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Poetry Against Violence

An essay and two poems
K Satchidanandan

Ocatvio Paz, the great Mexican poet, diplomat and thinker wrote in his introduction to Poesía en Movimiento (Poetry in Motion) an anthology of contemporary Mexican poetry: ‘There can be no poetry without history, but poetry has no other mission than to transmute history. And therefore the only true revolutionary poetry is apocalyptic poetry. ‘Later he adds: ‘The poet is a man whose very being becomes one with his words. Therefore only the poet can make possible a new dialogue.’

Pablo Neruda, another great poet of our times, advocated ‘impure poetry’ in his 1935 manifesto, Towards an Impure Poetry, a poetry that carries the dust of distances and smells of lilies and urine: ‘The used surfaces of things, the wear that hands have given to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things, all lend a curious attractiveness to reality that we should not underestimate…’ He had said in that manifesto. In 1966, again he wrote, ‘I have always wanted the hands of people to be seen in poetry,’ and added, ‘I have always preferred a poetry where the fingerprints show. A poetry of loam where the water can sing. A poetry of bread where everyone may eat.’ We know how this intuitive connection to the masses remained a feature of his oeuvre right from his Residence on Earth and became more intense as he grew turning him into a biblical prophet of sorts, the voice of the voiceless, reminding us of another great poet of our time, Czeslaw Milosz the Polish poet to whom poetry was ‘a participation in the humanly modulated time’ and who believed that the poetry that does not address the destiny of nations is useless. And that ‘in a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot’. He warned the wrong-doers: ‘You who have wronged a simple man/ Bursting into laughter at his suffering…/Do not feel safe. The poet remembers./You may kill him — a new one will be born./Deeds and talks will be recorded’ (You Who Have Wronged).

The greatest poets of our time, from Paz, Neruda, Brecht and Mahmoud Darwish to Tagore, Nazrul Islam and Faiz Ahmed Faiz are united by what Paz calls the apocalyptic element — that one finds in the poets we have cited besides a range of poets from William Blake, Alexander Pushkin, Alexander Blok, Paul Celan and Cesar Vallejo to Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire, Nazim Hikmet, Kim Chi-ha and Bei Dao. Their texts instantly make visible the now obscure links between mantic practices and poetry, between magic, shamanism, possession and oracle on the one hand and poetic vision, inspiration, power and incantation on the other. The poet thus re-enchants the disenchanted world by turning poetry into a symbolic act intended to transform the world.

This apocalyptic and symbolic function of poetry has assumed a new urgency in our time that, to me, has been marked primarily by violence in its diverse incarnations. Theodor Adorno, the well- known thinker from Frankfurt once said that poetry is impossible after Auschwitz. The statement, clearly, was not meant to be literal; it was an intense comment on the violence of our times that works against creativity of every kind. Indeed the Holocaust produced its own variety of great poetry — remember Nelly Sachs, Abba Kovner, Paul Celan and several others who still remind us of those ominous days of the genocidal mania. It was about such poetry that the Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz had said in his introduction to the anthology of post-War Polish poetry, ‘…a poetry for the horror-stricken, for those abandoned to butchery, for survivors, created out of a remnant of words, salvaged words, out of uninteresting words from the great rubbish dump.’

The history of poetry in our time has also been a history of censorship, exile and martyrdom. We have the examples of Lorca and Neruda, Nazim Hikmet and Ossip Mandelstam, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Ai Qing, Shamsur Rahman and Taslima Nasrin, Benjamin Moloise and Ken Saro-Wiwa, Cherabanda Raju and Saroj Dutta, Subbarao Panigrahi and Safdar Hashmi who had all raised their voice against some form of dictatorship, discrimination and injustice for which they had to suffer insult, imprisonment, life in a labour camp, exile or death. Plato, who had kept poets out of his ideal republic should be pleased that he has had several followers in our time: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, Pinochet, Id-i-Ameen, Sani Abacha, Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Husain and many other champions of totalitarianism and fundamentalism of diverse hues, at times even avowed democrats eager to defend the status-quo. James Joyce once said of writers, ‘Squeeze us, we are olives’, meaning the writers yield their best under oppressive environments. While it is true that various forms of oppression have produced some of the most passionate poetic works of our time, it is equally true that they have also silenced a lot of real and potential poets. Brecht was right when he asked, ‘Will there be poetry in dark times?’, and answered, ‘Yes, poetry about dark times’. Remember, in his poem ‘To the Posterity’ he had bemoaned the cruel times when a talk about trees could be a crime since it also carried a silence about so many crimes.

