Syria’s a hot mess right now, and that’s often where poetry grows best.
“Rather than relying on metaphors and allegorical images, these new poems rely on literal, visceral descriptions, with a newfound emphasis on a united Syrian identity instead of religious symbols.”
That’s how Al Jazeera reporter Leigh Cuen put it in her article titled A ‘new poetry’ arises from Syria’s civil war.
It is perhaps the most obvious lesson from an Intro to Literature class: crisis grows verse. The classic epic poems often have violence at their root and from there they branch into the entire repertoire of emotion. But this concept doesn’t just apply to ancient poetry.
Lee Peterson’s Rooms and Fields: Dramatic Monologues from the War in Bosnia won the 2003 Wick Poetry Prize. This book was my own personal introduction to poetry, and I’ll never forget the way anything could have a voice – in several poems the narrator is the Sokolovic Bridge which sits roughly between Bosnia and Serbia atop the Drina River.
Then there’s Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet which won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award. Turner, an Iraqi war veteran with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon, wrote with normalcy’s understatement not only of war’s impact on him and the enemy, but also on his comrades. Here’s an excerpt from “Eulogy”:
It happens on a Monday, at 11:20am.,
as tower guards eat sandwiches
and seagulls drift by on the Tigris River.
Prisoners tilt their heads to the west
though burlap sacks and duct tape blind them.
The sound reverberates down concertina coils
the way wire thrums when given slack.
And it happens like this, on a blue day of sun,
when Private Miller pulls the trigger
to take brass and fire into his mouth…
And now Syrian poetry has pivoted and is taking off, as Cuen said, not only in terms of content but in how it is “…also being spread through different channels. Instead of being introduced at formal gatherings or readings, Syrian poets often debut their work at public demonstrations, or on social networking sites such as Facebook.”
This is all the more astounding, especially in light of the Syrian refugee crisis which The Guardian called the “world’s gravest refugee crisis.” There are, at the least, well over 2,000,000 people who are seeking protection. UN estimates say that between a quarter and a third of Syria’s population is now officially displaced. To say nothing of what Syrian writer Ghias Al-Jundi said in the Al Jazeera article:
“Most of the poets I talk to knew there was a risk of death, imprisonment or exile if you write the truth. And even if they flee, they can also be killed abroad.”
We are talking politics and terrorism, oil and chemical weapons. We are seeing limp bodies and billowing smoke. May we also speak of the warrior poets – some fearless and some filled with fear – who are writing for peace even as violence and hatred swirl.