Summer 2010

Poetry Worth Dying For

An Iraqi poet shared a poem that got him killed.
What does this mean to a society filled
to the brim with free speech poetry?

Scott Woods

Zardasht Osman, an Iraqi college student who recently wrote a satirical poem decrying Iraq’s ruling party led by President Massoud Barzani, was abducted. His body was found handcuffed on a roadside four days later, after he had been shot to death.

I present this news to make a larger point, of course.

I know a guy who, almost every time he gets into a debate about poetry, pulls out the “well, people have DIED over poetry” observation, which for the most part I find misplaced. It’s hard to have a productive discussion about something like, say, the usefulness of certain poetry forms over others when someone is always trying to endgame the whole debate with the concept of assassination. It’s kind of like when my mother counters any criticism about how hard she beat me as a child with the statement, “Well, at least you never ended up in jail.”

At the same time, the observation is real, is heavy, is serious. I think I dislike seeing it pop up in some conversations because of this seriousness. It is something that, in the end, doesn’t much relate to a discussion about Slam or poetry forms or 30/30 or how much I hate your poetry. It’s too big of a hammer for some of those nails. Not to say the point has no place, but there are other tools one can bring to the table if they really want to help build a house and not just do demolition work all of the time.

And yet.

There is a point beyond which you cannot know a thing is happening and retain certain priorities. It is hard to make a heartfelt argument in favor of someone’s bad political poetry when you know that people are being killed over poetry (bad or otherwise) somewhere in the world. I have a hard time getting it up over how tough some hack poet’s got it surfing couches when I know there is a poem someone wants to write but won’t because they don’t want to be dragged away by murdering thugs. It can be overwhelmingly frustrating to sit through a lot of what passes for revolutionary poetry that claims to be changing something that at no point has any risk of actually doing anything when you know that Zardasht Osman was snatched up in front of the university he attended, probably knowing he was about to die.

In places where speech is protected by its government we have some responsibilities thrust upon us. They aren’t written down and they aren’t always clear, but if you’re a poet you need to know that one of them is knowing your place in the world (a novel idea for an observational artist, no?).

What does this mean:

It means recognizing that your political rant is impotent devoid of change.

It means understanding that planting a seed should be followed by nurturing it.

It means that you should embrace the lunacy your freedom affords, not dismiss it in yourself or others.

It means sometimes trying to write a better poem understanding that if you read it somewhere else in the world you might not make it home again.

It means occasionally recognizing that the world is larger than the world of your poem.

It means knowing the difference between what is said and what is real.

It means writing with joy and fearlessness not just because you can but because your freedom to do so can take it, so give it everything.

It means making your poem as powerful as your politics.

It means finding the stories behind the statistics.

It means not overstating your bravery in simply sharing a poem. When you share a poem and think, somewhere in your mind, you might REALLY be shot for sharing it then you are dealing with a bravery too many poets pretend at.

It means digging deeper, longer, and harder for our truths.

None of this should suggest you must write political poetry alone or that whatever you write must always bear in mind the world at large. But if you traffic in political or revolutionary or just merely earnest work, consider that somewhere someone is reaping with their life what the seed of a poem had to say...then think about what your poem is really saying or doing.

This essay originally appeared on GotPoetry.com.