It is impossible for the genuine writer today to ignore the violence that threatens to drown our beautiful world. Blood floods our bedrooms and our drawing rooms are strewn with corpses and that is often the blood and corpses of those who have neither drawing rooms nor bedrooms. Even the ivory towers of pure aesthetes are being swept by the winds of violence and change. Poets can no more be comfortable with ahistoricity, even if they transmute it, as Paz says, into apocalyptic visions. Violence in our time springs from so many sources. Indeed there are the big and small wars often engineered by divisive forces and imperialist agencies, we have seen, from Vietnam to Iraq how wars can be conjured up by hegemonic nation states. Another form of violence springs from social inequalities: of class, caste, race and gender. Capitalist violence that emanates from greed and consequent exploitation — ‘capitalism comes into the world dripping blood’, said Karl Marx. Upper caste violence based on discrimination, denial of opportunities and silencing of historical memory, the violence of the White races against the Blacks and Browns and non-tribals against tribal populations, and patriarchal violence that takes several forms from linguistic and emotional violence to the physical one, inevitably produce counter-violence from the victims who try to resist the violence from above; but even counter-violence, however sympathetic we are towards it, is also violence and as Brecht says, even anger against injustice contorts our human features. By now any intelligent student of history knows that violence cannot end violence and ‘an eye for an eye only turns the whole world blind’, to recall the words of the greatest spokesman of non-violence in our times. We have seen this dark logic at work in the countries that sought to change their destiny through violence. They had to employ greater violence to sustain their regimes until some of them collapsed for lack of any means to know the truth, why, to know even their own people’s thoughts, as they had silenced all opposition by brute force- which is blindness of the worst kind.

Another is communal violence, of which we have seen some rabid outbursts in India recently. This happens when religion gets divorced entirely from ethics, from God, if you want, gets congealed into dogma and fanaticism and begins to create a scapegoat, an ‘other’ in its own image held responsible for every suffering that one endures. It shows patriarchal proclivities, manufactures an artificial tradition and a distorted history dismissing elements that do not suit its design and uses racial symbols and archetypes to appeal to the popular unconscious. Thus it is also a form of cultural and historical violence. This communalism shares with fascism its basic features, what Umberto Eco calls ur-Fascism in his book , Five Moral Pieces, a fascism that sees dissent as betrayal, defines nation negatively to the exclusion of minorities thus promoting xenophobia, fears difference, advocates action for the sake of action, rejects modernism, looks at pacifism as collusion with the enemy, scorns the weak, appeals to the middle classes, encourages the cult of death, upholds machismo as a value and opposes all non-conformist sexual behaviour, treats people as a monolith, deride parliamentary governments, promotes what George Orwell would call ‘new speak’ that sees everything as black and white , and avoids any kind of intellectual complexity, limits the tools available to critical thinking and creates a cult of tradition taking truth to be already known. 

Techno-fascism too is a form of corrupt power as it ruins our physical and spiritual environment, exploits the natural resources with no consideration for posterity, pollutes our air , earth and water and imposes on everything the tyranny of the rational, measuring everything in numbers and quantities and rejects all that is incalculable, immeasurable and unsayable — which is the very substance of poetry — as they are impossible to digitalise. It also produces speed that Milan Kundera in his Slowness calls the ‘ecstasy of technology’. The speed of modern life leaves little room for meditation or even the pleasure of reading and writing. He speaks about the need to retrieve that lost joy of slowness, of lying on the meadow, ‘idly gazing at God’s windows’, a joy getting lost in the louder and faster entertainment provided by the machines.

Another kind of violence comes from the market that forces the writer to be loud and to join the bidding in the culture market while art demands subtlety, suggestion and understatement — it is like a subterranean current that slowly works on the foundations, uproots the status-quoist values and creates new ones. Market is the new Midas turning everything it touches not into gold, but into commodity and artists who answer its temptations are sure to sell their soul to this Mephistophelean spirit. 

Baudrillard spoke of globalisation as the ‘greatest violence of our times’ as it imposes cultural amnesia in its victims, forcing them to forget their indigenous traditions in art, culture and knowledge and turning them increasingly into unthinking mimics of the West. Local cultures are the repositories of culturally learned responses built up over thousands of years from which poetry often draws its sustenance. Its loss is no less dangerous than the loss of genetic diversity. Western universalism is trying to drown the pluralistic and polyphonic cultural mosaic of countries like India. The agenda of globalisation is mono-acculturation, that is, to homogenise and standardise cultures whereas difference and diversity are the very soul of many cultures in the East. Globalisation kills languages both through jargonisation and the selling of the monolingual idea. It is more a command from above than a decision from below; it anthropologises culture by reducing ethnicity into a brand name. It is a form of recolonisation that brings back colonial imaginaries.

Genuine poetry has always opposed violence in its direct and oblique, tangible as well as intangible, forms, and more than ever it needs today to raise its profoundly human voice against all forms of violence, the ones we spoke of and the ones we may have overlooked. Paz had foreseen the contemporary situation: ‘Reality has cast aside all disguises and contemporary society is seen for what it is — a heterogeneous collection of things ‘homogenised’ by the whip or by propagandas, directed by groups distinguishable from one another only by their degree of brutality. In these circumstances, poetic creation goes into hiding.’ Poetry, even with its element of play, is no mere combinatorial game that a machine can play. It is more than a mere permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions. It always tries to say what it cannot say and its power comes from its willingness to give a voice to what is voiceless and a name to what is nameless. It advances on the blank page as Nicanor Parra would say. Poetry becomes important, as Italo Calvino says of literature in general, not when it reproduces established values, given truths or ready-made slogans .It is an ear that hears beyond the understanding of common sociology, an eye that sees beyond the colour spectrum of everyday politics. It promotes self-awareness through a criticism of the status quo and the cultural and material violence it perpetrates. The truth it discovers may not necessarily be of immediate use, but it is sure to gradually become part of social consciousness. It is the undeclared mission of poetry today to retrieve the past without being atavistic, to disentangle the effects of power from representations, to re-establish the almost-lost connections between man and nature, to redefine the boundaries between the self and the other and the self and nature in the context of man’s species- arrogance that cripples the environment as well as his own moral and spiritual life, to re-sensitise man to suffering, alienation and solitude and to give positive non-violence and love which is its greatest expression the central place it ought to have in all human discourse. 

