When it comes to the relationship between poetry and political/social issues most people would instinctively concur with the English poet, novelist, and playwright Adrian Mitchell.
In a famous and oft quoted remark, Mitchell once observed that: “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.”
Mitchell was referring to a type of poetry that was “very much the prerogative of male, middle class, university-educated poets”. However there are those who think that poetry, no matter how beautifully written, no matter how searingly honest in its introspection, is ultimately esoteric and interior - a retreat from the political, social, and economic issues that affect individuals and society.
Yet it is by no means true that poetry is solely confessional and uninterested in the socio-political events of its time.
WB Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’ is as important an analysis of the state of Ireland in the aftermath of that momentous, pivotal event as any historian can offer. The poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon did not bring WWI any closer to ending, but then, as now, they stand as unforgettable denouncements of the injustice of so many young lives being sacrificed because of an arms race between competing European power blocs.
In short, poetry can be a potent way of expressing and giving voice to a collective state of feeling in society on the major issues of the day and stand as a record for the future.
Galway poets are being urged to engage with a fascinating current political issue that recently came into law - The Defamation Bill, which introduces a new crime of blasphemous libel. Blasphemous matter is that which “is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion” and published material which intends “to cause such outrage”.
The Galway literary events organisation Over The Edge is seeking support from poets for a new project in opposition to the law, entitled Down With This Sort of Thing!- Poems in opposition to Ireland’s new blasphemy law.
According to Over The Edge co-organisers, Susan Millar DuMars and Kevin Higgins, the new law threatens freedom of expression by curtailing the rights of people to make observations, comment, or satire on religion or religious matters.
“Freedom of expression is an absolute essential for writers,” the couple said. “This new law represents a step backward in that regard and we wanted to give poets nationally and locally the opportunity to register their opposition.”
Politically the new law raises many important questions - questions which, in the right hands, could potentially produce some fascinating poetry.
It is right that a law exists to protect various groups in society from being singled out for abuse and ridicule, but should that come at the expense of an honest analysis and critique? Is satire now outlawed as well and are comedians prevented from going near certain subjects? But where does witty satire end and vulgar ridicule begin?
Freedom of expression is also a tricky question. If you believe in absolute freedom of expression then such odious characters as holocaust deniers must be given public platforms to air their views. If you disagree with that, you view freedom of expression as a qualified right, available only to some.
Freedom of expression is a right we should all have, but too many people use it as a weapon with which to justify their abuse and hatred of immigrants, gays, Jews, Muslims, etc, and then hide behind the concept of freedom of expression, claiming it justifies his/her saying such things. Yet, this is an abuse of the concept.
These are not easy questions and there are no easy answers. However they remain important to grapple with for each individual and for society as a whole. As such, Susan and Kevin are looking for poems which explore the idea of blasphemy, the law, and defend freedom of expression.