The Indispensable Uselessness of Poetry

Week of the Festival: Felix Poetry Festival & Poëziecentrum, Belgium

On the last day before the partial lock down, I was in a coffee bar reading a poetry volume called Genadeklap (Final Blow) by Willem Jan Otten. People at the counter were discussing the unfairness of the vigorous measures for restaurants and cafés that would apply the following day. At another table, a girl took off her facemask. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes fierce. In a rather loud voice she tried to convince her friend to sign a petition. ‘We got to protest, they’re telling us to make our own gardens greener, but the local council seems to do nothing but cut down trees, for a new shopping mall no one needs!’ The urgency in her voice made me consider what I was doing. The title of the volume I was holding, suddenly appeared accurate and at the same time ironic to me. 

In times of a global pandemic, of a looming climate crisis, of the decline of democracy in many countries in the free world… Why write or read poetry? The question as to the usefulness or practical impact of poetry – and of the arts in general, for that matter – often seems to pop up. Can art change the world? Can poetry add anything substantial to all the current noise, the roar of opinions, the shouting and screaming that seems to get louder by the day? 

Why do people even ask questions of the sort? Does anyone ever ask a stock broker, a marketing consultant, a personal shopper or an interior architect what it is exactly that they add to the mess this world is in at this very moment? Do these people ever question their own professional impact? It seems of little importance. Poets though, seem to invariably question the world and their particular place in it. How can poetry contribute to making things better?

These are unprecedented times in which we see poets taking up a very active role in society. Not because they are so convinced of poetry as a tool, as a means to achieve any given goal. It rather seems that poetry itself is at stake. Yet access to what really touches us now, is gained more directly through the implicit, it seems. Through the imaginative, the undefined, the tentatively playful. The tenderness of words. The unfathomable potential of language in its most creative appearance. 

In times of uncertainty, when physical touching becomes problematic, close contact is hazardous, we do need to be touched in a figurative sense. Words are still safe, albeit inadequate as a substitute for silent physical proximity. Words are what lasts us. 

That is exactly why Dichters van wacht – Poets on call was started in April 2020 in Brussels, with the first wave of Covid19 in full swing. Poets were on call, literally. You could call a free number and a poetic selection menu put you through to a poet who would read you one of their poems. The project provided some time to breathe and listen. A short moment of intimacy between a writer and a caller, some poetry to defeat loneliness, a moment of connection. The project was unexpectedly successful. The free number has been dialled over 6000 times during the first ten days… 

With so many victims of the pandemic and very strict limitations for funerals, countless bereaved people have been denied a decent farewell from their loved ones. Grief and pain are hard to comfort when you cannot properly say goodbye and when no touching is allowed. When hugging is not possible, words can be all the arms we have. 

Adieu was a set of poetical concerts on cemeteries around the city of Ghent, as a tribute to the people we lost during the lockdown, and at the same time as a salute and an homage to life. Mourning comes with grief and love. Poetry might grasp what is so difficult to express, and music can touch us to the very bone, beyond words. If there ever be a time when people are in need of the beauty and consolation of music and poetry, this be the one. 

Klimaatdichters is an other such project. They call themselves a movement of Dutch speaking and writing poets and spoken word artists who stand up for a better climate. The idea originates with Poets for the Planet, whose manifesto was largely taken on by the Dutch speaking Klimaatdichters. It does not mean they write pamphlets or foster the idea that a poem could have political, let alone ecological impact. But poetry in which the urgent climate crisis is tangibly present seems to be surging in Dutch. These poems offers insights and awareness, recognition of fear and anger, grief and despair. Worry and wonder, implication and bewilderment, concern and activism. 

Most of all, poetry allows us to think and feel, to connect and find consolation in the space behind the words. Through it all poets are very much part of this world, now as ever. Times of crisis are definitely no Final Blow for poetry, quite to the contrary.