Reality has cast aside all disguises and contemporary society is seen for what it is: a heterogeneous collection of things ‘homogenized’ by the whip or by propagandas, directed by groups distinguishable from one another only by their degree of brutality. In these circumstances, poetic creation goes into hiding.’ Globalisation kills languages J. Swaminathan, an admirer and friend of Paz, had seen how in tribal art nature and its creation envelope each other. Lorca who spoke of the ‘duende’, that sudden epiphany , the vision of godhead, the intangible mystery in the context of Arabic music, also was speaking of the thrill and terror of what Paz calls the apocalypse. But this is not a moment of ignorance , but of awareness of the highest kind, an awareness filled with deep concern for all living things that the Buddha, that great pioneer of the philosophy of non-violence, would have qualified as ‘karuna’ or compassion. Let me conclude with Paz’s own inspired words: ‘We must find the lost word, dream inwardly and also outwardly,/ decipher the night’s tattooing and look face to face at the noon day and tear off the mask’ so that finally we can say, ‘I am history/ A memory inventing itself/I am never alone/ I speak with you always/ You speak with me always/ I move in the dark/ I plant signs.’

(Originally delivered as the inaugural talk at the Mumbai Poetry Festival, TISS, Bombay, 2020.)



Letter From a Soldier
– K Satchidanandan 

(On watching the letters sent by the soldiers from Punjab in the First World War forming part of an installation, ‘The Memorial for Lost Words’ by Bani Abidi at Khoj, Delhi)

Dear Ma, 

Kindly send me the following items by return post:

  1. The song of the sparrow on our courtyard to sweeten my ears as I cross the desert on my tank
  2. A parrot and a rainbow in the sky while hiding in a bush
  1. A few Gurbanis to warm me as I shiver in the cold
  2. A matchstick to set fire to the heap of the General’s abuses
  3. A spinach leaf from my mother’s kitchen to lull my infinite hunger 
  4. A cloud floating over Panipat to squeeze out the rain-juice to quench my thirst 
  5. A woof of Jagtar, our pet, so that I can tell east from west
  6. A chain to bind my feet together to stop me from running to Samira
  7. A kiss from my unborn daughter as I fall to the bullet of my helpless comrade across the border
  8. A quilt woven with  my little sister Jugnu’s tears to shroud my brother and me as the last breath leaves our flesh

P.S.  Don’t forget to tell my brothers in arms not to cover my coffin with the flag and not offer a gun salute at my burial. Don’t ever let the children at home wear a uniform. 




Questions from the Dead: An Essay on Nationalism
– K Satchidanandan

Which country’s border was Hiuen Tsang crossing
when, on a donkey,  he crossed the Himalayan pass
with a sack full of Buddhist texts?

Whence came the races that spoke
Dravidian and Aryan tongues? Was there no one in India
when they landed here? Not even a tribal?

Where did the Bharatvarsha of Mahabharat and Meghdoot
begin, where did it end? Did Bhasa and Kapilar
belong to the same country?

Where were the borders of the India of Fahien
and of Al-Biruni? Where was Taxila? Which was
the India Alexander set out to conquer? Which
country did Ashoka and Akbar rule?

Who created India: the East India Company
Or Mountbatten? Or was it Gandhi? When
Did ‘Hindu’ become the name of a religion?

When did Earth come to be in the history
of the universe? When did nations come to be
in the history of Earth? How many nations
make a human body? What is the kinship between
human soul and nations’ maps? Did all the births of
Bodhisattva take place in India? How many oceans
are there in each language? How many skies
in winds? How many seasons for love?

I had been guarding the borders till yesterday. All
my life I had arguments about borders. My living flesh
bled, caught in their barbed wire fencing. I went
to court in their name, killed many times, died many times.
They said I would become a martyr if I died
for the cause, that it would secure Heaven for me.

My land, I do not loathe you, nor do I worship you.
Had I been born elsewhere I would have lived another
life; I would have needed a passport to enter you.

Today at last I am going to cross all the borders
and become part of the Earth. Do not cover me with flags.

Today I know, we are a creation of coincidences,
like our body, like the Solar System. We have
no scope for pride, and war does not have even
that scope. Bury me deep without an anthem.

No one ceases to ask questions
just because one is dead.  

(Translated from Malayalam by the poet)

K Satchidanandan is a widely translated Malayalam poet, bilingual writer, translator and editor. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2012 for his collection of poems, Marannu Vecha Vasthukkal. He also received the Poet Laureate award at The Tata Literature Live, 2019.