Poetry News

Nick Laird Discusses Contemporary Poetry's Possible Interventions at The Guardian

By Harriet Staff

Zoo of the New, cover

A new anthology co-edited by Nick Laird and Don Paterson reinforces contemporary poetry's ability to shut down demagoguery by embracing differences. While introducing Guardian readers to The Zoo of the New: Poems to Read Now, Laird writes about one American politician in particular, and his troubling, exclusionary tactics:

There he is again. I live in New York and the whole city, the whole country, is currently focused on a single man. You catch the stolid syllable everywhere you go, on the subway, in cafes, in the library stacks. It is a great fat orange dent in the middle of the space-time fabric and it pulls everything towards it. Even that dull, rough moniker – monstrously freighted with the rhymes it drags behind it (slump, dump, thump, frump, bump, lump) – seems to signify something of its owner’s fumbling bluster, his hollow meretriciousness.

To read poetry, to return to a space for second thoughts, for complexity, for empathy, for words that are not defensive or aggressive or divisive or belittling, renews a faith in language and stillness, and a courage in the possibilities of protest, of "speaking truth to power". Poetry is always a form of political intervention, since it creates a reader who is interested in other people, in relations between experience and truth.

Those who would harm us, and have us harm others, target the language, as Orwell and Huxley and others described. The discourse is debased. In 1944, Sartre wrote that we should “never believe that antisemites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies”. They "are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words". Poets believe in words. There is a terrible violence done to human thought when the official discourse normalises lies, racism, sexual violence. Poetry is one kind of civic response to the barbarities of the two-bit huckster’s spiel, his slogans, his dog whistles: it insists on an attempt to speak the truth, even if, as Dickinson has it, it tells it slant.

The subtitle of The Zoo of the New is "Poems to Read Now", and "now" has never seemed as necessary a time to be on the side of life. Poems remind us to be open to the world, that other people, no matter how apparently "other", may yet feel the same as us.

Continue reading at The Guardian.

Originally Published: March 20th, 2017