Rosalind's poetry in a previous issue.
Rosalind's previous essay on poetry in Marseille
Le Scriptorium, the Marseille-based group of poets brought together last year by Dominique Sorrente, had its second international get-together in May. May 9 is European Unity day, and Dominique introduced proceedings by speaking about Europe as the object of desire in the Europa myth, carried off on a white bull.
Lendemains d'Europe was the title of the Seminar, (Europe's Tomorrow) with a subtitle of Poetry, Commitment and Freedom. Quite some topic. With the white bull in mind, and not wanting to be carried off like Europa in the direction of the unknown, I spoke first, as invited, on Poetry and commitment in the contemporary anglo-saxon world. Poesie engagee means something between commitment and protest. As usual, there's a position there that can't quite be matched in English.
I'd thought I was going to be on for 15 minutes, but on looking at my program, discovered it was to be for an hour. Bring on the white bull... I launched into an account of the poets in Key West for last year's Literary Seminar, brought together by Carolyn Forché to sign a petition against the war, among them Richard Wilbur, Billy Collins, Derek Walcott and Sharon Olds; told them about Sam Hamill and his invitation to the White House and the 13,000 poems sent to the website of Poets Against The War, I quoted Robert Bly's poem. Call and Response first published in The Nation last year and spoke of the immense response there had been country-wide from poets to protest the war in Iraq. I spoke of Andrew Motion, British's shoes, closets, pockets and bathroom while the police were looking the other way. It wasn't an erudite talk, but I think I gave the assembled European poets some idea of the scurrilous things that Anglo-Saxon poets have been getting up to lately, their courage, their commitment, their humor, and yes, the evolving of poetry into a political statement in the US and the UK. I'd assumed a level of radicalism in these Francophone poets that matched what I feel exists among US poets these days. But I'd misread at least some of them. Two men challenged me. Why was I against the war? What had poetry to do with politics? Would I have been against the Normandy invasion?
When we got to the Normandy landings, I felt the white bull give a lurch and threaten to take off with me. I said that I wasn't born then, and it was another topic, and could we get back to poetry. I felt some of the assembled company bristle, others sigh with relief. In the interval, while we downed black coffee and munched croissants, people came up to me and enthused, and my sense of having blundered, or at least offended, retreated. Then I got it. In France, you're supposed to be contentious. Being argued with, even attacked, is a sign of respect. Vociferous arguments are supposed to happen. I'd won their respect by not backing down; I'd somehow even salvaged Anglo-Saxon poetry from the intellectual garbage heap of too-much-commitment.
The next two speakers brought up the topic of committed poetry, or poesie engagee in a rather different way. Andre Ughetto, a scholar and translator of Italian poetragainst. Since Dante, poets have been railing against the status quo, and Dante lurks in the background of all Italian poetry like a benign godfather, not so much quoted as assumed. During Fascism in the 30's and 40's, Italian poets protested in code. Code, a language of dissent that does not appear to be dissent, is central to Italian poetry. Is this a retreat from overt commitment or simply a sensible way of going on, when politics threatens to over-whelm or threaten one's very existence? Code, form, reference to poetic precedent, have protected Italian poets for centuries and allowed them to survive even the excesses of fascism, Ughetto told us. Different groups of poets in different historical situations have both spoken out and also evolved different methods of survival. I suddenly long to think and write in code.
Poetry has hidden out, lain low, spoken up and been threatened with obliteration, for centuries, and across the world. Mandelstam had to bury his. Pasternak had to deny his. People have had to eat poems, write them on toilet paper, hide them in holes. Poets have died with poems in their pockets, on forced marches, on battlefields. When the going gets tough, poets disguise themselves, their words hidden and potent as an anarchist's bomb.
The third speaker of the day in Marseille was Laurence Verrey, from Lausanne, Switzerland. She spoke of a place of protest; indeed, its safe coziness apart from the rest of Europe has been legendary. Switzerland doesn't go to war, won't use the Euro, won't take sides. Is there a poetry of protest there? Laurence Verrey's commitment is largely to truth as experienced and spoken by women. Her new book, Pour Un Visage (Editions de l'Aire) is both calm and passionate.
Donne tout! disait elle... (Give everything! she said.)
So there we were, poets at last hungrily into the pizza and red wine, tarte aux pommes and more coffee, urgently into discussion, asking of each other the questions we needed to ask. Poetry is different in different places. The French tradition of good writing (which means scholarly, subtle) challenges the American sense of anything-goes. Swiss sensibilities meet Italian sophistries. Poets meet at many levels - intellectual, social, political, national, international; and then we come down to earth and eat pizza, that gift of Italy to the hurried world, and drink French wine. We all go out into Marseille, the port city, center of the Mediterranean world, where a plaque on the Vieux Port marks the place where 600 years before Christ, the Greeks landed, and civilization began. We take our different ways, home.