploitative.

I’ve heard people discuss our current turbulent politics–#Brexit, the election of Trump, secessionists in Spain, the disintegration of Turkey, the Syrian civil war, the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean–and ask why our art is not better, more urgent, and relevant to our time. Perhaps the best art about this era is still incubating, settling to its ‘imaginative depth.’

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