Thursday, January 10, 2008

Censorship and the Power of Words for a Nation

Last night I attended the first sessions on ENGL 552-002, which happens to be a poetry workshop led by Earl Braggs at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Soft-spoken and extraordinarily compelling, he captured us immediately. Half of the 25-person class are repeat customers who loved his course the first time around. I find this reassuring, particularly since I hadn't expected the class to be so large. (My only other workshop, at Spalding University, had 5 students and two leaders.) Braggs appears soft-spoken but intense, and had some lovely and intriguing things to say about writing and art, including that all art is a lie and that an artist is a conduit for spirits greater than ourselves. I'm intrigued.

I am not quite ready to post on the class, yet. What inspired me to write was the film we viewed about the life of Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poetess. (I believe the title was Fear and the Muse.) The film was a wonderful exploration of Akhmatova's life, and I have made a note to pick up some of her work and Pushkin's, but that was not what struck me most about the film. I have been more familiar with the politics of Russia than its authors, so this was eye opening for me. I was aware that the intelligentsia was split in the Russian Revolution, and that many were persecuted. What I never understood from the history books was how deeply ingrained poetry is in the Russian soul, how it is common for people to memorize and recite poetry. The Russians fill entire soccer stadiums for poetry readings! Have you ever heard of such a thing in the United States?

I never have, and I have lived in a good number of cities. it left me pondering something, which lies where my personal crossroads of librarianship and poethood: censorship. As a librarian, I am fully committed to intellectual freedom. I believe in the right of any person, regardless of race, creed, or any other identifying characteristic, to access information. My personal beliefs with regard to whatever topic or work they are seeking is unimportant. I am a curator of information, dedicated to preserving it and organizing it in such a fashion that the human record survives. As a reference and instruction librarian, it is my pleasure and privilege to aid people in forming their questions and locating the information they need, as well as tot each them the skills they need to become self-sufficient information gatherers. In its nature, it is one of the most democratic of careers: providing access for all.

As a writer, of course I believe everyone should have access. I also believe everyone should read, though this is hardly the case today. I struggle to make words powerful enough that people want to hear them, and are touched by them. And while censorship is anathema to my very existence (on either plane, really), as a writer I also agree with the quote (no idea who to attribute this to; I couldn't find the source): "Better to be hated than ignored." There is a terrible truth to this. If a book is banned, how many people will procure black market copies to read it by flashlight in the safety of their beds? Likely more than would willingly buy the book in public for a good read. A word suppressed is a word yearning to break free...and it will. History has proven this time and again: there is no better recommendation for a book than for it to be banned or burned. Good ideas, new ideas are often dangerous ones.

In the context of having seen this film, and living in the U.S., where people seem to be generally apathetic about poetry, i am left to wonder: does it take a people suffering under a tyrant, who squelches intellectual freedom and tells them they cannot read to make them love to do so? Do we not value our words until they have been chained and caged, and stripped from our tongues? In the past few years, I thought that the overly-politically-correct bent of the nation was stifling enough, but does it take out and out cruelty and barbarism to remind people to enjoy their freedoms? If true and deep appreciation for art, as a national pastime, can only be germinated through suffering and tyranny, I fear for us.

There will always be writers, so long as a man or woman has a stray thought they feel is important, or a story they need to tell. There will always be small pockets of appreciation for the arts - artists themselves, their benefactors, and the small portion of the general public who realizes how enriching art can be for life. This is a comfort, but a small one. What would it take for poetry to be always on the tongues of the people? Perhaps we could ask Oprah to do a segment and recommend starting poetry circles and readings. I am not too proud to beg a wider audience.

Think about it. Is political repression a precondition for national embrace of poetry? And is ours so far in our past, and so un-severe as to leave us without the need to flaunt it at readings, with memorization and recitation, not as a school assignment, but for pure pleasure?

I have to admit that the sight of stadiums filled with an audience silent for a poetry reading shocked me more than the recounting of Stalin's terror. And while those rough faces looked half-starved and frozen with the Russian cold, I couldn't help but think that perhaps we were the poorer nation.

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